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.


Source: Cristian Viarisio at; 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


[Content warning: abuse]


Source: C.K. Tse at

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

Source: fusion-of-horizons at

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.


Source: Becca Freeman at

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.


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

Source: Leonora Enking at

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.