Christianity and the Roman Empire, a Book Review

Originally posted on Jericho Brisance:

As I do background research for my longer term writing project, I decided it would be a useful side exercise to provide snapshot reviews of various resources that I digest along the way.

I picked up a paperback copy of “Christianity and the Roman Empire”, by  Ralph Martin Novak, at Half Price Books a week ago. It offers a substantial volume of well-chosen textual excerpts from historians and writers taken from the period of the Roman Empire, such as Tacitus, Josephus, Seutonius, Justin Martyr, and so on. Novak provides excellent commentary and discussion throughout as a scholar of Roman History with an education from University of Chicago. His presentation is objective and presents material critical of both the Roman and Christian players involved. The chronological arrangement allows the reader to see how views and policies shifted over time.

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The rise of the west and civilization collapses

Phil Plait recently announced that he was starting a new series of Crash Course videos on astronomy.  After watching it, I noticed the really cool Youtube channel that it’s on.  I suspect that I’m going to end up wasting dedicating a lot of time on this channel.

One series that caught my attention, because it’s close to subjects I’ve written about before and integrates nicely with the current book I’m reading, is the one on World History with John Green.  This first video is on theories about the rise of the west.

The second one I’m going to share with you, also with Green, is on the collapse of the bronze age civilization (c. 1200 BCE).

In both of these videos, Green provides many cautions about these theories.  I’ve written before that most theories about why civilizations collapse are put forth by people with an agenda of some kind for our own times.  I think the same thing is largely true about most people who write about the west’s successes, in that typically the keys to success they identify involve some institutions or practices the author wants us to protect, take up, or return to.

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Reasons for optimism

Originally posted on Blog Blogger Bloggest:

happysadTo kick off 2015, I’ve compiled a list of 10 good facts you probably won’t hear on the news.

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Writing Excuses: New season, a writing course by podcast

Many of my readers and fellow bloggers are aspiring (or practicing) writers.  If you haven’t caught it before, ‘Writing Excuses‘ is a podcast about writing in the science fiction and fantasy genre.  If you’ve ever contemplated doing that kind of writing, it’s a pretty awesome podcast to follow, and even if sci-fi/fantasy isn’t your chosen genre, a lot of the advice is pretty generic.

Anyway, they’re starting their 10th season (I actually didn’t realize they had been going that long) and revealed in the first episode that this season will be structured like a writing course.  That first episode, which I just listened to at lunch, is on generating ideas.

Writing Excuses 10.1: Seriously, Where Do You Get Your Ideas? » Writing Excuses.

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Thoughts on exercise for people who hate exercise

English: KUNSAN AIR BASE, South Korea— Airmen ...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Well, another new year is upon us, and a lot of people are going to be making new year’s resolutions to get in shape (or get back in shape).  As it turns out, I’m going to be too, although not for any reasons related to the new year (I’ve never been particularly big on new year resolutions), but because my body is reminding me of the reasons why I need to keep in minimally decent shape.

Now, I’m not a fitness expert by any stretch of the imagination, but as many of you know, that’s never kept me from pontificating on other topics.  And, since exercise is on my mind these days, I have a few thoughts on the subject, related to people like me who don’t particularly enjoy it.

Thought, the first: An exercise program that you can stick to is vastly superior to one that you will burnout on in a few short weeks.  I’m currently in my late forties, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve embarked with maximum enthusiasm on a new workout routine with maximum intensity, and then quit a month or two later.

Oh, I always had a good excuse why I didn’t continue, usually related to time pressures or something along those lines.  In my more self effacing moments, I admitted to having an attack of laziness.  But looking back, most of the time, the reality was that I simply burned myself out, exercising beyond my current level of fitness.

The workout routines I’ve been able to stick to for extended periods were ones where I worked within my current comfort level but maybe toward the end pushed slightly into discomfort.  That relatively easy approach led to fitness gains, and kept me on board.  Of course, as I mentioned above, I did eventually fall off the wagon, but it was almost always because I forgot my initial cautious approach, got impatient, and started regularly going far into that discomfort zone, leading to burnout.

This principle applies to just about any kind of exercise you might be doing.  For cardio, it means working at an intensity that is comfortable except for perhaps the last minute or so of the workout, and backing off if you err on the too intense side.  For stretching, it means stretching to where you feel a pleasing but perhaps slightly uncomfortable stretch, but without pain.  For weight lifting, it means using a weight that that is comfortable until that slightly to moderately uncomfortable last rep.

Of course, there are people who thrive on pushing themselves to the limit.  They tend to either have advantageous genetics, have essentially been in excellent shape their entire lives (making it difficult for them to sympathize with people struggling to get back into it), or are taking some kind of performance enhancing drugs.  The problem for people who hate exercise, is that most of the people in the fitness industry tend to fall into one of those categories.  Phrases like “train to failure”, “push past the pain barrier”, or “no pain, no gain” tend to originate from them.  That’s not to say that there aren’t voices who advocate moderation, but too many follow the drill sergeant approach.

Bob Glover in his excellent ‘The Runner’s Handbook‘ said it best: overload gently.  Give your body a chance to adapt to that gentle overload, and when the effort that led to it becomes easy, push a little further out.  Over time, that pushing just a little further out adds up.  Ignore the (usually) yelling fitness gurus who urge you to push yourself to the limit.

Thought the second: This is closely related to the first thought, but deserves its own section.  Never exercise through pain.  Ever.  At least, unless you have a competent physical therapist urging you to do so.  (Even then, consider getting a second opinion if a therapist seems indifferent to your pain when prescribing a program.)  Ignore the no pain, no gain crowd; they are not your friends.

Unfortunately, I have direct experience on this one.  It’s why I have some of the issues I do.  When my shoulder first started bothering me years ago, I ignored it.  When it insisted on being noticed, I took ibuprofen to shut it up so I could get through my workouts.  Big mistake.  Trust me on this one.  You don’t want to go where that road leads.

Thought the third: Remember the Pareto Principle.  That principle says that you usually get 80% of the benefits from 20% of the effort.  Whatever your fitness goals, you can get most of the way there with a modest effort.

So why do people do the other 80%?  Usually because of competition.  If you want to win a marathon, an Ironman triathlon, a powerlifting or weight lifting competition, or some other kind of sporting event, then that other 80% is necessary.  But if you just want to look and feel better, then you can probably get by with a lot less effort.

For example, for years I alternated between running, bicycling, and other forms of cardio.  As I described above, I often burned out and quit.  Now, and successfully for the last few years, I walk (briskly), which I can do during lunch break at work while listening to some of my favorite podcasts.  (Living in the deep south, I do have to break up the walks during the summer months.)  Walking is much easier, I’ve never been in danger or burnout from it, and I get most of the benefits I felt from the more strenuous forms.


Well, those are my thoughts on exercise.  I’d be interested to know yours, particularly if like me, you don’t really enjoy exercise, and especially if you have nevertheless found a way to succeed at it.

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Confucianism and the definition of religion

Ru_characterI’ve noted before that defining religion is difficult.  Simple definitions (such as belief in gods) tend to either exclude some religions (such as Buddhism), or include things that most people don’t consider to be a religion (such as constitutional law or science).  Definitions that get the scope about right tend to be hopelessly vague or unwieldy.  This had led some anthropologists to declare that religion as a coherent concept doesn’t really exist.

Given these difficulties, I find areas of thought on the borderlines, on which people debate whether or not it is a religion, to be interesting.  Confucianism is one of those grey areas.  Everyone agrees that it is a philosophy, but the religion part remains controversial.  Examining why some consider Confucianism a religion might be somewhat instructive on what religion intuitively means to us.

Confucius was a Chinese philosopher who live around 500 BC, during a time when the current governing Zhou dynasty was in decline.  (It’s called the Spring and Autumn period, and conditions seem roughly similar to the 5th century in the Roman Empire’s decline.)  Concerned about how much society had deteriorated in his time, Confucius studied history to see what social, ethical, and governmental practices had worked well, and which hadn’t.  The history available to him at the time included the earlier Zhou dynasty period, and the late history of the preceding Shang dynasty.  He distilled what he learned into the the core of the system we now called Confucianism.

Notice what’s absent here.  Confucius didn’t claim that he had a revelation from any deity.  He didn’t claim to be a prophet.  In fact, he was careful to clarify that he wasn’t adding anything original, that all of his precepts came from studying history.  And he urged his followers to study the same sources that he himself had used.  In other words, his philosophy was developed through reason, and he urged others to go through the same reasoning he had as part of an ongoing process of self cultivation and improvement.

It’s hard to argue with Confucius’s approach.  Many modern day moral philosophers might find a lot to agree with in that approach.  However, before you start thinking of Confucius as a modern Humanist transplanted into ancient China, you should know that Confucianism is very conservative, hierarchical, patriarchal, and relentlessly ritualistic.  Given that it was formulated around 500 BC, during a time of societal hardships and uncertainty, I don’t find these aspects of it too surprising.

Confucianism has a great deal to say about family relations, social norms, and governing philosophy.  On family relations, it often defines the hierarchy between various relationships, usually with those on the inferior side of the relationship urged to be subservient and those on the superior side to be fair.  Fathers are superior to sons, older brothers to younger brothers, brothers to sisters, husbands to wives, etc.  On governing, Confucius calls for rulers to be just and virtuous, and to demonstrate that virtuosity to their people.  (He saw few examples of this in his time.)

Confucianism in its original form didn’t have a metaphysics.  It didn’t posit the idea of any gods or spiritual realm, although it did pay deference to the ideas of China’s state religion.  Neo-Confucianism did introduce a somewhat limited metaphysics in the 12th century, largely in response to the encroachment of Buddhism.  Neo-Confucianism’s metaphysics included the concepts of li (the organizing principles and rules of the world), and qi (roughly analogous to spiritual essence).

Religion in China is interesting.  It seems like each region has its unique folk religion including local gods and ancestor worship.  During the Zhou dynasty, all of these various gods became understood to be subservient to a supreme power, called Tian.  Tian is not regarded in an anthropomorphic manner.  It is often translated as heaven, although sometimes as God, great one, or great all.  For some, this concept is basically what we would call nature, for others it is a pantheistic conception of God and a moral force.

From the Zhou dynasty forward, reverence for heaven was a kind of meta-religion for China.  In many ways, it could be thought of as a type of secularism (in the strict sense of the word) in that it provided a unifying framework for all the disparate folk religions without favoring any particular one.  The Zhou dynasty was the first one to claim a “mandate of heaven” for its rule, which sounds very close to the western concept of “divine right of kings”, but with a few differences.  Only one government at a time can have the mandate, and then only as long as it is virtuous and worthy of that mandate.

(As an aside, I suspect one of the reasons Chinese history is traditionally interpreted as one civilization with different dynasties, rather than successive societies, is this mandate of heaven principle.  If European history were interpreted in this manner, we might talk of the Roman dynasty, the Byzantine dynasty, the Spanish dynasty, the French dynasty, the British dynasty, etc, with periods with no clear dominant power as “warring states” or “intermediate” periods.  Admittedly, the very idea that the mandate of heaven concept has survived in China for three thousand years gives some weight to the continuous civilization claim.)

Confucianism is integrated with, and influenced, many of these ideas.  So, is Confucianism a religion?  Well, it’s complicated.  I’ve discussed before that I think religion has historically met three broad functions.  (These points are my simplification of functions I’ve read from anthropologists and social scientists such as Jared Diamond.)

  1. Explain the world.
  2. Promote the social order.
  3. Provide existential comfort.

Confucianism doesn’t seem to get into 1 very much, although I suppose Neo-Confucianism did to a limited degree, and it’s hard for me to see that it provides too much for 3, but I’m making that judgment as an outsider, so I might be off base.  But Confucianism is definitely involved with 2.  It is intimately concerned with how people should lead their lives, how they should treat each other, and how government should be run.

There’s another aspect I mentioned above.  Confucianism is very pro-ritual.  Indeed, it promotes ritual as a crucial virtue.  And this may be getting at the root of why many people intuitively feel that it is a religion.  The etymology of the word “religion” is thought to be something along the lines of re-connecting, or re-binding.  That can be interpreted to mean reconnecting with an ultimate reality (i.e. a god or gods), reconnecting with doctrine or mantras, reconnecting with your fellow adherents, or all of the above.  And this reconnecting is generally done through ritual.

All of these things involve Confucianism deeply with function 2 above.  Is that enough to make it a religion?  As I’ve discussed in an earlier post, science is deeply involved with 1, but we usually resist calling it a religion.  And most modern religions have a strong connection with 3.  As I mentioned above, I don’t see much of this function in Confucianism.  It seems to defer that function to other aspects of Chinese culture.  Although I suppose if you lived in a society where everyone is following Confucianism, that might be comforting, but that seems true of any cultural system.

One thing that struck me was China’s centuries long history of examinations for entry into its prestigious civil service.  The high stakes examinations were ostensibly to test the applicant’s knowledge of revered Confucian principles, but often amounted to testing their ability to memorize the core Confucian works, word for word.  When I read this, it reminded me of the effort many Muslims put into memorizing the Quran.

What do you think?  Is Confucianism a religion?  Or is religion only that which is concerned with supernatural affairs (whatever ‘supernatural’ means)?  If Confucianism is not a religion, does Neo-Confucianism’s modest metaphysics graduate it to religion status?

This post came from information in ‘Confucianism A Very Short Introduction‘ by Daniel Gardiner, from a Philosophize This podcast on Confucianism, and from numerous Wikipedia articles.  All excellent sources of information if you’re interested in learning more on Confucianism.

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Merry Christmas, and a quick blog update

First, I’m still alive.  Blogging has been light lately, mainly because I’m still struggling with a shoulder injury, which got worse with rehab exercises.  However, most of the issues were caused by one particular exercise, which the physical therapist agreed we could swap out for another.  I stopped doing the bad one yesterday and already I’m feeling much better.  So, with any luck, I’ll be returning to something like normal blogging soon.

Anyway, I just thought I’d drop in and wish you a Merry Christmas, or Happy Holidays, or whatever is appropriate for your worldview.  If you celebrate the holiday, have a happy evening and a great day tomorrow.  If you don’t celebrate it, have a great Wednesday evening and Thursday.

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