More Questions Than Answers

December 25, 2011 § 3 Comments

“The first of the soul’s needs, the one which touches most nearly its external destiny, is order.” – Simone Weil

I am ending this week of looking at religion with more questions than answers. My belief is that in order to believe or reject something you must first know something about it. That will be my obligation for now. I’ve read about Islam, Christianity, Confucianism and Buddhism. I still have more to read up on the Yoruba Religion, Judaism and Daoism. I’m halfway through Christopher Hitchens’s treatise on how religion poisons everything (some light Christmas reading).

The one certainty I am leaving this week with is that religion is one of the great conversations, if not the greatest conversation of mankind. I may not have solidified my own beliefs, but it is fascinating to see how mankind has weighed in on the subject over time.

The more you learn, the more questions arise:

How can “scientific atheists” be atheists when no one has technically disproven the existence of God? Shouldn’t God still be a working hypothesis? What is their closest hypothesis to disproving God?

Can the fact that man has used religion for man-made evil be sufficient evidence God does not exist? or that religion should not exist?

What separated philosophy from religion given their “prophets” arose around the same time? How were Socrates and Aristotle that different from Siddharta and Confucius?

How does each religion account for “thisworldly” vs “otherworldly” concerns?

How does religion differ when you go from fundamentalism to mysticism?

Would we be better off without religion? Would I have been better off without religion?

Why are some aspects of religion about self-reliance while others are about reliance on God? How is it that these evolved within each religion?

I didn’t expect that I would come to any definitive conclusions at the end of this week, even with the tradition of Christmas tugging at me. What did happen is that I stopped looking at religion as something that can be lumped together and then either fully embraced or written off. Rather than believe in this or that, I am now more interested in learning as much as I can from what each has to offer, including what the atheists propose.

God has been identified in philosophy, psychology and religion as Logos, meaning Wisdom or Truth. If I have any means for making a decision for myself about God’s existence then it would make sense to make it my aim to gain as much knowledge as possible. I have some interesting reading to continue.

What Do Others Believe?

December 21, 2011 § Leave a comment

Religion is one of the great intellectual debates. Even the most hardcore atheist, Christopher Hitchens, who preferred “antitheist”, devoted much of his life to the study and debate of religion before he passed away last week. Even if you don’t believe in God or one particular religion, it is a fascinating subject you could spend your whole life learning about.

It’s easy to chalk all of the religions up to largely having the same end, and roughly the same means to that end. There’s the commonly cited analogy of there being different paths up the same mountain. This week I want to understand the differences more clearly. I came across a book called God is Not One by Stephen Prothero I’ve been reading.

He covers the 8 “greatest” (most impactful) religions of the world and discusses what drives each one , what they entail and why it’s important to understand they are different.

As with many other factors that make people different from one another, religion often leads to stereotypes. He begins the book talking a little bit of the stereotypes of the Western world of all Muslims being terrorists. I was catching up on the new Showtime series Homeland  last night with the my dad and that stereotype was what provided one of the important twists in the show. The writers knew people would be duped into believing the POW would be the terrorist because he had been converted to Islam.

It made me think of my own impressions of the various religions. When I look at the list of of the 8 Prothero covers in the book, my impressions range from some familiarity to stereotypes to absolute ignorance. If these are the main religions driving the behavior of others in the world right now, I could definitely use more education.

To give my initial impressions in one word:

Islam: strict
Christianity: sin
Confucianism: being
Hinduism: polytheistic
Buddhism: enlightenment
Yoruba Religion: no clue
Judaism: guilt
Daoism: harmony

As I continue along learning more about these this week, it will be interesting to compare notes to my initial impressions.

What Do I Believe?

December 20, 2011 § 2 Comments

Religion has been an intermittent part of my life. As a kid in Pennsylvania I went to Sunday school now and then. When I was 11 we moved to South Carolina, an epicenter where the effects of religion were harder to ignore. Jim and Tammy Baker lived in our neighborhood for a time. I attended a class in middle school devoted to Bible study (which has now since been moved off the premises).

In high school my parents started attending a local Presbyterian church and my sisters and I attended the youth group there. It was probably the closest I’ve come to indoctrination into a church. We were good friends with a lot of the kids that went there. I still felt different in my Faith and I’d say it was more of an education in Christianity than a true belief.

As much as I was never drawn in by religion, nor was I repelled. Religion has never kept me from living my life they way I’ve seen others experience. I’ve known couples who have parted ways because they couldn’t reconcile their Jewish and Catholic faiths. Another friend, now an Atheist, grew up going to Jesus camps in the Midwest that made him feel his homosexuality was a sin. I’ve never had my faith question who I was.

Despite my tepid experience with Christianity, I have experienced Faith. It has been through people I have known, especially my grandmother. She was someone who lived with faith as an integral part of her life. Yes, she quoted Bible versus now and then and opened dinner with a prayer, but it wasn’t the strictness of it she conveyed. She was someone who lived with a sense of peace that is what I associate with Faith. She was of the world rather than trying to control it.

If I had to I would classify myself as Agnostic in the sense of one who doesn’t believe we have the capacity to prove or disprove the existence of a God. It’s been awhile since I have given it all much thought, so this week I’d like to explore a few things:

1) Learn more about the debate on the existence of God (understand the Atheist point of view & what Science has to say about it these days)

2) Learn more about the key religions that rule the world (I really know nothing about Islam or Buddhism other than the general sense). Religion plays such a huge part in what happens in the world around us so I think it’s important I understand what those religions represent

3) Contemplate my own Faith. My answer when asked about my stance on religion is that I’m agnostic but I think I can clarify that further.

Shuttles, Spindles and Skeins

December 17, 2011 § 1 Comment

There are yarn stores and then there is Shuttles, Spindles and Skeins in Boulder. Out of all of the local places I’ve gotten to know this year, I can already tell this will be one of my favorites to visit. This week I had expectations of finding a store for supplies and then figuring it out on my own in front of a holiday movie or two. Instead I hung out and knitted in the store with the help of the gang of knowledgeable ladies who work there (many have degrees in fibers). They are a jovial gang who like to tease each other regularly. Margaret has a wonderful laugh. I even made a new friend in the process who I spent the week knitting with and getting to know better.

I spent much of the week sitting around “The Table”. Situated close to the register it is the place where all knitting problems are solved. There was a constant flow of people coming in to diagnose their situations. They were told to “pull up a seat” and within minutes one of the helpful ladies who work there had established what the problem was and what they could do about it. Some were just what I would call knitting hypochondriacs who didn’t really have a problem but just needed some encouragement they were on the right track. Others had minor issues which just warranted a quick fix or the definitive shrug of “no one will notice that”. Then there were the serious cases that either had to backtrack a good bit or even start over. There was nothing to be done.

I was telling Margaret (above right) that there should be a table like this for life. You just come in, lay the problem out and within minutes you would know what you needed to do about it. While sitting at The Table might not qualify as therapy in the clinical sense, there were pearls of wisdom I walked away with nonetheless. When I was doubting my ability to take on a more complicated project Margaret said to me, “It’s like anything in life. You just have to take it one stitch at a time.” Another time when I wasn’t sure of myself in what I was doing she said “my mother always used to say when in doubt, make it happen.” Her mother was way ahead of Tim Gunn with that one.

I thought I would find a nice hobby out of this week, which I did. Knitting is incredibly relaxing and I was even able to make some beautiful things this week. (can’t spoil the gifts by showing you now) It will be fun to take on more complicated projects over time. The best part of all is I now have somewhere I can go and pull up a seat at The Table when I get in a bind, knitting or otherwise.


Knit Away!

December 14, 2011 § Leave a comment

Part of the purpose of this year was to get out and try a bunch of stuff to see what I like and don’t like. As an adult it’s easy to fall into the trap of not learning new things because it seems like you have to know everything before you even get started. It feels uncomfortable to be a beginner again; we’re always supposed to know everything.  This year has been fun to throw out the perfectionist, fear of failure I’ve harbored as an adult in exchange for the child-like ability to just jump in and get messy. I’ve learned over the year that I can get in and figure just about anything out.

For those who need a simple project to start with, knitting is the way to go. You literally only need knitting needles, yarn and a friend to show you how to get started. Or if you don’t have any friends or family who knit, you can easily get started through YouTube videos. Today I stopped by a local knitting shop called Shuttles, Spindles and Skeins my friend Faith had recommended to me. What an amazing shop! I will need to write another blog post on the shop alone.

For my first project I wanted to make a knitted cowl (instead of the usual scarf) and I knew I wanted chunky yarn. I picked out the yarn I wanted and with the help of Sara, who has an MFA in fibers, within minutes I was seated at their help table and knitting away, on circular needles nonetheless!

I’m about halfway through my first knitted cowl and plan to head back to the shop tomorrow to finish it off.

I can already tell I am going to love to knit.

To Temper or Not to Temper

December 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

You always hear that chocolate can be very  temperamental. One of the reasons I’ve avoided doing much with chocolate up until now has to do with tempering. Tempering reorganizes the crystal structure in the chocolate to give it the stability to be formed into shapes and hold that form. It’s one of those things that has always seemed complicated and not worth the effort or potential failure of the finished product. I was also not willing to sink $300 into a good machine. Now I know I don’t have to. It’s not as hard as it might seem. Or I had beginner’s luck.
I was working with semi-sweet dark chocolate. In a double boiler, I brought the water to 140 degrees and then turned down the heat and added the chocolate on top. You melt the chocolate and since it is dark, you want the chocolate at 120 degrees. I then transferred the chocolate to a heating pad with a towel on it on the counter.

Once it is melted you take 2/3 and pour it onto a marble slab. I used my chessboard above since it’s the closest thing I have. I knew it would one day be useful when I lugged it back from a trip to Mexico! Using two metal spatulas you spread the chocolate out and then scrape and fold it back in until it seizes up a bit like a paste. Then you pour it back in with the other chocolate. You then want the temperature of the chocolate at 90 degrees (this varies with type of chocolate).
You then do a test to see if the chocolate is tempered. Using a knife you dip it in the chocolate and set it aside. I put mine in the refrigerator as it’s faster and then you don’t have to worry about your chocolate sitting around for 5 minutes. It came out smooth and slightly glossy which means it was tempered correctly.
I then transferred the chocolate to a pastry bag to pipe into some little holiday moulds I bought. DO NOT BUY CHEAP MOULDS. These, while cute were a huge pain to deal with and didn’t pop out well on the back end. I would avoid metal completely and only work with plastic or silicone in the future.
Since I was just playing around with tempering it wasn’t too big a deal. As you can see these turned out nice and shiny, so the experiment worked.

Now I have a week of chocolate making behind me, I’m ready to tackle some more advanced stuff. I definitely want to try to learn to make my favorite chocolates of all, chocolate covered salted caramels. I just have to learn how to make caramel first which is even more temperamental than chocolate.

Sometimes Simple is Best

December 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

Truffles have to be one of my favorite chocolates. This weekend I found out how simple they are to make. It just takes really good chocolate and cream (and whatever you want to top them with). I did a bit of searching and found this recipe from Martha Stewart’s site (they do their homework).
It literally only takes a couple of minutes to heat the cream and then melt the chocolate with it. Then it needs to cool in the refrigerator so you can shape it. I would suggest putting it in a square pan so it can cool evenly. The bowl I used was not ideal.

Then it’s time to shape the truffles. I would recommend using a 1″ melon ball spoon to get the shape going when you scrape the mixture out. As you can see your hands melt the chocolate as you’re forming the ball, so mine were pretty misshapen. I rolled the truffles in unsweetened cocoa powder and also did some with salted cashews.

As you get into making chocolate you find it can often be a tricky endeavor but making these truffles was really simple.  No tempering of chocolate, no moulds to contend with or fillings. Just delicious round chocolates that melt in your mouth (and on your hands).