From the Personal Archive: The Ghost Ship Called Pym of Nantucket

There are some pieces of writing from my previous degrees with which I feel happy enough that I might like to share them. I’ll be replacing my Revisiting posts some months with FtPA (From the Personal Archive) posts instead. Today, I’m offering a short response paper for a 2008 undergraduate course at Queen’s University with Michael Snediker called American Literature: The Fabulous and the Mundane; my paper was based on our readings of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838). This paper is only an undergraduate offering and furthermore reads much better after one has read Pym, but if you haven’t read the novel this might still interest you as an example of a genre.

fSzQyj

Source: Richard Pierse at flic.kr/p/fSzQyj

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Kegan-Chapman Developmental Model

One of my various hobbies is collecting models of human development, either on an individual psychological basis or a social civilization basis. In particular, I’m interested in the move between what I once would have identified as modernism (or absolutism) and postmodernism (or pluralism). I very recently stumbled on another example at David Chapman’s “Developing ethical, social, and cognitive competence,” written in October 2015. I’m not wholly convinced by it, but it does seem intriguing. Moreover, it seems to mirror, with significant differences, various ideas I’ve had on this subject; for instance, a while ago I was worried about academia’s ability to shepherd people into the final ideal stage of personal epistemology.

I am writing this post mostly to a) mark that it came into my attention and b) share it with you, in case you want to follow along with my stumbling attempts at improving my epistemology, ethical philosophy, and political philosophy.

Related topics:

Selves as systems
Categories as patterns (and, using Chapman’s terms, nebulous ones)
Ethics as ungrounded

Therapy, Trust, and Criticism

[content warning: suicide, mental illness]

[I will warn you now that this does not come with advice, recommendations, or conclusions, despite seeming like such a post. It is wholly a reflection. In the end I think I have nothing to offer my friend, in terms of actionable insight on this issue at least.]

My friend Kafka Beluga,1 who is going through a hard time right now on multiple fronts, is having difficulty trusting her therapist. This difficulty limits the use therapy has for her. I have had two excellent relationships in therapy—one counsellor, one psychiatrist—and I am often worried about people who have trouble with medical professionals. Certainly it seems common enough that people do not take well to therapy; I’ve been trying to think about why I am, as one of the various doctors I’ve seen put it, “a good candidate for therapy.”

The particular value that I got from therapy was not so much in simply being able to talk through my problems—if “talking therapy” has some value, I’ve never seen evidence for it—but in talking through my reactions to things so that the therapist can tell me where I’m being silly. My first therapist, a counsellor in Vancouver, was very helpful in making me see myself in terms I hadn’t thought of before, but my second, a psychiatrist in Toronto, was especially good at dispelling my nonsense.

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Beginning the Traditions of Christian Spirituality Series

One of the upshots of reading Rachel Held Evans’s Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church—which, by the way, I heartily recommend and not just for the entire chapter relating two of my favourite things: Pando and denominationalism—is that I feel acutely the need to take my spirituality more seriously. As always, I approach this problem by doing research. I decided to start with a book on Anglicanism that my former church, St. Faith’s of Vancouver, had read in a book club I skipped out on: Alan Bartlett’s A Passionate Balance: The Anglican Tradition (Amazon and Goodreads). When looking it up to order it, I discovered it was part of a much larger series on traditions of Christian spirituality… almost a third of which I ordered.

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Photograph my own, 2016.

Now that A Passionate Balance has arrived, I’m announcing my intention to read eight of the books over a period of between eight to sixteen months, writing a minimum of one post per book. I think I can manage one book per month (understanding that I will surely want to read other books between them) and write and edit one post within a month of finishing each book. If I cannot keep up this pace, I will add one month to each book’s timeline.

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Monthly Marvel: Salmon of Knowledge

On the first Saturday of each month for at least the next little while I intend to share here one of the Weekly Wonders from that previous project. This time I want to share the Salmon of Knowledge.


Salmon of Knowledge

This week’s fantastic being is the salmon of knowledge. An Irish fish, known in Irish as bradádan feasa, the salmon of knowledge has a few stories associated with it.

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Source: William Murphy at flic.kr/p/9EzTuX. This statue, called “The Big Fish,” sits in Belfast and depicts the Salmon of Knowledge.

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Ruthven’s Islam in the World and Christianity

Malise Ruthven’s Islam in the World (Second Edition) is an excellent survey of Islam for those who are not yet well-read on the subject. What I have read of it so far (six and a half of its eight chapters) is well-researched and balanced, neither alarmist nor falsely flattering; Voltaire Panda lent it to me specifically for this reason, in contrast to some of Karen Armstrong’s writing. Further, it offers information I have never seen offered by any of the Muslims who have taught me about Islam (ie. acquaintances, university professors): the Quran’s historical, religious, and literary influences. It has also done a good job discussing the differences between Sunni and Shi’ite Islam, though I would have appreciated a summary in table form, and has a more textured, less rose-tinted description of Sufism than I have seen anywhere else. Ruthven also shows an informed and intuitive understanding of human spiritual needs and therefore does not rely on the political, material, or philosophical explanations of Islam’s development that most secular commentators privilege, though he also puts these kinds of explanations to good use as well.

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Source: Cristian Viarisio at flic.kr/p/7fmue7; the Hagia Sophia was a Greek Orthodox basilica which was later converted into an Ottoman mosque and is now a museum

As with any survey, it covers quite a lot of ground and, alas, it can be hard to follow for this reason: the sheer number of movements, terms, approaches, factions, dynasties, and individuals can make it feel like one of those novels with innumerable similarly-named characters with shifting loyalties—Russian literary, high fantasy, or airport spy novels, as you prefer. The glossary at the back helps with this, but is far from sufficient.

As usual I’m not especially interested in writing a book review. I’ve learned a lot about Islam from the book, but instead of talking about it I’d be more inclined to just recommend the book. But I’ve also learned a bit about religion in general and Christianity in particular. It’s these insights that I’d like to share. Continue reading

Magnanimity

[Content warning: abuse]

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Source: C.K. Tse at flic.kr/p/6i5qfs

Alas, when I lent I Am a Strange Loop to Voltaire Panda, I had not first recorded Hofstadter’s chapter on magnanimity, the particular virtue besides paradox-friendliness that he celebrates in the book. This means that I must proceed by memory, which is never reliable. Nonetheless, as I struggle with boredom over the “Clouds, Daffodils, and Jam that Will Not Come Together Again” series that I was planning to continue, I thought I might write about fun portions rather than just the next portions to keep everyone’s interest up, and I think magnanimity is what I’d most enjoy discussing.

Writing about Hofstadter’s sense of magnanimity most appeals to me after reading Rachel Held Evans’s Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving and Finding the Church, in which (among other things) she discusses the qualities of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings that she’d like to see churches pick up: namely, the way AA members begin with a leveling introduction of their struggles and weakness. Being open and honest in this way creates a strength of relationship which most churches seem to lack. I probably won’t mention Evans again in this post, but you should know that it’s in the back of my mind.

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Revisiting: On Mystics and Postmodernists

Every third Saturday of the month I intend to re-post something I wrote for one of my assorted old blogs or tumblogs. This week I am revisiting the Thinking Grounds for “On Mystics and Postmodernists,” which is somewhat more frankly autobiography than usual.

Source: fusion-of-horizons at flic.kr/p/akUamc

Source: fusion-of-horizons at flic.kr/p/akUamc


On Mystics and Postmodernists

This post will barely rise above the autobiographical, but perhaps despite that it will be of some use to someone; I intend to discuss the way in which my (mostly former) interest in mysticism has been related to a sympathy for (but lack of identification with) postmodernism.

I remember, towards the end of high school, engaging with certain skeptics and atheists among my classmates. When I say, “engaging,” I should really say, “imagining engagements,” since I do not think I ever tried my arguments out against my classmates, prefering to debate my imagined versions of those classmates. One of my arguments I later learned was already famous as Pascal’s wager, which I have subsequently found less than compelling; another was that humans, being finite and imperfect, could not reason accurately about God, who was infinite and transcendent. As evangelism, this argument is a non-starter; as defensive apologetics, it suffices, but hardly. I admit I was naïve. For a pre-existing and self-critical faith, however, the idea that humans cannot accurately reason about God is almost certainly a necessary component, so while I’ve stopped using it (or imagining that I use it) to defend my faith against critics, I’ve found it a fairly good idea to hold on to.

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Writing a Wedding Speech

My friend Jon has to write a speech for an upcoming wedding and asked that I write this post giving my insights into writing speeches, on the strength of having written a single best man’s speech, assisted my brother in the writing of a second, and having a good head for generic forms. Given that curriculum vitae I would understand if you took the following with a grain of salt.

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Source: Becca Freeman at flic.kr/p/f18SMS

Assuming that I’m not speaking as the groom (or, I guess, the bride), I would start by planning for roughly four components: prefatory material, anecdotes about at least one of the bride and groom, commentary on the marriage to come, and a through-line. I think the most important thing, after making sure the anecdotes are appropriate to the spirit of the occasion, is to ensure the first three parts (prefatory material, anecdotes, commentary on the marriage) cleave subtly but surely to the through-line.

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Monthly Marvel: Tree of Life

On the first Saturday of each month for at least the next little while I intend to share here one of the Weekly Wonders from that previous project. This time I want to share the Tree of Life: as a nod to Darwin’s birthday I focus mostly on Darwin’s use of the metaphor, but I also look at other places in which it shows up.


TREE OF LIFE

This week’s idea is the tree of life. The image of a tree of life—axis mundi, if you prefer—is a common one in mythology around the world, but I’m referring specifically to Charles Darwin’s metaphor for all living things on Earth in an evolutionary relationship going back to the origins of life itself. In On the Origin of Species, Darwin’s only  illustration was tree-like branched diagram, and the book includes a passage which compares “the great Tree of Life” with a growing tree, saying that the former “fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever-branching and beautiful ramifications.” Other biologists have used this image, updating it with genetic data. For instance, the Tree of Life Web Project is a collaborative project providing information about biodiversity and phylogeny.

Source: Leonora Enking at flic.kr/p/9GQuCD

Source: Leonora Enking at flic.kr/p/9GQuCD

Other trees of life include arbor vitae, the branching pattern between the grey matter and white matter of the brain; the Tree of Life in Genesis’s Garden of Eden, of which Adam and Eve are said to have eaten before they chose to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil instead; a central symbol in the Kabbalah of Jewish mysticism, which consists of ten interconnected nodes; Yggdrasil, a massive yew or ash tree which supported the worlds; a cipher for the Elixir of Life and the Philosopher’s Stone in European alchemy; the Bo or Bodhi tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment; an acacia tree in Egyptian mythology from which Isis and Osiris emerged, which encloses both life and death and, more literally speaking, contains a psychedelic drug associated with spiritual experiences; and many others.

But let’s return to Darwin’s metaphor. It was more politically charged than it might first appear. He was writing On the Origin of Species during the abolition movement, and at the time there were two competing theories about human origins: monogenists, who argued that there was a single origin for all humans, and the polygenists, who argued that there were multiple origins for all humans, one for each race (source). For the most part, monogenists cited the Bible, while polygenists cited scientific theories, mostly based on cranial measurements, which suggested Europeans and Africans were separate biological species. Supporters of slavery mostly used these polygenist scientific theories, while abolitionists relied on Biblical monogenist theories. However, the intellectual climate of the era was leaning more heavily to science than to religion, and it looked as though the slave owners were going to win the argument. They had science on their side, after all. That is, they had science on their side until Darwin, the product of strongly abolitionist families, published On the Origin of Species. Darwin argued that all humans were the same species, tied together in one branch of the Tree of Life; the polygenist theory lost scientific support, giving the monogenist theory the scientific grounding it needed to win the argument in that era.

Posted by Christian H.