My Mom and South Sudan?

My Mom occasionally buys me books that she thinks I will like. She has bought me about ten books in the past couple of years, and all ten books were far from my usual reading selection. I try my best to have a diverse reading list, but my Mom is in a league of her own when it comes to getting me out of my comfort zone. The most recent example of her eclectic curation came from the book – What is the What by David Eggers. What is the What is a nonfiction book written as a fiction book…yes I did say my Mom expanded my horizons. It is technically a piece of fiction because it is the story of Valentino Achak Deng – one of the lost boys of the Sudanese war during the 1980s. Valentino was a child when the war occurred, and hence his first memories are not 100% accurate – but doesn’t take away from the real nightmare that made up the first two decades of his life.

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When Valentino was seven, his peaceful life in the southern region of Sudan turned upside down when war broke out. The war was between the SPLA, who wanted an independent South Sudan, and the government of Sudan who wished to maintain control over the area. Southern Sudan was primarily Christian while the political north was primarily Muslim. The Islamic government wanted to bring an Islamic state to the south, and the SPLA wanted to maintain its unique Afro-Christian identity. The conflict has been known to posterity as the Second Sudanese Civil War which began in 1987 and ended in 2005. During that time, two million people were killed – almost three and half times more people that died in the American Civil War – and thousands of children were left orphaned to fend for themselves.

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A large portion of those children were boys who were too young to enter into the SPLA and fled their homes to escape the conflict. Valentino was one of 20,000 lost boys who marched from South Sudan to safe havens like Ethiopia and Kenya. The boys walked to these places many times in small groups and had to endure starvation, government attack, and even predatory animals. Valentino witnessed his friends being dragged into the jungle by lions, shot by overhead helicopters, and eaten by parasitic flies after dropping dead from exhaustion. The walk he took consisted of hundreds of miles and months of toil – on several occasions, he laid on the ground for hours unable to move from extreme malnutrition and infection.

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Valentino was able to obtain some semblance of life at a Kenyan refugee camp that was funded by the United Nations. He lived in the camp for several years until the US allowed several Lost Boys to resettle in the states. While in the States he met Dave Eggers who recorded his story and wrote the book What is the What. Through funds of the book, Valentino started his own foundation to support education in Southern Sudan. South Sudan won its independence in 2011 but is still in conflict with various internal organizations – it is one of the most depressed countries on earth. I had no idea the turmoil in Sudan until reading this book, and it has ignited in me a desire to learn more about Africa in general. Oftentimes, we get consumed with our own interests that we miss seminal events around the world. All these things impact us, and we must continue to learn and help those who are suffering. Refugees need help more than ever, and we need to seek practical policies which benefit not only the “lost” but also the countries who take the “lost” in as citizens. Thanks, Mom, for expanding my horizon, and I always appreciate your eclectic tastes – I never thought I would be mentioning your name with South Sudan. Expand your world…I am continuing my expansion by reading a book that is far from my comfort zone – Emma by Jane Austen.

Here are 9 out of the next 15 books that I will begin in June:

Nabokov, Vladimir
Tennessee Williams

My Health Problems – Bugs and God

Many of my close friends know this, but I have been struggling with tingling in my hands, face, and legs for the past three years. The tingling feels like bugs are crawling inside my skin – it is constant and never completely goes away. I am not in pain and do not feel any weakness or numbness – just a continuous tingling sensation day in and day out. What caused this to happen? I have two theories. First, three years ago, I went to a Piston’s game with a friend, and I drank too many Budweiser Selects. I was drunk the entire match and upon going home, I looked down at my feet and saw they were beet red. Along with the redness, I felt a mild tingling sensation – I was also up the entire night because of nausea. An important note is that I was never a big drinker in my 20’s and alcohol always impacted me more than my industrious friends. The day after the episode, I felt somewhat normal and the tingling had ceased. Midweek came and all of a sudden I woke up with tingling in my feet and a new phenomenon of tingling in my hands.

The first theory is that my three-year-long tingling is from a bad reaction to alcohol that somehow damaged my nervous system. I have not had a drop of alcohol since that Piston’s game and I now notice that my tingling gets worse when I am anxious or stressed. Here is the second theory: The month before the Piston’s game, I began an aggressive treatment to fix sciatic pain in my back through stretching and chiropractic manipulation. My back pain originated from a fall five and half years ago when I walked down an icy step of stairs and fell right on my lower spine – I laid on the cold ground for 10 minutes in excruciating pain. My 24-year-old self was not smart enough to seek treatment and instead, I went to the gym that day and squatted 250 pounds. For a year after the injury, I had to sit lopsided because there was too much pain on my right side to put any pressure. At this point, you can call me all the foul names you want – I agree with them wholeheartedly.

So back to the month of the Piston’s game when I was trying to aggressively treat my back injury. The chiropractor decided to treat my back with traction – a table that essentially pulls your back to extend it and relieve pressure. I felt no tingling while on the table but there was slight discomfort. Once my tingling began after the Piston’s game, many of my friends and family claimed it was caused by the traction. Today, when I do planks or specific exercises, my tingling gets worse. In respects to my facial tingling, that came about a year later when my wife had a miscarriage – my Mom gets facial tingling and I suspect that my facial tingling is unrelated to the tingling in my hands and legs. In the first year of tingling, I went to three doctors, had two MRIs, had 6 months of physical therapy, and still received no relief or answers.  So what is wrong with me?

To better answer that question, I recently went to another family doctor and a Neurologist. The family doctor didn’t think the tingling was from my back and prescribed me Cymbalta for anxiety – the Cymbalta made the tingling worse and destroyed my sex life. The Neurologist sent me to get an MRI of the brain to check for MS. The results showed that I have three lesions on my cerebellum, but I do not have MS. The Neurologist said the lesions didn’t look serious, but they could be benign brain tumors – in the end, they wouldn’t explain the tingling, and I have to go back in six months for another MRI. I’m not worried about the lesions because I have no symptoms that match a malfunction of the cerebellum. So I am back to square one.

At this point, I believe my leg tingling is from my back problems, my hand tingling is from back problems/anxiety/blood sugar changes, and my facial tingling is from pure anxiety.  I am not an overly anxious person, but I believe my anxiety manifests itself through tingling – other people may have headaches or stomach problems. Overall, my tingling has gotten significantly better since three years ago but my back pain is stubbornly persistent. I am still on a journey of discovery but I wanted to tell you all these things for one reason. God has helped me through all these trials and I am here today because of my faith. When it feels like bugs are crawling under your skin 24 hours a day, your mindset can go to dark places. I had the resolve to fight on because I knew people were praying for me and that in the end, everything would work out. I am a Christian for the very fact that I have seen God transform me over the past three years – wisdom truly comes through adversity. If you are feeling down, you are not alone. Google, social media, and even modern medicine will never be able to give you the strength to completely move forward. We are designed for a deep connection with our Creator – don’t push aside life’s greatest resource. I’ll keep you updated on about my lesions and tingling but, please keep me in your prayers.

If you have a struggle and need a sincere prayer, please email me at jonathan.oldham1@gmail.com.

My Case for Christ

Just this past Easter I went to church with my family; I don’t always look forward to church but when I do it is on Easter Sunday. The pastor covered a lot of the standard resurrection points, and I was having a difficult time concentrating. All of a sudden my ears perked up when I heard him cite The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel. This book gets mentioned a lot in the Christian community and on that particular day the pastor was challenging us to read it for ourselves. I finally got around to getting the book, and I was honestly skeptical about its content. Strobel was a former atheist who set about to disprove Christianity. In his journey, he ended up accepting Jesus as his savior. It sounded almost too good to be true, and I slowly dipped my toe into the meat of the text. Strobel was actually a journalist with the Chicago Tribune and approached the “case” for Christ as if he were covering a courtroom proceeding. In a trial, there is a variety of evidence presented to a jury: eyewitness, documentary, corroborating, scientific, rebuttal, identity, and circumstantial evidence to name a few. Strobel was a skeptic and went about interviewing professional academics who had spent their entire lives researching the subject of Jesus. He grilled these individuals with difficult questions: Can the biographies of Jesus Christ be trusted?; Were the biographies of Jesus reliably preserved?; Is there credible evidence for Jesus Christ outside of His biographies?; Does archaeology confirm Jesus’ biographies?; Was Jesus’ body really absent from the tomb?; And are there any supporting facts that point to the resurrection?

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Growing up a Christian, I took these questions for granted – my faith weakened as I got older because I assumed there just wasn’t much to back up the history of Jesus. I was never a full-blown atheist, but many times I doubted the Gospels. After reading this book, I can firmly say that there is no doubt in my mind that Jesus both existed and was raised from the dead. This is a big statement but all the evidence points towards the truth – if I were a jury member I would be negligent if I didn’t admit this verdict. The most astounding fact that I think everyone must reckon with is the spread of Christianity by the Apostles. These men had nothing to gain and everything to lose by spreading the message that Jesus was the Son of God. We must remember that they were Jewish and in the Jewish culture, tradition is absolute. Nothing could have turned Jewish tradition more on its head than saying that the temple was unnecessary because the Son of God had died for the sins of the world. Preaching this message led to imprisonment and death – far from the best motivating factors for a young religion; yet Christianity continued to spread and has yet to fade away after 2,000 years. The burden of proof lies with those who don’t believe – trying to explain the early spread of Christianity in purely naturalistic terms is very unconvincing.

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Am I biased in my claims? Yes and no. I have grown up a Christian, but I have also studied every major world religion – none comes close to the verifiable history of Christianity. That does not mean that other religions do not have things to offer – for example, I meditate daily from reading about Buddhism, I respect Sufism’s mystical practices, and I mildly indulge in the asceticism of Hinduism. My personal case for Christ is that He is still living in us today. The only way I truly know that Christ exists is that he speaks to me on a daily basis. I know He is with me because I also know what it is like to be in the presence of evil. Evil is powerful and very palpable – when Christ fills you it is like a light being turned on in a dark room – impossible to ignore. Suffice it to say, read the book and see the evidence for yourself. If you are an atheist just give it a try. If you believe in God but are not a Christian give it a try. Having a relationship with Jesus makes my life better, so I want your life to be better also. In the end, there are no absolute answers to these metaphysical questions – that is why it is called belief. I think we should close out this blog with a reassuring quote from the most famous atheist in the world.

“Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist.”

-Stephen Hawking

How are Plato and Jesus Buddies? – Chapter 1, 2, and 3

Scroll down for Chapter 1, 2, and 3 – download the book to answer the question –  “How are Plato and Jesus Buddies?” If you are new please read below. 

I am happy to announce that the second installation of the Tackle the Library series is finally here! This book took me five months to write and I am thrilled to have the project completed. Plato is a tough dude to study and I read over 4,000 pages of text to write this tiny book. Do not fret, I guarantee that you will be able to understand Plato’s philosophy in this easy-to-read narrative. Below is the description.

Plato’s philosophy, political theory, and scholasticism shaped our modern day world. His ideas and writings are both important and honestly confusing. Have you ever wanted to learn about this crucial man but felt overwhelmed by the number of books on the subject? Have you tried to read dry Wikipedia articles on the “Forms” or the “Philosopher King” which soon made your eyeballs glaze over? Do you simply not care that much about Plato to commit a lot of time in dissecting his complicated beliefs? 

The Tackle the Library series takes the top 5 books on a subject and turns them into a cohesive story that is not only interesting to read but highly informative. Plato is one of the greatest philosophers of all time and is worth learning about because he attempted to understand topics which impact our everyday life: ethics, desire, virtue, wisdom, love, politics, and purpose to name a few. This book makes nonfiction a painless process – no other text naturally explains the background, the evolution, the application, the history, and the paradoxes of Plato’s philosophy in a way that keeps the pages turning. Stop staring at that dusty shelf of nonfiction texts in the library and crack open a book that you’ll actually want to read.

If your curiosity is piqued, please give this book a try. It will take you a couple hours to finish and you will gain an entirely new understanding of the world. Just like my last book, We’re all Chihuahuas, I am having a special weekend sale where you can download it for free. Please click this link or any link you see on this page to download. For the next three days, I will post the first three chapters as a thank you to my readers. I hope you enjoy and gain something from the experience.

Without further adieu…

Chapter 1 – The Cave

“The beginning is the most important
part of the work.” – Plato

The path seems to meander in the distance and turn hazy in spots from shimmers of light-reflected heat. You’re on a hiking trail and slowly ascending a steep hillside during the peak days of summer – magnificent in beauty but sweltering in humidity. A quick glance off trail reveals a shaded spot and a possible resting place before the final push upwards. Sitting under the shade, you set your bag down and notice a small opening. It is a hole that emits cold air – what appears to be the entry to a natural cave. After an arduous dig, the gap widens to a large opening that teases the curiosity. Slowly you descend until your eyes adjust and all of the surroundings become discernible; this is no ordinary cave but rather one with a group of mystified inhabitants staring at a particular wall. These inhabitants were born in the cave and were forced, since birth, to watch the shapes and figures on the stone – created by the tiny holes of light behind them. They believe these shadows are actual objects and there is no more to the world than what is observed on that slimy edifice. You tap a few on the shoulder and break the spell of their imprisonment. You turn them towards the light source and show how the images are created; they are stunned and cannot believe that their reality was just a mirage.

Exalted in your good deeds, you try to lead them further out of the cave. Surprisingly though, you see the inhabitants turn back to their familiar wall and continue in their most comfortable state – ignorance. The truth is too much for them, and they prefer to look at the shadows instead of understanding their outer and inner worlds. Frustrated, you grab a few by the arm and you force them out into the summer day. The cave dwellers’ eyes sear from the brightness and they are unable to see. You slowly get them use to their new reality, and eventually, they grow in their belief and reason of what the world entails. They go back to the cave and try to get more people – only a few more decide to step out – most remain steadfast to the wall. Having done your job, you continue on with your hike and immediately tap your phone and post about your experience. You get to the top of the hill and check the news, Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, and various other media outlets; looking up for a second you see the horizon and have a weird thought pop into your head – “Am I also looking at the wall of a cave?”

The idea of “The Cave” is one of Plato’s most relevant and endearing metaphors. In today’s world, we no doubt would have an easy time finding “cave dwellers” who propagate stupidity and selfishness – just imagine Plato reading the comment sections of an internet post. Plato was not pretentious in his view of humanity but hopeful that man could turn from ignorance and reach a better life through active reasoning; Plato wrote, “Apply yourself both now and in the next life. Without effort, you cannot be prosperous. Though the land be good, you cannot have an abundant crop without cultivation.” This cultivation begins with the belief that wisdom is something worth pursuing and that we can climb above our “sense perception” to a greater realm of understanding. Plato’s highest goal in life was not understanding the physical realities of the world – which our cave eyes could quickly ascertain – but rather the light source itself. The sun in the Cave metaphor is the source of all things good in this life: virtue, happiness, love, justice, courage, beauty, and loyalty are a few examples of the “goodness.” Plato wanted to understand a universal standard for the “Good” and a level of knowledge which would allow us to fully grasp our inner self – ultimately leading to a greater appreciation of life.

Plato made it clear that most people will never leave the wall in the cave and few will cross over the threshold of understanding the highest truths. The journey out of the cave is a lifelong process and I wanted to give the ascent my best shot. Like Bilbo Baggins exiting the Shire, I soon realized that my path towards truth was not an easy road and not a solitary pursuit. To understand Plato, I enlisted the help of others and decided to read the top five books on the subject: Plato: Complete Works – edited by John M. Cooper, Plato’s Ethics by Terence Irwin, Preface to Plato by Eric Havelock, Plato: The Man and His Work by A.E. Taylor, and The Cave and the Light by Arthur Herman. These books were challenging and entailed 4,000 pages of cave-exiting illumination. My eyes are now turned from the wall and it is my job to help you understand how beliefs morph into knowledge and how knowledge morphs into wisdom. We will climb through the mountains of Plato’s philosophy and cover subjects which have perplexed humanity since the beginning of time: the soul, desire, virtue, wisdom, love, politics, and purpose. Plato lived over 2,400 years ago, but his teachings seem more relevant today than any other time in history – our world sinking further into a “virtual” reality. Ultimately, we study Plato to open up our perspective of our inner self and our humanity so that we can live a better existence and help others to cross over the bridge of ignorance. So let’s turn our heads from the wall and take a step towards the light – let’s TACKLE THE LIBRARY.

Chapter 2 – Dead Poets Society

“Poets utter great and wise things which they do not themselves understand.” – Plato

The streets of Athens bustled with all sorts of people going about their daily tasks: traders selling goods in the market, toga-wearing statesman negotiating policies in the corridors, crowds listening to poets animate the past, and intellectuals discussing the solutions to life’s most significant problems. Athens was the epicenter of Greek philosophy during the life of Plato. To fully appreciate the Greece of Plato we must go back centuries before his birth to understand why philosophy was even a topic of consideration. Three centuries before baby Plato even knew what a cave was, there was a famous poet named Homer. Homer is the author of the Greek epic poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey, which were myths that encompassed the journeys of countless well-known characters: Odysseus, Achilles, Hector, Zeus, Apollo, Aphrodite, Hermes, Ares, etc. These poems, for hundreds of years, were transmitted through oral memorization; Greeks passed down their entire culture through the use of poets. These poets were not the finger-snapping goatee poets of our modern age but rather an odd amalgamation of trades – “The poet was in the first instance society’s scribe and scholar and jurist and only in a secondary sense its artist and showman.[1]“ Poetry was used as the primary tool for educating individuals and the process of memorization usually entailed music, body movement, rhythm, and regular recitations among groups.[2] The poems focused on actions and events involving characters that could easily be remembered by the listener – the student’s job “…was not to form individual and unique convictions but to retain tenaciously a precious hoard of exemplars. These exemplars of tradition made a student’s mental condition, though not his character…one of passivity, of surrender…”[3] There was no separation of self in the tradition of oral poetry because the student had to accept the content through group recitation to continue seamless memorization. This “group” identity spread throughout the entire culture and was the psychological zeitgeist when the initial philosophers began to think outside the box.

The oral culture of Greece began to change in the 8th century with the advent of the Phoenician alphabet – an improvement over rudimentary forms of syllabic symbols which were used before this time.[4] With this complex alphabet, artists, scholars, and the first-philosophers started recording entirely new information outside the usual confines of group memorization. The first works were primarily kept in a poetic form, but the famous author Hesiod changed this by using the alphabet for cataloging detailed information.[5] Writing allowed men to take a step back from the “passivity” of oral tradition and begin to think of abstract ideas for the first time – “As it did this, the conception of ‘me thinking about Achilles’ rather than ‘me identifying with Achilles’ was born.”[6] Finally, intellectuals could escape the restrictions of memorization and use ideas that could only be relayed through text – “man in his new inner isolation confronts the phenomenon of his own autonomous personality and accepts it.”[7]

“The Greek ego in order to achieve that kind of cultural experience which after Plato became possible and then normal must stop identifying itself successively with a whole series of polymorphic vivid narrative situations; must stop re-enacting the whole scale of the emotions, of challenge, and of love, and hate and fear and despair and joy, in which the characters of epic become involved. It must stop splitting itself up into an endless series of moods. It must separate itself out and by an effort of sheer will must rally itself to the point where it can say ‘I am,’ an autonomous little universe of my own, able to speak, think and act in independence of what I happen to remember.’ This amounts to accepting the premise that there is a ‘me,’ a ‘self,’ a ‘soul,’ a consciousness which is self-governing and which discovers the reason for action in itself rather than in imitation of the poetic experience.”[8]

The act of writing allowed the early philosophers to look into their inner selves and question the very state of consciousness. Instead of identifying with events and characters from poems, intellectuals were beginning to construct views of individual “thought” about those events and characters. A framework of abstract language was needed for this new understanding of the “self” and words enabled thinkers to understand the different attributes of “knowledge.”

This newfound journey into knowledge required the first philosophers to search for absolute definitions. There was a push to understand the autonomous person as “subject” and how that subject interacted with various abstract objects. The familiar Homeric Epic was full of contradictions which didn’t provide any working definitions – “…Agamemnon is noble at one point and base at another, or the Greeks were at one point are twice as strong as the Trojans and at another point are half as strong.”[9] This made it impossible to connect the “subject” with any solid relationship that would be unchanging. To truly understand the “self” and the world as a whole, philosophers began to pursue abstract ideas that were steadfast. These desires for the absolute eventually led to the vocabulary and syntax of equations, laws, formulas, and topics outside time;[10] through trial and error, the Greek mind engendered ideas of the Right, the Good, the Pleasurable, the Expedient, the Natural, and the Conventional.[11] For three hundred years, the first philosophers worked to form the tools of language to understand these new ideas better. After three centuries, it was time for a teacher to take these tools of mental power and forge them into an all-encompassing philosophy; a philosophy which focused on consistency and a higher form of objects. By the mid-fifth century, one man, in particular, walked the streets of Athens and grasped the true power of the “psychological and linguistic consequences” of his philosophical forefathers.[12] This eccentric man organized the abstract tool shed and pushed for a methodical understanding of the theoretical to attain true wisdom. We care about this man in particular because he is the main character in Plato’s writings and Plato’s one-time mentor – Socrates.

Chapter 3 – A Plane in the Horizon

“An honest man is always a child.” – Socrates

In a sense, this book should not be titled Plato, but rather Plato – The Student of Socrates. Most scholars divide Plato’s writings into three distinct periods: the Early, Middle, and Late Dialogues. [i] These divisions are not a hard and fast rule for understanding Plato, but they do follow a philosophical evolution. The Early Dialogues were primarily written through the historical figure of Socrates – whose original ideas formed the bedrock of Plato’s budding philosophy.[ii] Plato is the main reason we know about Socrates’ teaching because it was still uncommon at the time to record lessons and most pupils simply listened – a holdover from the oral traditions of the past. Socrates believed that “dialogue” was the best way to achieve understanding and knowledge; Plato wrote in a dialogue format to mimic the small question-and-answer circles of intellectual Athenian society.[iii] The age of Socrates saw an explosion of professionals who had supposed “wisdom.” These individuals were called Sophists, and they would charge men for the ability to acquire special knowledge. The Sophists all had different beliefs and different theories on how to achieve the optimal life. Socrates was the polar opposite to these Sophists because he did not sell his knowledge – paradoxically he stated he had no knowledge to give. Socrates only believed in the power of reason and that truth was never an individual possession – true revelation came from interactive questioning.[iv] Not one teacher or author had all the wisdom of the world and Socrates heartily disliked writing as a form of static information – “Accordingly, no book can actually embody knowledge of anything of philosophical importance; only a mind can do that, since only a mind can have this capacity to interpret and reinterpret its own understanding.”[v] Plato did his best to record Socrates’ wisdom through dialogue so that readers could come to their own conclusion; this is also why Plato never appears in his early writings – not wanting to claim any personal “truth.”

It is ironic that Socrates detested the written word when it was the written word that allowed Greeks to think about consciousness in the first place. Plato eventually moved on from purely “Socratic” philosophy – the Middle and Late Dialogues contained most of the philosophy which we now identify with Plato. Nevertheless, the Early Dialogues shaped the foundation for our understanding of virtue, the soul, wisdom, and the absolute forms of objects, all of which were pursued before the time of Socrates. What distinguishes Socrates most from his contemporaries is his sheer love of wisdom. He didn’t desire money, fame, or status; wisdom was the ultimate goal and Socrates spent his life teaching others that they did not truly understand their firmly held beliefs. He would regularly go up to prominent citizens and ask them about virtue, the soul, or even love. Each time Socrates had a dialogue, the person who thought himself wise ultimately left feigning ignorance.[vi] Sometimes, when knowledgeable people get corrected in a conversation, they get mad and seek revenge as if knowledge was a game. Targeted payback may materialize in a future argument or maybe a Facebook comment – usually harmless and uneventful; this was not the case for Socrates because he pissed off one too many “wise” Athenians. People were sick of the “know it all” who persisted in highlighting ignorance – they ended up accusing Socrates of corrupting the youth and sentenced him to death for his misdeeds.[vii] It was at this trial where Plato in the Apology recorded Socrates’ most endearing praise for the occupation of philosophy – “…the unexamined life is not worth living….”[viii] Philosophy for Socrates was not just a hobby or an impracticable set of beliefs but rather the means of living the best possible life. He believed himself to be a midwife of thoughts – “… he has great skill in assisting at the birth of a younger man’s thoughts, and in discerning whether they are healthy and well-formed or sickly and misshapen.”[ix] If one could not accurately understand the roots of happiness, justice, bravery, or the virtues as a whole, how could one lead a positive existence? In the Phaedo, Socrates professes that he would sooner be killed unjustly than give up philosophy because the latter would be the equivalent to death. [x]

Socrates would go on to become a philosophical martyr and inspire his star pupil Plato to continue the lifelong pursuit of wisdom. Without Socrates, there would be no Plato and many other classical philosophers who took up his torch after his execution. The philosophy of Socrates forms the heart of Plato’s future work and helps us understand the reasons behind Plato’s ultimate goals of defining the abstract. Socrates taught Plato to always question and identify the paradoxes of this life – not to end in failure but rather to push past ostensible answers towards a higher level of thinking.[xi] To better understand this high-minded goal, think of wisdom as a vintage WWII plane flying through the air. You want to get a better glimpse at it, so you start to walk and then you run. Eventually, you use reason and ingenuity to go faster and find the best vantage point. The plane is always in the horizon, and you fail to reach its actual source. The effort, however, is worthwhile because you are able to witness something spectacular and along the way you acquired new tools for navigating the world; especially compared to the people straining their vision and not moving at all. Now that you understand the background and purpose of Plato’s predecessors, it is possible to follow his philosophy and his motivation for pushing onwards to the horizon of wisdom. In the following chapters, we’ll focus on Plato’s most prominent pillars of thought which were expanded upon from Socrates’ own views; our starting point begins with the metaphysical: the Soul, the necessary component of our consciousness.

Chapter 1

 1.Plato: Complete Works edited by John M. Cooper (1997)

2.Plato’s Ethics by Terence Irwin (1995)

3.Preface to Plato by Eric Havelock (1963)

4.Plato: The Man and His Work by A.E. Taylor (1926) (Dover Edition 2001)

5.The Cave and the Light by Arthur Herman (2013)

 Chapter 2

 [1] Preface to Plato – Pg 94

[2] Preface to Plato – Pg 198

[3] Preface to Plato – Pg 199

[4] Preface to Plato – Pg IX

[5] Preface to Plato – Pg 295

[6] Preface to Plato – Pg 209

[7] Preface to Plato – Pg 210

[8] Preface to Plato – Pg 200

[9] Preface to Plato – Pg 247

[10] Preface to Plato – Pg 259

[11] Preface to Plato – Pg 303

[12] Preface to Plato – Pg 302

Chapter 3

[i] Plato: Complete Works – Pg XII

[ii] Plato: Complete Works – Pg XVI

[iii] Plato: Complete Works – Pg XVIII

[iv] Plato: Complete Works – Pg XIX

[v] Plato: Complete Works – Pg XX

[vi] Plato’s Ethics – Pg 278

[vii] Plato : Complete Works – Pg 37

[viii] Plato: Complete Works – Pg 33

[ix] Plato The Man and His Work – Pg 324

[x] Plato: Complete Works – Pg 50

[xi] Plato’s Ethics – Pg 7

 

 

Mormons – Murders – Multiple Wives

In 1984, two fundamentalist Mormons – commanded by God – slit the throats of their sister-in-law and baby niece. Brenda and Erica Lafferty were victims in a long chain of Mormon-related violence stretching back from the 19th century. Today, mainstream Mormonism is a peaceful religion with almost 15 million followers – equal to the world population of Jews. I once knew a Mormon and toured their facilities in Salt Lake City, Utah – quite a sight if you ever get a chance to visit. Mormon history is very peculiar, and I wanted to learn more about it through Jon Krakauer’s book – Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith. Krakauer highlights how fundamentalism can lead to violence and subjugation in his compelling tale of present-day murder and the Mormon church’s growth from obscure to mainstream. 

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Let’s start from the beginning. Joseph Smith – the founder of Mormonism – was visited by an angel named Moroni while praying one evening in 1823. This angel revealed the location of golden plates that contained lost religious writings. After several failed attempts, Joseph was able to acquire the golden plates at the Hill Cumorah in Manchester, New York. The plates contained sacred records in an unknown language called reformed Egyptian. Joseph was the only one able to translate these tablets using special glasses. These plates would lead to the publishing of the Book of Mormon in 1830 and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in 1838. Several followers joined Smith’s church which claimed that a lost tribe of Isreal came to America and that Jesus visited them after his crucifixion. Early followers joined Joseph’s church because he proclaimed that God could be reached through personal revelations and that there were no barriers in communicating with God. This was at a time when American religion was experiencing a Second Great Awakening. Unfortunately, membership was not boosted by the sight of the golden tablets because they had to be given back to the Angel Moroni.

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Joesph moved his church from New York to Ohio where Smith was charged with financial fraud – forcing him to take his flock west to Missouri. While in Missouri, the Mormons fought with their “gentile” neighbors and after a bloody fighting, they were forced to relocate to the state of Illinois. The Mormons, being a tight-knit group who disliked outsiders, did not get along with their Illinois statesman – violence and murder were common. Things began to fall apart for Joseph when he received a revelation from God that he should take multiple wives. The church split from Joseph’s philandering, and the prophet was arrested for suppressing the local press. While in custody, Joseph Smith was killed by an angry “gentile” mob who saw him as a religious fanatic. The Mormon church was in chaos after their founder’s death but one of their leaders – Brigham Young – led them westward to safety. By 1847 more than 2000 Mormons had left American soil and entered the Mexican territory of what is now Utah. 

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Joseph’s polygamy revelation was not taken well by most of the Mormon leaders. Joseph’s wife actually declared that God had revealed to her that she should have multiple husbands – this did not sit well with the prophet. After the prophet’s death, the church split into polygamous and non-polygamous sects – the polygamous group headed to Utah and the non-polygamous group faded into obscurity. Brigham Young supported polygamy and believed it was the best way for men to live virtuous lives since they wouldn’t be tempted by extramarital sex. The United States government banned plural marriage and fought the Mormons on this front until the late 19th century when they passed laws to seize all Mormon church holdings. The Mormon church finally bowed to the law and changed their policy of polygamy in 1904. Since the prophet proclaimed polygamy to be a God-given right, many Mormons broke from the main church to establish their own “fundamentalist” branches.

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Today about 40,000 Mormons are fundamentalists and still practice polygamy. A famous example is Warren Jeffs, who was purported to have 70 wives, many of which were 14 years old at the time of marriage. These fundamentalists are responsible for most Mormon-related violence and kidnappings – the most famous being Elizabeth Smart in 2002. Of course, there is a lot to say about this subject, but the point I want everyone to take from this post is that fundamentalism – in any religion or secular viewpoint – is never a good thing. To be a fundamentalist is to believe that there is nothing more to learn from the world – many times an outlook that leads to dehumanization. Remember that we must be open to both truth and empathy – when those two things are absent the result is the murder of a mother and her child.

What are your views on Mormonism, Fundamentalism, and/or Polygamy? I love to read your comments.

Is God Dead?

Today is the holiest day on the Christian calendar – Easter. It is a holiday that celebrates the resurrection of life; Jesus Christ, the son of God, died on the cross for the sins of the world. The secular version of Easter involves bunnies and Easter egg hunts which in Michigan is complicated by the presence of snow. Easter is also the symbolic beginning of spring which makes everyone optimistic about the weather and life in general. I always had mixed feelings about Easter while growing up. I loved the chocolate and the ham, but the church services just didn’t pique my interests. Sure, the flowers and the choir were a magnificent sight to behold, but I didn’t really understand why the pews were filled to the brim. The philosophy of Easter was complicated for me because I didn’t have a good grasp of what it meant to suffer. My parents did an excellent job of sheltering me and protecting me from the horrors of the world. It wasn’t until I went to college that I reexamined the importance of this holiday. My eyes were opened during my Senior Seminar class which focused on the three days of Easter.

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Good Friday is a misnomer because it was the darkest day in the history of the world. Jesus died by excruciating crucifixion on Good Friday and for all intents and purposes – God was dead. People don’t like to think of Good Friday like this, but it is entirely accurate – Jesus was both man and God – His death was the death of both God and the Son. This was the ultimate sacrifice, and for two days, the disciples of Jesus were in a complete state of darkness. All their hopes for the future were gone, and the man they had thought was their savior was gone. We are fortunate to know the end of the story; Jesus rose from the dead, and the world was changed forever – God is not only alive but interconnected to us through that sacrifice.

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To truly appreciate Easter I believe we must understand suffering. We must enter the skin of the disciples on that Friday and Saturday. Unfortunately, we enter that skin way too often even after knowing about the resurrection on Sunday. We live our lives many times as if God were dead – trying to be masters of our own universe; hope and faith are absent more times than we would like to admit. It is for this reason that pews on Easter are filled. People understand suffering and want to feel the mighty power of the resurrection – in their hearts, they know God is alive. So this Easter you need to make a decision whether God is dead or alive. Do you want to live your life trying to be your own god? Do you want to live your life as if there is no one looking out for you? I am tired of trying to control my little universe – I want to give my worries to the Creator of the actual universe. So it’s your decision, Friday or Sunday, dead or alive. I have a postcard on my desk that says “God is here with you Jon!” If you are reading this, know that God is with you right now

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“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. …” Mathew 6:25-34

So this Easter really contemplate the beginning, middle, and end of the story; the end, in this case, is a happy one with an essential sequel. So is God dead? For me, I know God is alive, and I hope you feel the same way in your heart. Happy Easter.

1% Christian History

My old college roommate and I started a tradition last year. Each Christmas, we buy each other a book that we think would be beneficial reading. I didn’t know what to expect from my greasy friend but waited patiently for my gift to arrive. One day, I walked up to my porch and saw a package that looked like a wrapped encyclopedia. I wasn’t too far off; my dirtbag roommate bought me a 1000 page book on the history of Christianity – Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years by Diarmaid MacCulloch. This book loomed over me all year and I kept putting off what seemed like a Sisyphean task. By the end, it took me about 50 hours spread over a month.

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Christian history is difficult because it isn’t like normal history – it is a weird dance of facts, figures, and eternity. Having eternity involved complicates everything because you either have to take the Thomas Jefferson route and get rid of all supernatural events or take the Jack Van Impe route and prepare for the apocalypse. These two extremes frame the gamut of Christian beliefs and preface why Christian history is one continuous story of division. From the moment Jesus died on the cross, his disciples went out and preached the Gospel – within a generation, groups were already disagreeing on the intricacies of theology. The Christian church as we know it today is like a box of peanut-brittle that has been shaken by a two-year-old. Originally there was one solid chunk but now there are thousands of variant morsels. This post will only focus on one tiny but very important nugget of Christian history – as the title surmises, this book could fill 99 more blogs.

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The 1% we will cover is one of the most important moments in the Christian church – the Chalcedonian Schism. The Council of Chalcedon met from October 8th to November 9th in the year 451 AD. This Council was called by the Roman Emperor Marcian as an ecumenical meeting for all the important churches at the time – the Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, and Oriental Orthodox. At this point in history, the Christian church needed to clarify theological doctrine and adjust the power roles of western and eastern leaders. The main reason for this meeting was to clarify the true nature of Jesus.

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How could Jesus be both God and man? Before the meeting, there were groups who believed Jesus appeared on earth as a man disguised as God (Docetism) while other groups believed Jesus was, in reality, a normal man chosen by God (Adoptionism). These beliefs led to Nestorianism (which viewed Christ as having some mixture of divine and human elements) and Eutychianism (which viewed Christ’s divinity as completely consuming his humanity like a drop of vinegar in the ocean).

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The Council of Chalcedon sided with a watered down Nestorian view which became known as Dyophysitism – which states that Christ is one person in two natures – “distinctively” man and God in one. This led to the creation of Miaphysitism which held the belief that Christ is one nature and that nature has “inseparable” components of man and God. Confused yet? Again, Dyophysitism believes that Christ is one person with two separate natures while Miaphysitism believes that Christ is one nature which is both divine and human.

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This Dyophysitism decision at the council was agreed upon by the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. However, the Oriental Church broke off from this definition and became known as Non-Chalcedonian. The Oriental Church includes the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, Syriac Orthodox Church, Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, and the Armenian Apostolic Church. This schism had drastic effects on the eastern church as a whole by shifting power to the west and decreasing overall cooperation. This separation was one variable that allowed the new religion of Islam to take over eastern strongholds of Christianity; the west would not realize their mistakes until the first crusades 600 years later.

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Our current world is shaped by the decisions at this council: The politics of countries, the religious makeup in the Middle East, and the West’s ignorance of the Oriental Church. So what can we learn from the Council of Chalcedon? One huge lesson is that Christianity can come in many different flavors, shapes, and sizes. Christians shouldn’t be divided into little pieces of peanut brittle. Christians should work together under one absolute truth – Jesus is the son of God who died for our sins so we can have eternal life and spread His message of grace; in a world still divided, we need to focus on that point more than ever. Don’t get hung up on the details and throw your hands in the air thinking religion is stupid. If you focus on loving others, you will obtain the other 99%. 

 

Buddhism for a Christian

As a Christian, I think it is important to have a working knowledge of world religions. Studying a different religion not only expands your understanding of varying beliefs but also helps you appreciate your own spirituality to a greater extent. Some people are wary of studying different religions because they believe it will tarnish their devoutness or lead them astray. In reality, the opposite almost always happens – for example, learning about Buddhism made me appreciate Jesus Christ to a far higher degree. Thanks to my physical therapist, I was recommended an excellent book on Buddhism called Old Path White Clouds by Thich Nhat Hanh. Thich Nhat Hand is a Buddhist monk, and a proliferate author – he wrote this book as a factual biography of the Buddha – heavy on doctrine and light on myths.

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It follows the life of Siddhartha, a wealthy prince who seeks the path of enlightenment and eventually becomes known as the Buddha. The word Buddha actually means “the enlightened one” and this book explains how Buddhism was initially spread throughout eastern India around 450 BC. At that time, many religions believed in various gods and degrees of asceticism – how much humans should avoid or indulge in pleasure. Siddhartha followed the greatest spiritual leaders but was never able to reach enlightenment until he understood the actual source of human suffering.

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What is the central root of human suffering? Ignorance. Not knowing the truth is the cause of all the pain in the world. Well, what then is the truth? The Buddha believed that…

“People were caught in endless suffering because of their erroneous perceptions; they believed that which is impermanent is permanent, that which is without self contains self, that which has no birth and death has birth and death, and they divided that which is inseparable into parts.”

Put in another way, people have the wrong perceptions of the world and hence inaccurate realities of truth. So the next question then is how can one fix their reality? Again the Buddha believed that…

“…the key to liberation would be to break through ignorance and to enter deeply into the heart of reality and attain a direct experience of it. Such knowledge would not be the knowledge of the intellect, but of direct experience.”

This “direct experience” is achieved through mindfulness of the present moment. Complete mindfulness requires one to understand that there is no “self” and that there is no permanence – all things depend on each other in a cyclical-eternal fashion. Understanding this interdependence of life – the Buddha was able to shed all the sources of suffering: fear, anger, hatred, arrogance, jealousy, greed, and ignorance. The Buddha taught his followers to meditate to reach this awareness and connectedness. In a way, Buddhism is more of a philosophy than a religion – there is no soul, higher power, or afterlife; the goal is to reach Nirvana which is complete enlightenment and the extinction of self.

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Buddhism is complex – especially with reincarnation – and what I have described are the main tenets; there are many different schools of thought just like those in Christianity. So how did I apply these Buddhist teachings as a Christian? First off, Christianity teaches that you can not earn your way into heaven and that Jesus Christ is the only way to eternal life. In Buddhism, the individual is responsible for their enlightenment, and the path to salvation is earned rather than gifted. Just that fact makes me want to shout “Praise the Lord for Jesus!” I did, however, find several parallels between Buddhism and Christianity in respects to suffering.

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Jesus, just like the Buddha, teaches that we need to love one another and that we are all interconnected – we fall apart because of fear, anger, hatred, arrogance, jealousy, greed, and ignorance. I also took away the important message of impermanence and mindfulness. Nothing on this earth is forever, and this life is just a blip on the map of eternity; we shouldn’t be sad about death because it is transient. We must be mindful of the present because it not only makes us more aware of our blessings but it gives us a glimpse of what eternity will actually feel like – no past or future. I actually have been meditating more, and it helps me with gratitude, calms my mind, and rids me of thoughts that cause suffering. No matter what you believe, learning about different religions will always give you a greater sense of the world and the human condition.

Vikings Changed the World

At some point in the 9th century, a Viking was accused of being a “child-lover” because he didn’t want to impale babies with his spear. Vikings are known as gruesome-raiders which struck fear into the heart of villagers throughout medieval Europe. They were pagans who worshiped Odin and Thor – believing that an eternal feast awaited them in Valhalla. Today, Viking culture inundates our everyday life. Early morning TV has commercials for Viking River Cruises. “Bluetooth,” which connects electronics, is named after a Vtumblr_npgzguhvtp1un9i1ko1_1280iking king. Four days out of each week are named after Norse Gods: Tuesday (Tyr), Wednesday (Wodan which was Anglo-Saxon for Odin), Thursday (Thor), and Friday (Frigg). Dublin, York, and Kiev were a few major cities founded by Vikings for trade. The Normandy region of France was named after Viking inhabitants. The modern states of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine were first centralized by Vikings. Iceland, Greenland, and North America were first discovered by Vikings. The nautical terms of starboard, port, and keel were created by the Vikings. Most importantly, the Mad Max series was inspired by the Vikings. I was able to learn more about Vikings in this month’s edition of National Geographic and the book – The Sea Wolves: A History of the Vikings by Lars Brownworth.

The Vikings homeba3c6b3f59deb9c86cf5d8950c8c38d06dse was in Scandinavia between 800 and 1100 AD. There were the Norse (modern day Norway) to the west, the Swedes (modern day Sweden to the east), and the Danes (modern day Denmark) to the south. The actual word “viking” is believed to derive from the Vic region near the Oslo Fjord where iron was plentiful for sword production – eventually all raiders were referred to as “Vic-ings.” There were two types of Vikings: homesteaders and raiders. The Vikings had permanent communities which tried to live off the land and coast. There were also men who sought out fame and fortune on the sea – these were the “sea wolves” that changed the world. These Sea Wolves mastered the construction of the longboat and were able to sail quickly to any location. These men were motivated by treasure, women, and power. The more a raiding party could collect, the more respected they were on their return to Scandinavia. The first raids occurred at monasteries in Ireland, England, and France. Monasteries at the time stored many valuable relics, manuscripts, and currency. osebergskipet1A raid would usually consist of a few longboats (picture to right) quickly docking with 10-50 Vikings, subsequent killing of inhabitants, collection of plunder, and a quick getaway. Vikings were fierce warriors and their strengths were stealth, quickness, and cunning. Eventually, the raids started to dry up and the Vikings were forced to travel further from their homes; they would eventually reach as far as Italy.

Some of the greatest Vikings wanted more than just plunder, they wanted land. Forces
would eventually conquer Irish, French, English, and Eastern European armies to control huge swathes of territory. They controlled key ports and became handsomely wealthy through trade, extortion, and sheer intimidation. To find more land, many Vikings traveled west and eventually founded Iceland and Greenland – getting as far as North America; they were never able to permanently settle the Western Hemisphere because of limited colonists. To the a3e4c310d1c9ca0d11ac277a991d9b40east they settled into modern day Ukraine and traded with the Byzantine Empire. Vikings in the east were called “Rus,” (picture to left) which is the origin of the word “Rus-sian.” Eventually, the Vikings in these land-grab areas would lose much of their raiding culture and eventually became established monarchies. Many Viking kings decided to adopt Christianity to unite their strongholds which many times consisted of several types of ethnic groups and cultures; Scandinavia also shifted to a monarch structure to have better relations with European kings. In the end, the Viking culture fizzled out with the creation of Christian domains which promoted domestic virtues over sea-faring vices. Overall, the Vikings altered the political and social landscape wherever they went and are in large part responsible for the unification of Scotland, France, Britain, The Holy Roman Empire, and the kingdom of Sicily. They were pagans, who more than any other medieval power, spread Christianity throughout the world. Their enduring reputation truly held up to the Viking belief that all men are mortal – only the noble name can live forever.

Winter Sucks, but…

Are you sick of winter yet? Females, have your legs gotten to Chewbacca levels? Males, have your hands dried up to Walking Dead levels? Has your dog finally said enough is enough and now uses your whole house as a “potty?” Are your Vitamin D levels so low that you randomly have cravings for whole milk? Yeah…winter sucks. Before you put that third layer on, read this – winter is almost half way over. I am not fooling you, this coming Sunday will mark the point in which everything goes downhill in terms of seasonal suffering. Before you know it, it will be March and the prospects of summer heat will be wafting through your defrosting imagination.

Being that winter is nearly half way over, I am half way done with my 14 books on the French Revolution. Surprisingly I am not sick of the subject and I am actually enjoying my topical experiment. It is nice to focus on one thing and dig deep into the material. To celebrate this journey, I listed five quirky facts about the French Revolution for your enjoyment.

  1. During the Reign of Terror, the government got rid of the Christian Calendar and replaced it with the French Republic Calendar: 12 months named after weather events, 3 weeks per month known as “decades”, 10 days per week, 5 or 6 days at the end for non-stop celebration. The first date was September 22, 1792 when the monarchy was abolished by the Convention. Today’s date would be written as 10 Pluviôse CCXXV (10 “Rain” 225).
  2. King Louis XVI was 15 years old when he married a 14-year-old Marie Antoinette. It took them eight years before they had their first child because Louis was shy and couldn’t do the dirty.
  3. Charlotte Corday stabbed Jean-Paul Marat, a radical Jacobin leader, in the chest while he was in the bathtub. Marat’s friend subdued Corday by holding her chest while laying on top of her. She was eventually sentenced to death and guillotined.
  4. Christianity was deemed pointless and dechristianization efforts included vandalizing churches, killing priests, and dressing up donkeys as cardinals.
  5. In certain areas, men avoided being drafted into the Revolutionary Armies by drinking poison, dismembering limbs, and marrying elderly women.

Hopefully, those facts piqued your interest and helped you appreciate our modern world. Stay strong and be thankful that you don’t fear the guillotine after a Facebook post or have to sleep with a 15-year-old version of King Louis.