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#1614 - Wednesday, November 12, 2003 - Editor: Jerry  

Note: Joyce is the regular editor for this day, however she has been ill. Hopefully she will re-appear with a weekend edition. Get better, Joyce, we need you! --Jerry    


The following exchange pertains to issue #1609:    

Every once in a while you publish a piece of such  exquisite inanity  that it automatically qualifies for the Outhouse Deeper Thinkers award of the decade.Ms Cho looks like she has a slight lead now, over such strong contenders as Ken Wilber,Osho ( formerly the convict Bagwan Shri Rajneesh ) and Da Free John ( who is now known as Something Else ).
--Earl McHugh     

You make me laugh, Earl! There are two Asian female writers featured in issue 1609, Chiyo and Cho. One lived and wrote in the 18th century and did beautiful art and haiku. I'm sure that the inclusion of Chiyo in the highlights was nondually correct. The other lives in the 21st century and does her art and is probably not nondually correct. If Cho were living in Chiyo's time, she'd be doing what was appropriate for her. If Chiyo were alive today and if she had the freedom, she could very likely be telling the commercialism of her culture to go f*** itself. In fact, Chiyo was a feminist and was one of the first prominent female haiku poets. Both Chiyo and Cho have brought down barriers and opened audiences and artists to new possibilities. I'm sure Cho and Chiyo would have gotten along well. 

    Does God exist? What are the odds?

November 14, 2003


I suffer from math anxiety. It shows up when I attempt long division in my head, try to balance my checking account or am handed a restaurant bill. (I'm a 20 percent tipper simply because it's easier to figure than 15.)

So you'll understand my unease when a book arrived on my desk claiming to have determined the mathematical probability for the existence of God.

Man, I was sure God was one of those areas where logarithms were not required.

Isn't the divine purely the purview of faith? No multiplication required?

Yes and no, Stephen Unwin, this very nice, surprisingly funny and extremely patient physicist, was explaining to me the other day.

Unwin, 47, is the author of the aforementioned book, The Probability of God: A Simple Calculation That Proves the Ultimate Truth. He's originally from Manchester, England, and was a technical attache to the U.S. Energy Department before becoming a risk analyst for things like nuclear power plants, and then turning his expertise on the Almighty.

"I don't consider anything to be understood until numbers have been applied," Unwin said as I sat blinking silently on the other end of the phone one day last week. "Maybe that's just my bias, but that was the only way I could go about at least convincing myself."

Not me. Numbers bad.

"I understand that. My thinking was, I mean, that was very much the conclusion of what I did, that the faith part is not based on the reasoned assessment of the divine," he said. "I've always been very curious that some people are 100 percent certain that God exists and others are 100 percent certain that he doesn't, and yet we're all confronted with the same types of evidence."

Unwin didn't set out to answer in a deterministic, yes-or-no way the question of whether there is a God.

He just wanted to know what the odds were.

It's a compulsion surely Blaise Pascal, the 17th century French philosopher and mathematician, would understand. Pascal, in his famous "Wager," said, basically, it makes more sense to believe in the existence of a God because if you do, and there is no God, you lose nothing. But if you don't, and God does exist, you could be in deep doo-doo in the afterlife.

Is it audacious to think that the existence of a personal God -- and that is the definition of "God" that Unwin used, as opposed to a pantheistic idea of deity -- could be quantified in a number?

Not if you consider, as Unwin does, that every occurrence involves probability.

"Do you realize that there is some probability that before you complete this sentence, you will be hoofed insensible by a wayward, miniature Mediterranean ass?" he writes in the first line of Probability of God. (That's got to be the best opening line I've read recently outside of a Tom Robbins novel.)

But how do you figure the odds on God? You take Pascal's Wager and apply something called Bayes' Theorem.

Thomas Bayes was a Presbyterian minister in the early 1700s who had more than a passing interest in mathematics. His theorem, which is complicated -- I don't even think my keyboard has the capability of reproducing it, frankly, even if I were so inclined -- figures the relative likelihood that certain evidence will be produced if God exists or doesn't exist.

Starting with the assumption that the probability of whether God exists is a coin toss -- a 50-50 chance -- Unwin uses Bayes' Theorem and six areas of "evidence" to modify the probability.

(If your eyes are glazing over, keep reading. I'm about to wind this math business up. Promise.)

Each of the six areas of evidence -- including "the recognition of goodness," "the existence of evil" and "religious experience" -- is assigned a numeric value (through another mathematical equation I don't understand) and is applied to the original 50 percent, to produce the probability that God exists.

Which is 67 percent, apparently.

Unwin, a self-described person of faith who says his own intuitive belief about the probability of God is more like 95 percent in favor that there is one, is still happy with those odds.

"I associate the discrepancy with the role of faith," he said. "There are two distinctive components to my belief in God. One is coming from the analysis of the evidence. . . . The balance of it is coming from faith.

"What role does faith have if that number was closer to 100 percent?"

While it's an interesting intellectual exercise, mathematical proofs for the existence of a personal God are never going to float my spiritual boat. That's just not how I'm wired.

But for those who are, Unwin's book, which is peppered with wry, self-deprecating humor that makes the scientific discussions more accessible, may prove spiritually inspiring.

And within Unwin's own theories, there is plenty of room for finding evidence of the divine in nature, art and each other.

Or as Ed Kowalcyzk, lead singer of the York, Pa., rock band Live put it recently in his song, "Heaven":

"I don't need no proof, when it comes to God and truth. I can see the sun set, and I perceive."

Stephen Unwin will sign copies of The Probability of God at 7 tonight at Transitions Bookplace, 1000 W. North, Chicago.

Copyright The Sun-Times Company
All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


  Sculpting a message in the sand

By Susan Canfora

Randy Hofman

Known for creating impressive sand sculptures of Biblical scenes on the
beach in Ocean City for the past 30 years, artist Randy Hofman is also
involved in oil painting and is now working on a series that highlights
the beauty of light reflecting on water. In the 1980s he made signs,
including those for The Kite Loft and Bull on the Beach, and also
formerly drew Biblical scenes on slabs of cement on the bay side in
chalk. His oil paintings line the walls of The Coral Reef restaurant on
17th Street and Boardwalk and are also on display at The Globe Theatre
in Berlin. He paints in a studio that was formerly a warehouse in
Newark, Md. A native of Montgomery County, he is one of nine children.
He and his wife, Marilynne, a nurse at Atlantic General Hospital in
Berlin, live in Ocean Pines.

Q You learned the art of sand sculpting from another artist.

A Marc Altamar taught me before he moved away to Florida. He died. He
was about my age and I'm 51.

Q Were you a child who loved to play in the sand?

A Oh, yes. Every year of my life we came to Ocean City, but I never had
any idea that I would do sand sculptures for so many years. I knew I
wanted to be an artist when I was 5 and I was doing serious oil
painting when I was 11. I studied art design at Pratt Institute but I
didn't want to do anything hard core. I remembered Ocean City and I
said, 'There's a town where I can practice my art and be
comfortable." Sand sculptures are a lot of work. I've never abandoned
a sand sculpture. Some take 10 hours, some take 15 or 17 hours just
for the center section. I wanted to do more. It used to be that it
took just two to four hours, but now I spray them with Elmer's Glue
so they last longer. If I'm going to glue it up and serve it, I want
to make it nice.

Q You're a spiritual man. Is sand sculpting a ministry for you?

A It is a ministry. I am an ordained minister, involved with Son'Spot
Ministries. I'm ordained in the Delmarva Evangelistic Church. It's a
visual ministry but every now and then I turn around and address the
crowd. I've added words to the scene, like "Wise men still seek him."
It's like a newspaper headline. People stop and look. Even if they
don't buy the paper, they will read the headline. They'll say, "Hey,
what's going on?" There's a milk or meat theory. You give new
believers milk because they're not ready for meat. Like, "God loves
you" or "God wants you in his family." Mine is a milk ministry.
People are on vacation and they're here to relax. They want a nice

Q What is your definition of success?

A Are you doing what you want to do? Did you do what you set out to do,
or did you defer that to chase the buck?

Q Do you have a favorite sand sculpture?

A The big face of Jesus is the one that is easy to see and it has a big
impact. To put my best foot forward, I'll do the Last Supper.

Q And that takes a long time?

A The Last Supper takes 12 to 17 hours straight through, like sometimes
overnight. I might stop and get a gyro or something or Son'Spot might
bring me a meal, but I'm on the job.

Q And when you're finished, are you exhausted?

A More, like, wired. Cranky.

Q Do you worry that nobody will carry on the tradition of sand
sculptures after you retire?

A I think, somehow Son'Spot will get involved. I don't think they would
let it lapse. I'm not worried. Look, the Lord can get along without
me. I count it the biggest privilege of my life to have done those
sand sculptures. That sand pile has been the biggest event of my

Monastery in the clouds

By Kim Thompson

There is a real peace about ski mountaineer Ptor Spricenieks. The
mountains are his monastery, and the place where life becomes vibrant
because the risk of losing his life is great. “Ski mountaineering is a
spiritual experience,” said Spricenieks, a Mount Currie man who was
recently featured in Powder Magazine as one of North America’s premier
ski mountaineers.

“It’s about doing new things, skiing the wilds and finding virgin
slopes.” Simply stated, ski mountaineering involves the technical skill
of an accomplished mountaineer and the savvy of an expert skier.

Ski mountaineering trips consist of a single, focused ascent with a
mixture of rock climbing, ice climbing, travel organization and
sometimes political footwork.

“It is totally unique because often you are doing something that no one
has done before,” Spricenieks said. “If you are going to be exposing
yourself to risk, you might as well be doing something novel.”

It was the novelty of skiing that brought Spricenieks to Whistler in 1
988 and sparked his passion for ski mountaineering. In the those early
days of Whistler, Spricenieks was introduced to a whole new approach to
the sport that involves walking up a mountain, not taking a lift, to

“The most alluring part of ski mountaineering is that you’re not skiing
on the same mountain every time,” Spricenieks said. “Getting into ski
mountaineering was a symbolic stepping away from civilization for me.”

Through the years, society has been watching Spricenieks’ exploits. In
the October issue of Powder, his name was included among those of Alex
Lowe and modern-day icon Andrew McLean.

“It was great to be recognized for some of my accomplishments,”
Spricenieks said. “I admire many other skiers who were not on that list
but the magazine recognition inspired me to keep going.”

Although accomplished in the ski mountaineering world, Spricenieks is
not a sponsored athlete. He was the first to ski the North Face of
Mount Robson, the West Face of Mount Monarch and the Southeast f ace of
Artesonraju in Peru.

“Ski mountaineering is sometimes too far out there in terms of
sponsorships,” Spricenieks said. “The industry is clogged by a lot of
young skiers who really don’t have much to offer the ski world.”

Along with first ascents, Spricenieks has contributed to the technology
side of ski mountaineering. He designed and skis on his own bindings
because technical advancements have not kept up the sport.

“Ski mountaineering is such a fringe thing that no one is designing
equipment for extreme ski mountaineering,” Spricenieks said.

When he is not skiing, Spricenieks will be spending this winter in
France, designing his prototype for the ski wing. Spricenieks claims
that the innovation will add another element to the already diverse
world of ski mountaineering.

“The technology could cross over and add a new dimension to freeride
skiing while removing the impact,” Spricenieks said. “You’ll see a
merging of ski disciplines with tricks on some steep mountain ascents.”

Despite his enthusiasm, Spricenieks takes a holistic approach to ski
mountaineering and life. Preferring to spend most of his time in
France, Spricenieks is a selective participant in terms of

“I try to take the best parts of our civilization and ride the wave of
life. Ski mountaineering is a symbolic stepping away from society
rather than propagating the mess,” he said.

As a result, Spricenieks often steps away from the materialism and
retreats to his monastery, the mountains. Spricenieks strives to take
the best parts of modern society and ride the wave of aesthetic

“The bottom line of ski mountaineering is learning one’s connection to
the natural world,” he said.

“Things like overconfidence and pride weed themselves out quickly when
you’re faced with risk.”


  Spiritual capitalism

Faith, economics, and freedom are connected, and we're running a deficit

By Gene Edward Veith

THE WORLD'S FREEST, MOST PROSPEROUS, AND most modern nation may also be the most religious. Secularists cannot get their minds around this fact, assuming that religion is a retrograde, primitive, authoritarian mindset that is the enemy of liberty and progress. So how do they explain the United States of America?

A group of economists is studying the role of religion in establishing free markets. The Metanexus Institute on Religion and Science sponsored a conference last month in Cambridge, Mass., on what they are calling "spiritual capital."

Francis Fukuyama in his book Trust (1995) demonstrated that religion is necessary for a civil society and a prosperous economy, neither of which can exist unless people are basically honest. If they cannot trust each other, economic transactions—which involve people making promises to deliver the goods and to pay for them—are not going to work. And if people steal, there can be no private property to accumulate or develop.

Much earlier, Max Weber, one of the founders of the discipline of sociology, argued in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905) that the Reformation—with its doctrine of vocation that gave meaning and value to human labor—played a major role in the economic revolution that brought unprecedented prosperity to Europe and America.

Spiritual-capital theorists should note that it is not just "religion" but particular kinds of religion that have brought free markets and free societies. Islam has, indeed, ruled over a golden age of cultural accomplishment, but its governments have almost always been authoritarian, with emperors holding untold wealth and absolute power over subjects whose economic status was essentially that of slaves. Hinduism has certainly shaped its culture, but its caste system, sanctioned by the spiritual karma of each individual in past lives, enshrined both poverty and privilege, making social mobility impossible.

Not even all brands of Christianity promoted freedom and prosperity, just the ones that cultivated a high view of Scripture (therefore emphasizing the necessity to learn to read it and thus be educated) and a high view of the gospel (stressing personal faith as opposed to oppressive, restrictive legalism).

Not that Christianity is all about mammon, as some say, or that other religions cannot shape their cultures for economic prosperity. Confucianism stresses this-worldly virtues that translate well into business. Other cultures with their own religious traditions often seem to be able to borrow elements from the West that ignite their business sense, even though they do not share the foundational religious assumptions, as we see in the high-tech entrepreneurs of India and Japan.

The effect of Christianity on economics continues to this day. On the mission field, for example, African Christians often have the reputation of becoming more prosperous and more successful than their Muslim or animist neighbors, sometimes sparking the resentment that can lead to persecution.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Gary Becker told the Cambridge Conference, as reported in The Wall Street Journal, that the key to religion's beneficent social effects is competition. "Every religion, like every business, would like to be a monopoly," he said. "But the competition forces them to be more virtuous."

Where religions have to compete with each other, as in a religiously free society such as the United States, they must rely on persuasion rather than force and must actually meet the spiritual needs of their people. Religious monopolies—as in state churches, nationally mandated religions such as Islam, and cultural religions—can become oppressive, but they can also become weak, merely justifying the cultural status quo, and, like monopolistic businesses, losing their edge and relevance.

The danger, though, in religious competition is that faith can be turned into a commodity to be bought and sold. Religion is supposed to be about truths, but it can easily shift its concern to keeping the customers satisfied. When that happens, God and mammon get confused for each other, and religion no longer exerts an influence of any kind on the society.

But if there is such a thing as "spiritual capital," we are arguably running a deficit. Europe, once the center of "Christendom," now, thanks to its liberal state churches, hardly has a Christian identity anymore, with the most vital religion being Islam. America has thriving churches, but you would never know it from the culture.

America and Europe have been spending their spiritual capital. Instead of investing it and increasing their spiritual wealth, they have been frittering it away, like heirs of wealthy families who spend the family fortune until it all runs out.



from the November 14, 2003 edition -

Who was Mary Magdalene? The buzz goes mainstream

By Jane Lampman | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

A blockbuster novel, a controversial TV special, and a just-released book on a long-hidden gospel bearing her name: The woman known as Mary Magdalene is again at the center of a swirl of speculation.

Long portrayed in Christian tradition as a repentant prostitute out of whom Jesus cast seven devils, Mary is having her own resurrection in the popular imagination as history is corrected, and new, sometimes explosive, claims are asserted about her relationship to the Master.

This is not, though, just about setting the record straight on an intriguing historical figure. In an era when "God talk" has moved convincingly into the media/entertainment arena, observers say, her story is captivating because it encapsulates major unresolved issues facing Christianity - the role of women in the church, the place of human sexuality, and the yearning for the feminine aspect of the Divine.

All these issues are tantalizingly injected into the bestselling thriller "The Da Vinci Code," which set off the latest debate this summer by positing that Jesus and Mary were married.

"I don't think [author] Dan Brown knew the bull's-eye he was hitting, nor set out to be heretical," says Phyllis Tickle, contributing editor in religion at Publisher's Weekly. "He was aware of the questions boiling in the cultural soup and found them fascinating."

Yet Mr. Brown says that on the basis of documents about secret societies and legends of the Holy Grail that he presents as fact in the novel, he believes they were married. ABC-TV was so taken with the premise that it sent correspondent Elizabeth Vargas globetrotting to explore the evidence, and aired a special Nov. 3. A movie of the novel is now planned by the Hollywood team that made "A Beautiful Mind."

Mary as an apostle

A nonfiction book out this month - "The Gospel of Mary of Magdala," by Karen King of the Harvard Divinity School - strikes a different chord. An eight-page fragment lost for 1,500 years, this gospel, written in the second century, tells of a conversation among Mary, Peter, Andrew, and Levi about a teaching Jesus gave to Mary on the end of the material world and the nature of sin. It highlights Mary's role as an apostle and Peter's resistance to her role.

The gospel "shows us there was a tradition of Mary Magdalene as an important apostle of the church after the resurrection," says Ms. King in an interview. Several other gnostic works (gospels not chosen for the New Testament and termed heretical by early church fathers) similarly support her in that role.

For some, the Bible hints at the same idea in John's Gospel, which depicts Mary as the first to see the risen Jesus and then to proclaim the resurrection to the other disciples. "Since she was commissioned by Jesus to be in essence an apostle to the apostles, she provided the most crucial precedent in the New Testament for women to be teachers, preachers, or evangelists," says Ben Witherington III, professor at Asbury Theological Seminary.

An expert on women in the Bible, Dr. Witherington says that "what happened on Easter morning involving her is really what triggers all of this [debate]." It's now clear that the debate about Mary has gone on from the early church through the Middle Ages right up to today.

Many see her as a central character in the church's marginalization of women over several centuries. The perception of Mary as a prostitute originated in 591, when Pope Gregory the Great falsely identified her with an unnamed sinful woman in the Bible. Almost 1400 years later, in 1969, the church officially corrected its error, though it lingers in public consciousness.

Often-fantastic legends about Mary traveling from Jerusalem to France, pregnant with Jesus' child and giving birth to a line of kings, spread in medieval times and reappeared in books in the 1980s, to be folded into "The Da Vinci Code." The novel depicts Christianity as based on some fabrications. "The greatest story ever told is, in fact, the greatest story ever sold," declares a key character. \Praised by critics as a "brainy thriller" with "intellectual depth," the book reveals its secrets so skillfully that readers are caught up in the debate, wondering just how much of the story might be true.

"America is a Jesus-haunted culture, but at the same time, it's a biblically illiterate culture," Witherington says. "When you have that odd combination, almost anything can pass for knowledge of the historical Jesus."

For the most part, historians and theologians interviewed on the TV special and elsewhere see no historical evidence for the legends - the novel should be seen strictly as fiction, they say. Those scholars who argue that Jesus was married do so largely on the basis that Jewish men of the time were all expected to marry.

Sexuality and the body

King sees something else at play in the debate: The question of Jesus' marriage resonates, she believes, with the complex issues that churchgoers are facing today in discussions about sexuality and the body, including the contentious homosexuality debate. "We have such a medicalized view of the body," she says. "The real issue is how do we think theologically about the body and sexuality."

The "Gospel of Mary," for instance, takes an approach to the issue that is distinct and startling from a traditional perspective. In the teaching Mary receives from Jesus, King writes, people are spiritual beings, sin is not real, the material world will dissolve, and salvation lies in "discovering within oneself the true spiritual nature of humanity and overcoming the deceptive entrapments of the bodily passions."

Over the past 15 years, a stream of books have appeared about Mary Magdalene by feminist theologians, seeking a heritage for women within the church. Meanwhile, new books on the gnostic gospels have captured public interest. Elaine Pagels's recent "Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas" has been a bestseller.

Ms. Tickle sees this interest in Gnosticism and Mary Magdalene - and the willingness of many to look afresh at the Christian tradition - as going beyond the role of women in the church. "This is the pursuit of the divine feminine, a kind of yearning that infects both genders; it wishes to find in the divine parent that wholeness that is the feminine and masculine together," she says. "Scripturally speaking, Mary is our best shot at showing that there was in Jesus the recognition of that."

"The Da Vinci Code" ties that yearning both to Mary and to pagan beliefs of the goddess. "What I would hope is that when the hullabaloo settles, it will cause people to go back and read the biblical narratives for themselves," Witherington says. "A text without context is just a pretext for whatever you want it to be." | Copyright 2003 The Christian Science Monitor. All rights reserved.



Philosophy of Taekwondo

To the uninitiated, Taekwondo may appear to be an aggressive art. This is an easily understood misconception, since it is a martial art. Its techniques are designed to maim or even kill an opponent, if necessary. Blows with the hands, feet, elbows, even the head, can break bones, boards, roof tiles, and stones. Clearly, this is no peaceful art! Yet is a peaceful art, a paradox expressing the Um and Yang theory of eternal duality, which exists within nature. Taekwondo teaches its practitioner to live in harmony with nature, in oneness with the Earth and the Universe. It helps one develop an acutely sensitive awareness of the aspects and forces of nature.

In human relations. Taekwondo demands sacrifice, self-restraint, kindness, humility, patience, forgiveness, and love of one's fellow human beings. Like the great religions, Taekwondo teaches you not to cause pain and suffering but to actively prevent them. It is up to you to learn to control a hot temper, for instance, and to develop a reserve that leaves you indifferent to the abuse of others, even though you know you can destroy them if you choose to.

For practitioners of Taekwondo, victory through dishonor is despised. One must fight honorably or be dishonored. The ultimate good lies not in winning a hundred battles but in overcoming a man or an army without a conflict. Taekwondo has been described as a state of mind. It goes far beyond physical speed, strength, and grace. It is a way of life. In its simplest sense, Taekwondo is doing anything perfectly, without ego, and in harmony with the Universe, The goals sought are three:

1) To achieve a concentration of power.
2) To realize one's own true nature (this is the real meaning of enlightenment).
3) To achieve the realization of the truth of enlightenment in everyday life.

These goals are achieved through meditation, or positive training of the mind. Enlightenment does not come easily. One of Taekwondo's most important principles is its reverence for all forms of life. The power we learn is awesome, and it carries with it an awesome responsibility, which cannot be taken lightly. Remember, if you harm someone you will have to answer for it - and live with what you have done. Taekwondo's rule is to use the minimum force necessary to subdue an assailant defeating him with minimum harm to his body. A human being is not a punching board.

You can train yourself into calm detachment and fearlessness in the face of stress, avoiding the obstacles of anxiety, indecision, ambition, and unchecked passion, and replacing them with serenity and self-control. You must concentrate your power, this will give you an incalculable psychological advantage over your opponent.

Students of Taekwondo in Korea are not taught any techniques for the first two weeks. They are made to clean the cold training floor barefooted. This teaches them to respect the school as their home, and it teaches them patience, humility, and sacrifice.

As your learn the true philosophy of Taekwondo, you will find that it helps you, as a black belt, to teach it to others more easily. You will find that the study of Taekwondo is a continuing process in which the master is forever a student. This is a humbling realization, but it is true that only through humility can you hope to achieve understanding.

When you act as a teacher, you will experience pleasure instead of jealousy when you see a student advancing more rapidly than you did when you were at his or her stage. You will gain satisfaction at having imparted the skill and knowledge, which you have learned for a purpose greater than yourself. Humility as a teacher will beget patience and bring you closer to truth, loyalty, dignity, compassion, genuine virtue, and true courage.

If the task seems difficult, remember: once you have started it, it is not so hard. All worthwhile things are as difficult as they are rare.



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Jerry Katz
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