Saturday, February 22, 2014

Buddhism and "The Gift of Men"

I was reading the introductory chapter on Buddhism in Finding God Among Our Neighbors earlier today and was struck by the description of Dr. Largen's description of the Buddha's final moments:
"The Buddha lived and taught for eighty years, choosing for himself when it was time for him to end his life and attain final nirvana. He entered into final meditation peacefully, lying on his side, surrounded by all manner of animals, disciples, and even gods..."[79]
For those that aren't familiar with Buddhism or may have an incorrect knowledge of it, nirvana can be described as a release from the cycle of samsara or the cyclical nature of our universe. The reason I was struck by this passage is because although I was familiar with the concepts of samsara and nirvana before reading this chapter I did not remember hearing the description of Buddha's death, if we can use that term for his final moments. The way Dr. Largen phrased Buddha's choice also brought this passage from a favorite book of mine to mind:
"Nay, lady, I am the last of the Númenóreans and the latest King of the Elder Days; and to me has been given not only a span thrice that of Men of Middle-earth, but also the grace to go at my will, and give back the gift. Now, therefore, I will sleep."
 This passage is of course from The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien. The reason this came to mind was the gift that Aragorn refers to is what is called "The Gift of Men." The Gift of Men was given to humans by Ilúvatar and part of the gift was the ability to lay down at the time of their choosing and die. The Kings of Númenór had the custom of using this gift to escape Middle Earth before they became too feeble to rule and this is exactly what Aragorn was doing when he lay down and slept. Another aspect of the Gift of Men was a complete release from Middle Earth which is opposed to the Elves which have their immortality. While immortality may seem like a greater gift the Elves came in time to be jealous of the Gift of Men because their immortality lead to a longing for release due to the ages of care and woe they would experience as the millennia wore on.

While Middle Earth does not have a cyclical nature like the Buddhists believe in, I was struck by this similarity between the religion and the story. In both there are the very wise which have the ability to choose their own time to depart their world. These very wise are the leaders of the people and they are given a great amount of dignity to deal with how and when they depart the mortal coil, and I find that a wonderful and enlightening coincidence.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Theodicy and A Song of Ice and Fire

One of the assignments my MAR Keynote course in January was to write a paper that engaged a theological loci with popular culture. For my paper I wrote on theodicy and engaged with George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series. The title of the paper is "Theodicy and a Song of Ice and Fire, or Why do so many bad things happen to the Starks?" It is a very brief treatment of the topic and only addresses a potential theodicy surrounding the old gods worshipped by the Stark family but I thought some folks might enjoy reading it.

The paper is embedded in an iframe below. If the iframe isn't visible the paper is also available via Google Drive.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Religion and Digital Technologies

Last week I attended a one day conference at The Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University titled Religion and Digital Technologies. It was an interesting conference and I wanted to share some notes and observations from the talks. Some of the speakers employed more technologies in the research than others and I'm only highlighting things here that I found especially interesting.

The first speaker was John Boy from CUNY. His subject of research is church plants in Europe and part of his research necessitated searching websites for specific subject matter. He used data from which provides "an open repository of web crawl data that can be accessed and analyzed by everyone." The data is accessible via the Amazon Cloud so John had to do some coding in order to perform his research.

A few of the speakers used Amazon's Mechanical Turk service at various points in their research. The Mechanical Turk allows you to create small jobs which they call Human Intelligence Tasks or "HITs" that you pay workers to complete. One speaker used Mechanical Turk to find websites for over six thousand non-profit organizations so that she could analyze their websites (the IRS provided the organizations but not the websites). Other speakers had used the service to field test surveys, which was an interesting concept. An unexpected conversation around Mechanical Turk was the ethics of using a service that pays workers the equivalent of less than $2/hour of labor.

Thomas Carlson from Princeton spoke about the challenges of developing a hierarchy to classify religions as part of the project. They felt a need to classify religions in some way in order to enhance the search methods available on the site but things get messy very quickly when you start to consider the different possibilities. There weren't any clear cut ways to setup a meaningful hierarchy so the project is still looking for a good solution to the issue. A term which came out of this discussion that I enjoyed was "fuzzy specificity" which refers to using dates (and other data) that we aren't sure about.

Joseph Blankholm spoke about a website which came out of a class on the religion life in Harlem. The site has lost much functionality due to maintenance issues but everyone agreed that it was a wonderful idea. Students in the class were tasked with visiting sites of religious significance in Harlem and blogging about them. The blog posts were geolocated and the website had a map showing the blog posts by location. Joseph shared that the students got a lot out of the course and the professors had hoped to use the site as a resource for future classes but that didn't turn out as they planned. We had a discussion around the value of maintaining digital work like this and why it isn't always necessary to move course work into a permanent repository, and indeed why sometimes that would be problematic.

Marcus Bingenheimer from Temple shared some challenges that arose when digitizing Dunhuang Manuscripts. An interesting part of this discussion was how complex text encoding can become when you are working with non-western languages.

Ben Johnston and Michael Myers, both from Princeton, spoke about two projects they collaborated on and Ben mentioned a term that he holds to and I really liked. The concept is called "modest DH" (digital humanities) and it speaks to not using the technology to dazzle the audience but to make sure there is a focus on functionality. The point of digital humanities should be to allow great research and interpretation, not necessarily make things look awesome. There is a place for design and for sites meant for a broad public audience that's important, but when working on sites intended for scholars flashy elements should be left behind.

Overall I found the day enjoyable and picked up some great resources and areas that I'd like to spend more time on. If you have any questions about the day's topics, please feel free to leave a comment.

Friday, February 07, 2014

Inter-religious Dialogue Prezi

In class last week Dr. Largen covered three reasons why Christians should practice inter-religious dialogue. The reasons started with ourselves as Christians, cycled through other religions, God and then came back to Christians in a way that reminded me of the three arrows in the recycling logos. I turned this idea over in my head for a few days (turned over, recycling, get it, ha ha) and finally put together a Prezi to illustrate it. Unfortunately you can't embed Prezi presentations in Blogger so I'll have to link to it: