No other course

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J.C. Ryle came from a wealthy family, attended Eton, then Oxford University, graduating with a first-class honours in Classics, and began a promising career at his father’s bank. However, when Ryle was 25 years old, disaster struck and his father went bankrupt. Here’s Ryle in his own words (from A Self-Portrait: A Partial Autobiography):

[I]f I had not been a Christian at that time, I do not know if I should not have committed suicide…Every single acre and penny my father possessed had to be given up to meet the demand of the creditors…We got up one summer’s morning with all the world before us as usual, and went to bed that same night completely and entirely ruined.

God alone knows how the iron entered into my soul…I am quite certain it inflicted a wound on my body and mind of which I feel the effects most heavily at this day and shall feel it if I live to be hundred. To suppose that people do not feel things because they do not scream and yell and fill the air with their cries, is simple nonsense…I do not think there has been a single day in my life for 32 years, that I have not remembered the…humiliation.

The plans of my life were broken up at the age of 25…I was going to leave my father’s house without the least idea what was going to happen, where I was going to live, or what I was going to do.

I have not the least doubt it was all for the best. If…I had never been ruined, my life of course would have been a very different one. I should have probably gone into Parliament…I should never have been a clergyman, never have preached, written a tract or a book. Perhaps I might have made shipwreck in spiritual things. So I do not mean to say at all, that I wish it to have been different to what it was.

I never had any particular desire to become a clergyman, and those who fancied that my self-will and natural tastes were gratified by it were totally and entirely mistaken. I became a clergyman because I felt shut up to do it, and saw no other course of life open me.

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Stan Lee (1922-2018)

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So Stan Lee has passed away at age 95.

1. He was a secular Jew from NYC. An agnostic. Unfortunately, he wasn’t a “true believer”.

2. Of course, Stan Lee was the co-creator of Marvel Comics. He was the main writer while his friends Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby did the artwork. They collaborated on many comics.

3. Golden Age. Before Marvel Comics came on the scene, the main comic book company was Detective Comics (DC). DC spawned the likes of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. DC superheroes were like titans or gods walking the Earth. DC primarily targeted kids. Larger than life heroes that kids could look up to. Like kids who think mom and dad are the be-all and end-all to everything. DC began and persisted in the Golden Age of comics.

4. Silver and Bronze Ages. By contrast, Marvel Comics’ superheroes (e.g. the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, Wolverine, Spider-Man, Daredevil, the Hulk) were superheroes, to be sure, but they were more “human”. More down to earth. More given over to self-doubts, questioning their place in the world, trying to find a job, a spouse, make ends meet, puttering through life. A perfect example is Peter Parker (Spidey) who was a nerdy kid who would crack jokes, fail at romance, get into fights he would lose, be behind on the bills, etc. Comics which primarily targeted adolescents. Stan Lee had his heyday in the Silver and Bronze Ages of comics.

However, in our day, Lee was something of a relic. His comics were filled with bright colors, silly and ridiculous costumes, fun daring-do adventures. Along the lines of the Batman tv show of the 1960s starring Adam West. Sometimes Lee used his comics to talk about larger social issues like saying no to drugs, environmentalism, and inner city poverty and racism in simplistic but earnest ways.

5. Modern Age. In the mid 1980s, comics began to shift in tone and content to darker, grittier, grimmer matters. Largely thanks to both Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. These comics were more “real”. More adult. Often pervaded with nihilism. Comics for the post-modern era. This ushered in the Modern Age of comics aka the Dark Ages.

6. In the end, it seems to me Stan Lee was like a teenager his whole life. He never really grew up. For instance, in addition to his more famous comics (e.g. Spider-Man), don’t forget Lee likewise created Stripperella.

7. Many might find it wonderful for Stan Lee to have remained like Peter Pan his entire life. But I suppose that’s mainly because we live in a youth-oriented if not youth-adulating culture. We tend to prize youth, not age. Everyone wants to look and act like they’re still in their 20s.

In fact, we often forget the elderly, leave them in nursing homes, push away talk about death, and so on. That’s in stark contrast to most cultures in most of human history as well as most non-Western cultures today.

Indeed, it seems the only times we praise the elderly are when they talk and act like they’re much younger, not when they talk and act like they’re elderly! Yet the elderly have tons of wisdom to offer on a host of issues and many life experiences and stories to share with us if we will but listen, to say the least.

8. At some point in our lives, we have to put away childish things and become mature adults. I don’t mean there isn’t something special about seeing the world through the eyes of child. I don’t mean that it’s not good to be “young at heart”.

However, we live in an imperfect world. We live in a world where there’s pain, suffering, and death. It’d be nice to be ignorantly blissful of these things, but the truth is almost everyone will face them at some point. So we have to deal with them.

As such, we can’t or shouldn’t avoid such issues forever. That would leave us stunted in our intellectual and emotional development. Adults face more challenges and responsibilities, but there are also more rewards to be gained in overcoming certain challenges and responsibilities.

Yet there are many full grown men and women who have somehow avoided adulthood. I guess that’s in large part thanks to living in prosperous and civilized Western societies which have insulated and buffered the majority of their citizens from the horrors of the rest of the world.

In any case, we shouldn’t say (as Stan Lee did) that he didn’t know if God existed, but likewise never seem to have cared whether it was worth finding out whether God existed. For if God exists, then everything changes, and if he doesn’t exist, then everything changes. There’s no middle ground, no adolescence as it were, we all have to grow up and face reality at some point, whatever it may be. That involves, among other things, tackling issues about God headfirst rather than glibly waving them away with statements like: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” Again, whether or not God exists changes everything.

The most reluctant convert

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You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. I did not then see what is now the most shining and obvious thing; the Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms. The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape? The words compelle intrare, compel them to come in, have been so abused by wicked men that we shudder at them; but, properly understood, they plumb the depth of the Divine mercy. The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation.

(C.S. Lewis)

Koop conversion

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Dr. C. Everett Koop (pediatric surgeon) describes how he became a Christian:

It was Erna Goulding, a valued friend and a nurse at Children’s Hospital, who sensed that I was searching for spiritual meaning. One evening, as Betty and I left our apartment to attend the musical program that attracted many to the first Baptist Church in Center City, Philadelphia, Erna suggested we walk a block beyond the Baptist Church and go to the evening service of the Tenth Presbyterian Church. She thought I would appreciate the intellectual approach to Christianity offered by its minister, Donald Grey Barnhouse. But we did not take her suggestion.

The next Sunday, however, I finished grand rounds early, and found my feet taking me to the Tenth Presbyterian Church, just a few blocks north of the hospital. I entered the back door and quietly slipped up the balcony. I was just going to observe. I liked what I saw, and I was fascinated by what I heard. I saw the congregation respond willingly and generously to social needs; this was no empty religion. I heard teaching from one of the most learned men I ever knew, a true scholar who also possessed a gift of illustrating the complexity – and simplicity – of Christian doctrine by remarkable and incisive stories and similes. I was interested enough to go back the next Sunday morning. And then just a few hours later I returned for the evening service. I did that each Sunday for two years, and except when I was out of town I never missed a morning or evening service. Since I was a busy surgeon, the only pediatric surgeon on the East Coast south of Boston, going two years without a compelling Sunday morning or evening emergency seemed to me almost miraculous.

After about seven months, I realized that I had become a participant and not just an observer; what made sense to that congregation made sense to me as well. And it was new to me. I wasn’t just shifting gears from my parents’ faith to one of my own.

It was not until I sat in that Philadelphia church balcony that I really understood the basics of the Christian gospel: that we all are sinners, unable to satisfy God’s standard of righteousness and justice, no matter how hard we try. I learned that “sin” did not mean just the big bad things we do, or even the little bad things we do, but anything we do that falls short of the righteousness of God. I learned that the word the Bible often uses for “sin” was also applied to archery, and it meant to miss the mark. We all miss the mark of God’s righteousness, no matter how hard we try. Like many other nominal Christians, I suppose I had been trying to live as correctly as I could, but like them, I knew in the depths of my heart that my nature, like everyone else’s, was sinful, and my efforts to reform myself were to no avail. I knew that, like it or not, we are all immortal, and we must spend eternal life someplace when this life is over. Over those several months, sitting in the balcony at the Tenth Presbyterian Church, the preaching from the pulpit made it all clear: that the essence of Christianity was not what we did, but what Christ had done for us. I understood the meaning of the crucifixion, I understood the meaning of Christ’s sacrifice, I understood the meaning of divine forgiveness. I realized that either my sins were on my shoulders, or they were on the shoulders of Jesus Christ. I saw how the atonement of Jesus Christ was necessary to reconcile us to God.

Most of all, I understood the love of God. Like many new Christians – and many old Christians – I found the most meaningful verse in the Bible to be John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”

I was a believer.

Stories of Ted Chiang’s life

Here is an interview with Ted Chiang where he talks at some length about writing, philosophy, religion, etc.

I find both areas of agreement and disagreement at various points. He’s on surer footing when he talks about computers and software than other topics.

He does say a couple of thought provoking things. Like his bit about potential relationships between symbolic or symbol laden languages, computer code, and DNA is kind of intriguing to me.