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10/28/2014

Pope Francis reminded Catholics that the theories of evolution and Big Bang are indeed consistent with the notion of a Creator at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, where he said Genesis misleads us into believing God is a “magician with a magic wand,” according to The Independent.

While not the first pope to welcome scientific theories, as a Catholic, this statement was exciting to me because it puts to rest the pseudo-theories of creationism and intelligent design for confused Catholics—the latter of which Pope Benedict XVI has been mistaken to endorse. In reality, Francis’ declaration is not breaking news for the Church, but rather, providing a refreshing reminder:

“When we read about Creation in Genesis, we run the risk of imagining God was a magician, with a magic wand able to do everything. But that is not so,” he said, while unveiling a statue of his predecessor, Benedict. “He created human beings and let them develop according to internal laws that he gave to each one so they would reach their fulfillment.”

Pope Pius XII welcomed the Big Bang theory and evolution in 1950, and, Pope John Paul II went even further in 1996 by saying it was “more than a hypothesis” and “effectively a proven fact.” Yet with other Christian denominations fighting these theories, the Catholic Church has somehow been lumped into the category of “anti-science” despite its very clear position, with media pointing at rather ancient accounts when investigating the Church—such as Galileo’s excommunication for suggesting the Earth revolved around the sun. John Paul II, however, put this matter to rest when he declared in 1992 that the 17th-century theologians who condemned Galileo did not recognize the distinction between the Bible and its interpretation. They were merely working with the knowledge they had.

Despite the scientific evidence available to us and the Catholic Church’s expressed support for these theories, this topic still remained divisive among Catholics, primarily in the U.S.: as some preferred these theories to Creationism, others clung to the literal words of Genesis. So why is it different this time around with Francis, who’s essentially repeating decades-old ideas?

So far in Francis’ papacy, he’s been regarded as “progressive,” despite not having changed any Catholic doctrine or public teachings regarding social issues. But what is different with him is his incredible outreach to youth and media: publications who once happily criticized the Church now find themselves quoting Francis’ works with smiling headlines, and issues that were never fuzzy within Catholicism yet fuzzy to onlooking non-Catholics (such as the Church “condemning” homosexuals) are finally gaining attention without spin. For whatever reason, his words are more celebrated, which is good news for the Church.

“The Big Bang, which today we hold to be the origin of the world, does not contradict the intervention of the divine creator but, rather, requires it. Evolution in nature is not inconsistent with the notion of creation, because evolution requires the creation of beings that evolve.”

This statement does not blanket all Christian beliefs. But the Catholic Church—its largest denomination—is (and has been) spoken for, only this time with a more effective megaphone.

Image by Emil Nolde, licensed under Creative Commons.



10/23/2014

With nearly half of Americans praying daily, a recent LifeWay survey reveals both altruistic and vindictive tendencies when one speaks privately to God. The survey was conducted on August 7 and included 1,137 Americans, with a 2.5 percent margin of error.

The results have remained consistent with previous polls that demonstrate the majority of Americans pray on a regular basis. Most surprising, however, is that this survey reveals that roughly half of those who pray believe God answers most­—if not all—of their prayers. And it looks like God is paying attention to the South: 31 percent of Southerners say their prayers are often answered, more than double that of Northeasterners. More than a third of African Americans say the same (38 percent), as opposed to one in five Caucasians and Asian-Americans.

Eight in ten say they regularly pray for family and friends, yet personal problems nearly doubles prayers intended for those affected by natural disasters, with 74 percent compared to 38 percent. Still, the results show that Americans are overwhelmingly generous with their petitions, often praying either for repentance or in gratitude.

 

And then there’s the conniving prayer, as Americans admit to praying for no one to find out about a bad thing they’ve done (15 percent) or a bad thing to happen to a bad person (9 percent). Apparently nothing seems too petty for God, either. One in five say they’ve prayed for success in something they put almost no effort in, and roughly one in 10 pray for a sports team’s victory or finding a good parking spot. Catholics are also far more likely than Protestants to pray for their team (20 percent compared to 11) or for someone to get fired (10 percent compared to 3).

 

The interesting breakdown, however, is when income is taken into account. Christianity Today reports:

One-quarter of respondents with an annual income higher than $150,000 pray for “bad things to happen to bad people,” while only around 8 percent of respondents making less than $50,000 said they would do so. And nearly one in five Americans with incomes over $150,000 have prayed for someone to get fired; in contrast, only 1 in 20 Americans who make between $75,000 and $149,000 and only one in 100 Americans who make less than $30,000 say they have prayed the same.

When considering generations, a decline in faith may be prevalent in Millennials, as 68 percent say they never doubt the existence of God (a 15-point decrease since 2007) compared to the average 80 percent.

Max Lucado, author of Before Amen: The Power of a Simple Prayer, says “Prayer is not a privilege just for the pious or an opportunity for a chosen few. Prayer is God’s invitation to talk: simply, openly and powerfully.” Indeed, one in five without any religious affiliation say they still pray daily.

Image by John Martinez Pavliga, licensed under Creative Commons.



10/23/2014
Between political attack ads and an unsettling House of Cards depiction of Washington, it’s a challenging concept that politicians initially got in the game to change the world for the better. Clinton’s former Press Secretary Mike McCurry—“spin doctor” during the Lewinsky years—traded the White House for the seminary for this reason, and others have followed suit.

Now a professor of public theology at Wesley Theological Seminary, McCurry received a master’s of arts degree from Wesley last year, and has since been “a shepherd to peers interested in making the transition from state to church,” writes the National Journal.

“I think a lot of people inquire just because the culture of Washington is so broken right now,” he said. “They didn’t come here just to get in angry political fights every day. They want to do something positive, and they’re looking for avenues to make that happen.”

McCurry isn’t alone: Former adviser to Mitt Romney and longtime political operative Eric Fehrnstrom announced last spring that he’ll be pursuing a master’s in theological studies at Boston College (for academic credentials rather than ordainment into the priesthood, like McCurry). Matt Rhodes, former spokesman for the House Budget Committee, left his position at the American Hotel and Lodging Association to join the seminary and become an ordained priest for the Episcopal Church. Wesley’s former students also include Kentucky Representative Ed Whitfield, former Democratic National Committee’s Chief of Staff Leah Daughtry, and NPR’s Michael Martin. Former Senate staffers Donna Claycomb Sokol and Adam Briddell both left their jobs to pursue seminarian training, as well, becoming pastor and associate pastor respectively at area Methodist churches.

McCurry’s fellow Wesley professor Shaun Casey, currently on leave to serve in the Secretary of State’s office, said his classes are often filled with both retired federal employees and young Hill staffers who are looking to make a bigger impact. “The Hill can be a place where joy and hope go to die. A lot of people came to D.C. wanting to change the world, and they find it to be a particularly tough environment.”

Another motive, the National Journal notes, could be the element of penance. In the late 1970s, former White House Deputy Communications Director Jeb Magruder followed up his prison sentence from the Watergate Scandal by earning a master of divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary, eventually being ordained as a Presbyterian minister. And fellow Watergate figure Charles Colson had similar post-prison endeavors, becoming an evangelical leader and founding a ministry for prisoners.

With classes in the seminary sharing topics often addressed in the Capitol, an enlightened overlap could have mutual benefits. “It’s a two-way street,” Casey said. “They can, in their best lights, help the Church be more effective in the things that the Church should be about … fighting for racial justice, fighting extreme poverty … and the Church can help them, too, in the sense that it can transcend some of the partisan gridlock that has this town in a stranglehold.”

The irony of transitioning from the podium to the pulpit isn’t lost on McCurry, who, as press secretary, bore the brunt of Clinton’s scandals in 1998.

“A lot of my friends from politics tease me about it—‘Oh, do we have to call you Reverend now?’—And, you know, I was thoroughly a spin doctor, as politically charged as the next guy, so a lot of them find it mildly amusing that I am where I am now, using this for loving one another.”

Image by Sarah Stierch, licensed under Creative Commons



10/22/2014

 

The New Republic writer William Deresiewicz, a 24-year Ivy League affiliate, came under fire when he wrote its latest cover story, “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League,” arguing that the blind drive and ambition these institutions encourage actually don’t do students any favors:

Our system of elite education [from Ivy League schools to test prep courses to the grueling admissions process] manufactures young people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing, but with no idea why they’re doing it.

These impractical standards for applicants—off-the-charts test scores, just the right amount of extracurricular activities to appear accomplished but not intense, relationships with or recommendations from all the right donors—promote all the wrong qualities, Deresiewicz argues. There’s a greater social reward in being able to talk about the right books than actually reading them, a loved one of a student wrote to him, perfectly illustrating his concern on meritocracy. He cites that a survey of college freshmen found that self-reports of emotional well-being has hit its lowest in the course of the 25-year study, with increases in eating disorders, self-injuries and alcohol abuse.

But there’s a buzz-idiom, three little words that always seem to rise to the defense of pricey endeavors: “return on investment,” the phrasal enemy of any whimsical liberal arts major. Seldom do we wonder, let alone challenge, what anyone means by “return.” Earning more money, perhaps? “Is the only purpose of an education to enable you to get a job? What, in short, is college for?” Deresiewicz asks. To teach you to think and build a self, he answers, but not quite of the technocratic nature one might develop in Harvard.

The irony is that elite students are told that they can be whatever they want, but most of them end up choosing to be one of a few very similar things. As of 2010, about a third of graduates who went into financing or consulting at a number of top schools… It’s considered glamorous to drop out of a selective college if you want to become the next Mark Zuckerberg, but ludicrous to stay in to become a social worker.

Yet another problem with the system is the “banner of diversity” every selective college waves in a rather misleading fashion, with background economic status being fairly uniform across these campuses. How diverse can a school claim to be when most of its students (of various races, granted) mainly come from families of bankers, lawyers and doctors?

Let’s not kid ourselves: the college admissions game is not primarily about the lower and middle classes seeking to rise, or even about the upper-middle class maintaining its position. It is about determining the exact hierarchy of status within the upper-middle class itself.

And the numbers support the argument. In 1985, 46 percent of freshmen at the 250 most selective schools came from the top 25 percent of income distribution; in 2000, that number rose to 55 percent of freshmen. As for state schools in 2004, 40 percent of freshmen came from families with a yearly income of at least $100,000, up 32 percent from 1999. Most astoundingly, however, is that fewer than half of high-scoring SAT students from low-income families even enroll at four-year institutions. While tuition is, indeed, on the rise, Deresiewicz speculates that these numbers reflect the increasing costs of raising an eligible applicant, with expensive extracurricular activities or prep courses likely affecting the disparity between the could-have-beens and the admitted.

Many took this informative piece as an affront on the privileged, who, no doubt, still put forth tremendous effort for that long-anticipated acceptance letter, despite the hurdles they’re forgiven. And what about those who receive financial aid, who wowed the admissions staff solely on a bootstraps-résumé and gifted scores, all while lacking an esteemed last name? As for the mechanical thinking in exchange for curiosity, certainly there are a number of exceptions.

But that all seems beside the point. “The system is exacerbating inequality, retarding social mobility, perpetuating privilege, and creating an elite that is isolated from the society it’s supposed to lead,” Deresiewicz writes. At a time when affirmative action has been slowly fading state by state, innovative alternatives have been suggested: What if advantages were given based on economic standing rather than race? A new mass of minds—more justly diverse, this time around—would populate the campuses and challenge the order Deresiewicz so frankly condemns. Classrooms that aren’t socioeconomically homogenous would naturally breed more profound discussions, exposing varied opinions that are surely results of mixed backgrounds. This could not only repel the historically sustained hierarchy, but also simultaneously enliven the lost sense of wonder, inspire a deeper thirst for knowledge, and revitalize each student’s self-mission for a true education. Deresiewicz concludes, “We have tried aristocracy. We have tried meritocracy. Now it’s time to try democracy.”

Image by David Ohmer, licensed under Creative Commons



10/2/2014

Volume of information has been affecting how scientists measure cognitive decline.

As the volume of possessed information has been improperly correlated with cognitive decline, linguistic experts argue that brains don’t necessarily slow with age, but rather, benefit from experiences. Tests that once showed decline in intellect have actually been showing people merely having more material to process, says Michael Ramscar, lead author of the 2014 study Topics in Cognitive Science from the German University of Tübingen.

“Imagine someone who knows two people’s birthdays and can recall them almost perfectly. Would you really want to say that person has a better memory than a person who knows the birthdays of 2,000 people, but can ‘only’ match the right person to the right birthday nine times out of ten?”

Einstein once said, “A person who has not made his great contribution to science before the age of 30 will never do so.” But was he right? The proportion of physicists who completed their prize-winning work before turning 30 had peaked in 1923, at 31 percent. But in 2000, that number had dropped to 19 percent for those younger than 40.

Intelligence—taking into accounts reasoning, planning, abstract thought, problem-solving, self-awareness, communication, creativity and learning—is either considered crystallized or fluid. Crystallized intelligence is built up from knowledge previously learned, whereas fluid intelligence is the capacity to think logically and solve problems independently of acquired knowledge. A 35-year test shows that our fluid intelligence peaks in young adulthood, in our late 30s and early 40s. But our crystallized mentality proves much more stable, not declining until our 70s, says Vanessa Hill. This begs the question: Is there a point where our fluid and crystallized peaks meet?

While it is difficult to measure how experience and sharp intellect influence a “peak,” Ramscar says that, other than Alzheimer’s, we know that the brain changes, but not necessarily experiencing cognitive decline. Scientists have only assumed that neurological changes are related to cognitive decline because they happen simultaneously, but this notion will be reassessed after further studying.

A 2012 Prosmer survey reveals that, on average, women experience a mental peak by age 39 and men by 42, and a creative peak in women by age 35 and in men by 37. Approximately 69 percent of women are worried about having a diminished mental capacity in old age, compared to 58 percent of men who worry.

Ramscar, however, argues that the fear and assumption that old age causes a decline in mental stability could pose a societal issue. “Population aging is seen as a problem because of the fear that older adults will be a burden on society; what is more likely is that the myth of cognitive decline is leading to an absurd waste of human potential and human capital. It thus seems likely that an informed understanding of the cognitive costs and benefits of aging will benefit all society, not just its older members.”

BrainCraft explains more on mental peaks here:

Image by Dierk Schaefer, licensed under Creative Commons.



9/17/2014

Energy Healer Practicing on Lady 

Editor's note: The following essay is part of a new department in the Mind & Body blog called "Gotta Have Faith," where Utne readers of all faiths and spiritual persuasions are invited to share their perspectives on religion and spirituality in a civil and respectful forum. If you'd like to submit a post to this blog, please contact Christian Williams.

I’m a Minnesota farm boy who studied physics (PhD U of MN, 1969) so he could teach. I began my journey as a hard nosed physics professor, with many an unhappy student. By 1979 my wife had left and I was frantic for new pathways. Then I spotted a campus poster which offered marine biology experience at an old US spy base in the Bahamas. I investigated and found dormitories, lab space, rickety vans, and a kitchen staff who could make peanut butter sandwiches. It could work.

As an old scuba diver I knew that such an experience could be life changing for these farm kids. I did my best to promote the trip. Alas, I could not persuade a single soul to spend their Christmas vacation in the middle of an ocean. No way, Jose. After three weeks of coaxing and haranguing, I slunk home after work, prepared Mac ‘n Cheese for my 5th grader son, and went to my bedroom to change. With little hope and much desperation , I sat on the bed and “laid it out” to the Source I now call The Folks Upstairs,  “This can mean major growth for my students, but I cannot do it by myself. I Need Your Help!” 

Deeply discouraged, I returned to the kitchen to serve our evening meal. Then it happened: I’d scarcely begun to shovel in my supper when the phone rang. April and her friend Gwen were on board! I expressed deep thanks and replaced the phone.Then it rang again, and again. Within an hour I had the core group of students who would join me on the adventure. With it came the gentle “whap upside the head” realization that I was allowed to follow my own star, sans interference. At the same time, Assistance was “on call” when I was forced to ask for help. Score one for Spiritual Guidance. BTW: The trip was a great success!

Fast forwarding 20 years: I was nearing retirement age for my teaching career and again seeking new directions. Daughter Charly and I chose to attend a beekeeping class at a Minnesota university. We found seats at the venue and waited patiently for “Dr. Maria”, the eminent bee researcher who was to teach the class. She arrived, visibly haggard. “I just cannot conduct the class. I’m feeling dreadfully ill. My assistant will teach today, and perhaps I will feel better tomorrow.” As she turned and left, the hopes of the group sagged, for she was respected and loved for her inspirational talks to our local bee organizations. As the class was beginning soon, I left Charly at our seats and hurried to pay my tuition. By chance I passed by Dr. Maria’s open office door; she sat there, looking like Death warmed over. While I’d had no training as a healer, I knocked timidly at her door and said, “Maria, I’d like to try to help you...”. She slowly turned and smiled weakly.

Maria sat quietly while I stood behind her. I was guided to place my hands prayerfully on either side of her head. After two minutes, I seemed led to remove them. She turned to me, astounded, “What did you DO?”  I hadn’t the slightest notion, for I’d had no training in healing work. I quickly left and paid my fees. When I returned to the auditorium, Maria was already there, goin’ like a house afire, the chalkboard rapidly filling with bee genetics. After only minutes, she was once again in top form. Score another for Spiritual Guidance. 

I was inspired by the unexpected healing success, but unsure of this newfound skill. Could an old physics professor morph into a healer?  I enrolled to train with Mietek Wirkus, a well known Polish energy healer who had been well studied by energy researchers at the Menninger Clinic, then of Topeka, KS.

The first clients came slowly, luckily for me. I could treat their minor aches and pains. And I learned the meaning of the word “practice”, for in the beginning I was NOT very good at this healing thing. During the next fourteen years, my classes, clients, colleagues, even the internet would teach me. At the same time, the issues to which I seemed Led became more complex. I gradually became aware that I was being manipulated, in the best sense of that word, again by The Folks Upstairs. The Process was benevolent, for I never seemed to be presented with a healing problem until I was prepared to deal with it. Our first cancer patient came to us five years after our doors opened. Lisa, our first brain cancer patient, appeared in year thirteen. Cases that were similar seemed to come in groups of three.

More manipulation followed: Seeking more expertise, I placed a small ad in the Tracy, MN paper (population 2200), the place of my birth and the chosen locus for the work. A Chinese man called, whose English was limited. I understood only two words: Qigong Master. Qigong masters are highly regarded for their healing skills. Master Wu was taught qigong as a 10 year old in China, and his some 35 years of healing experience were to become invaluable to our group.  

Located in an area of low population density, we slowly expanded our service area. Tom was a West River South Dakota rancher whose spinal cord injury from a rollover had given him wheels and an electric motor. I’d repaired electrical cables when doing physics, and thought, “How hard can it be to fix a spinal cord?”

Tom lived 300 miles west, and travel was difficult for him. I had learned the basics of “distance energy healing” from Mietek Wirkus -- it much resembled the offering of a Sunday morning prayer for a loved one in a faraway hospital. When I suggested it, Tom said he’d get back to me after he’d checked things out. His Source accepted the idea, and Tom and I began to work together, he on his small ranch near Phillip and I in our Minnesota farm home. I visualized working on his body as though it were laid out before me. Below is the unedited record of his email after our first distance work:  

“The date is 12/30/99 My concept of what transpired between Chuck and myself. The first noticeable sign was a tingling in my right calf then up to my thigh (I don't have feeling below my nipples) In order I can't remember. My left leg had the same sensation twice. My groin felt a strong sensation two times. If it would of been a little stronger it would have been uncomfortable. This morning prior to Chuck’s work, my shoulders and neck ached. After the treatment they seem to be relaxed. Conclusion: I seem to feel some of what you’re sending my way (from 300 miles away). It's wild. Gotta go, excuse my grammar. TOM"

Although Tom is still in his chair, he became more functional, and can now access the kitchen when he needs a beer or a sandwich. I’m still trying to figure out how he could have felt something in a part of his body long divorced from sensations because of his rollover accident.

In fourteen years, we’ve served clients in thirty states. Sometimes we use “EFT”, a tool which uses light finger tapping on energy points instead of the sharp needles of acupuncture. EFT is excellent for resolving emotional issues, even heavy ones such as PTSD. It works well by phone.

We average about a 50/50 mix of patients who have physical issues and those that seem mostly emotional. When a patient presents a physical problem, it’s likely that an emotional issue will walk in alongside it. After we’ve cleared the emotional aspects, the physical issue is more easily dealt with.

Over the years we’ve added to our services, with chelation, herbals, hyperthermia, hypnosis, massage, naturopathy, nutrition, Tai chi and yoga. Whole food diets assist the healing of chronic conditions such as cancer, MS, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, as can herbals such as Protandim.   

Do our patients live longer? Not necessarily, but they do seem to live better.  Sometimes what’s most important is to simply listen. Appointments can run an hour or more; goodbye hugs are always offered and usually accepted.

Our patients expect to pay “out of pocket”, or by donation, for health insurance seldom covers what we do. (I’ve been paid in garden vegetables, frozen chickens, pasta sauce and a ceremonial sword.) We may be patients’ last refuge, after even well known Minnesota clinics have done their best. Patients come, “when nothing else works”.  

Do we have a huge cash flow? No, but we pay our bills and try to charge fairly. If a patient feels financially squeezed, we work it out. Helping To Heal welcomes you with free parking, gentle music, and no traffic lights for thirty miles.

(With thanks to my son Pete for his editing assistance)

Photo by Fotolia/mykeyruna



7/29/2014

brain

The affects of climate change can be harmful to the earth—and your mind.

Climate change clearly alters physical landscapes; once abundant fields turn barren in times of drought while large chunks of ice have been documented breaking off glaciers and dramatically splashing into the sea.

But considering the disturbances climate change can have on the mind is much more abstract. That hasn’t stopped a few researchers from beginning to assess the affects climate change has on mental health. Much of the findings are thanks to psychiatric epidemiologist Helen Berry of the University of Canberra in Australia, who has looked at how farmers and youth have dealt with consequences stemming from climate change. Not surprisingly Berry found that, “What happens from a psychological point of view is people get knocked down. Whenever people are knocked down, they have to get up again and start over. And the more that happens, the more difficult it is to keep getting up.”

However research into the emerging field is an uphill battle for a variety of reasons. Aside from the fact that there are still people out there who don’t believe climate change is occurring, for those who do, linking it to mental distress is tricky. There are a number of factors ranging from someone’s predisposition to depression to what people are used to in terms of climate—while farmers experiencing a drought will be negatively affected, those in urban areas may enjoy rainless days. Additionally, securing funding for research hasn’t been easy. Most funders want to see quantifiable results which aren’t always possible in mental health studies, let alone research that's tied to the complicated matter of climate change, which Berry suspects will need to be conducted on a very long-term basis.    

Regardless, the field is making some inroads and with that comes an expanded vocabulary. Glenn Albrecht is a professor in environmental studies at the University of Newcastle, also in Australia, who has coined solastalgia defined as “the homesickness when you’re still at home and your home environment is changing around you in ways that you find negative, and that you have very little power over.” Other terms include endemophilia (the love people feel for what’s special about where they're from or live) and soliphilia (a positive state that is a result of collaboration and healing). In fact soliphilia may be the best antidote for solastalgia; Berry has found that when people work together on environmental activities like restoring a garden, their anxiety decreases.

In the U.S., the American Psychological Association and ecoAmerica recently teamed up and produced a report entitled “Beyond Storms and Droughts: The Psychological Impacts of Climate Change” which cites consequences such as PTSD and depression. It concludes that vulnerable groups such as those living under the poverty line will likely experience more climate related stress. The report also urges people and communities to prepare for the impact of climate change; by strengthening social ties, integrating mental health awareness with disaster preparedness, and getting organizations to work together, some of the negative ramifications can be assuaged.

Image by Eduardo Mueses, licensed under Creative Commons.





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