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A new collection of witty essays by the author of Wallflower at the Orgy offers a hilarious look at the ups and downs of being a woman of a certain age, discussing the tribulations of maintenance and trying to stop the clock, menopause, empty nests, her experiences of being a White House intern during the JFK years and more. September 5, 2006 • We should all look as good as Nora Ephron does at 65, but she's not crazy about getting older. Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive. Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska in 1996, the same year she won the Nobel Prize in literature. The path to international fame as a poet generally doesn't involve writing short poems about sea cucumbers. The audio of this story, as did a previous Web version, gives the name "Autonomy" to Szymborska's poem about the sea cucumber. Kleurplaten lettersHieronder vind je 58 letters kleurplaten.Heb je zelf een letters kleurplaat die niet op deze pagina mag ontbreken? Karen Armstrong has called on people around the world to collaborate on the writing of a "Charter for Compassion" centered on the Golden Rule; now she's working with leaders from the Abrahamic faiths a€” Islam, Christianity and Judaism a€” to help finalize and propagate it. A former nun, Karen Armstrong left her convent in the late 1960s, and for 13 years she distanced herself from organized religion. My guest, Karen Armstrong, has written best-selling books about the religions of the world, but her new book starts with this sentence: We are talking far too much about God these days, and what we say is often facile. She goes on to say: Despite our scientific and technological brilliance, our religious thinking is sometimes remarkably undeveloped, even primitive. In her new book, "The Case for God," she looks at the history of religion as a practical discipline that has taught how to discover new capacities of mind and heart, and how people through the centuries have translated doctrines into ritual or ethical action.
Armstrong's books include "A History of God," "The Battle for God," "Islam," "Buddha" and "The Spiral Staircase," which is a memoir about why she left the convent in 1969 after seven years, feeling she'd failed to find God.
GROSS: Now, one of the recent language problems people have had with religion is deciding whether to call God he or she, and I think you would say none of the above.
GROSS: So what are some of the difficulties that early religious theologians had in describing or naming what God is, and finding language to describe what they meant by God? They'd fast, and they practiced certain sort of breathing exercises, early forms of yoga, and then they came back, and the competition would begin.
GROSS: Now, what you're describing sounds to me like maybe these are the theologians and scholars who are from the more mystical ends of the religions that existed then, the more educated theologians. They shared the same predicament, and gods and humans, they thought, would work together to preserve the cosmos and keep its energies going. GROSS: Do you think that monotheism brought us closer to believing that God was the one, that there was one creator called God? All religious language must reach beyond itself into a sort of silent awe, and it was all too easy to end - stop it and say that, well, God is a bit like us writ large, with likes and dislikes similar to our own. Now, of course, God meant nothing of the sort, but what these Crusaders were doing were projecting onto an imaginary deity that they were creating in their own image and likeness, and giving him a seal of absolute approval. And in the Quran, for example, God is continually saying, look, everything I'm saying to you is an ayia(ph), a parable, a sign. Mythos was about the discourse, stories about the more difficult aspects of our humanity, about for which there were no easy answers. Now, if your child dies, or you experience a terrible natural disaster, you want a scientific explanation. GROSS: In your book "The Case for God," you talk about the 16th and 17th centuries as being the period when myth was discredited, and the scientific method was thought to be the only reliable means of attaining the truth.
So we started to want only information that was scientific, that could be proven logically.
GROSS: At the same time during this period, science starts to come in conflict with the church, like Galileo. But actually, this wasn't the beginning of the end because just a little later when Newton, the great Sir Isaac Newton, starts his great discoveries, science and religion became best friends.
GROSS: You see this coming together of science and religion and the use of science to prove that there is a God as opening the door to two fairly new phenomena. Now, if someone did that today, there'd be hell to pay because people would say you can't do that.
So right up on the dawn of the scientific revolution, you have John Calvin saying that the Bible has nothing at all to tell us about science, and he's very cross with what he calls frantic persons who are trying to impede science by saying it doesn't agree with the Bible. GROSS: And you say that this coming together of science and religion also opened the door to a new form of atheism. GROSS: So you're saying this is relatively new because until the 16th and 17th century, no one expected that science could prove the existence of God.
Thomas Aquinas in his great work the "Summa Theologica," he says yes, now here are some proofs to show that something brought something into existence when there could have been nothing.
Religion wasn't about answering questions that we could answer perfectly well by our powers of logos, of reason and science. What's your response to an atheist like Richard Dawkins, who wrote a best-selling book explaining his atheism, and using scientific thinking to disprove the existence of God and he calls religion supernatural thinking?
Very often people hear about God when they're little and when - at the time they first learn about Santa Claus.
GROSS: Let me ask you a big and impossible-to-answer question, which is: What do you think religion is for? All the world religions say that the way to find what we call God or Brahman, Nirvana, or Tao is to get beyond the prism of egotism, of selfishness which holds us in a little deadlock and limits our vision.
GROSS: And then you made the study of the religions of the world, basically your religion scholarship of, you know, religious scholarship became like a religion to you. GROSS: Do you practice any kind of rituals, meditation, prayer, because you talk about religion in your book as being a way of living, as being a practice? GROSS: So do you have any kind of practice to help you get that kind of focus that you want in life? But those years of failure, every morning going into that church and coming out not having meditated at all, left me with a kind of fear of meditation, if you like. This, you know, if people came to psychiatrists with this kind of fantasy, the psychiatrist would probably denote a profound disorder, a profound neurosis.
GROSS: You see a big difference between America and England when it comes to religion in general, fundamentalism in particular.
But then we are beginning to seem endearingly old-fashioned in our aggressive secularism because in the rest of the world, outside Western Europe, there is an immense religious revival.
But primarily, it's a call for action - not just the sort of feel-good factor - so that compassion, which is at the heart of all morality, of all religious systems, far more important than believing things or accepting orthodox views, should be - speak again loudly and clearly in our world.
GROSS: As part of a group that you're trying to organize around compassion, do you want that to be an antidote for some of the more extreme forms of religion that are forming now? That it is that, not our beliefs and - that bring us into relationship with what we call God or Brahman or Tao, and it's that that gives meaning to our lives. GROSS: The way you've portrayed it in your book and in our interview, religion used to be something that was understood as myth.
It must also be said that a lot of the tensions that we - religious violence that we see in the world today, as well as in the past, has been the result of political tensions. GROSS: Now, you know, your view of religion isn't that there's a personal God who has some kind of physical manifestation and who can appear to you and speak to you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. The good news is that she expounds upon aging and other issues with trademark dry wit in a new book of essays: I Feel Bad About My Neck. Yet for the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, who won the Nobel Prize in 1996 and died Wednesday, the little things a€” onions, cats, monkeys, and yes, sea cucumbers a€” turned out to be very big indeed. The correct name is "Autotomy" a€” a term for the process whereby creatures sacrifice then regenerate body parts.


She ended up working in television, and on an assignment in Jerusalem she had a kind of epiphany about the similarities among the major world religions.
You write that many people today think of God as the supreme being, a divine personality who created the world and everything in it, but God is not a being at all. And this God isn't just a being like you or me, or the microphone in front of me, or even the atom, an unseen being that we can find in our laboratories.
ARMSTRONG: Well, always in the religious quest, India has been way out ahead, and way back in the 10th century before Christ, some of the Brahman priests there devised a ritual, which was a sort of competition.
And the challenger would try to define the Brahman - that is, the ultimate reality in Hinduism, something that lies way beyond the gods, that is way beyond anything we can know and yet is within us all.
And his opponents would listen to him very carefully, and then they would respond, moving on from what he had said and make their own definition of what Brahman - or we would say God - is. A theology should be like poetry, which takes us to the end of what words and thoughts can do.
But in terms of what most people observed, were they observing religion - do you think - in earlier times in a more literal way, where the gods were real, where the gods were namable, you know, something where God was a being or the gods were beings, depending on the religion?
But they also knew that there was a reality that the gods couldn't reach that lay beyond all this, and that they called Brahman. They took one of these gods, Yahweh, and said that is the chief symbol of this ultimate reality. And when the Crusaders went into battle in the Middle Ages to kill Jews and Muslims, they cried out: God wills it. And so they devised spiritual exercises, not just for mystics, not just for an elite group, but for all the faithful to make them realize that when we talked about God, when we said God was good, we were doing this in a very inadequate way - that God couldn't be good like you or me, when we talk about a good person or a good meal or a good dog. Even the great statements like paradise or talk about creation or the last judgment, these are ayia. And I'd like you to briefly describe what mythos and logos mean, and how you think that applies to religion. ARMSTRONG: Well, logos is science or reason, something that helps us to function practically and effectively in the world, and it must therefore be closely in tune and reflect accurately the realities of the world around us. Like the fact that we are - we get sick, that there are all kinds of questions about suffering and pain that concern us, and for this, people turned to mythos. People felt we needed both, and each had its particular sphere of competence, and it was really rather dangerous to mix the two up.
ARMSTRONG: Well, if you're going to organize a hunting expedition, you need to be absolutely focused on the practicalities of your situation - where the animals are and the man force and the terrain. But a scientist will be the first to tell you that it cannot help you to find some ultimate meaning and come to terms with this tragedy. ARMSTRONG: Well, we began to create modern science, and science in the 17th, 18th centuries achieved such spectacular results that everybody was focused on it, and myth looked awfully flimsy beside these scientific discoveries, which were backed up with the advanced mathematics and clear and concise proof. We were choosing logos and gradually, myth became discredited, and people weren't interested in this more elusive form of knowledge anymore. You know, he said Copernicus was right, the planets didn't revolve around the Earth; the Earth revolved around the sun.
ARMSTRONG: That's certainly a symptom, if you like, of a new kind of spirit that was coming into being. ARMSTRONG: Well, because Newton and Rene Descartes said that they'd found proof for God, and the churchmen - theologians, priests, church bishops - they were intoxicated by this notion of a scientific religion, a scientifically based religion that was in touch with the most exciting thought of the day and that could give them cast-iron certainty. ARMSTRONG: Well, Newton and Descartes, too, both felt that unless you had God, the solar system made no sense. ARMSTRONG: Well, once this scientific religion caught hold, people started to read the Bible in a literal manner, where they never had before.
Augustine had made it quite clear, too, in the Christian world, that if a biblical text contradicted Scripture, that text must be re-interpreted and given an allegorical interpretation. ARMSTRONG: Yes, because really, the certainty that people were beginning to expect from religion was unsustainable. But then he pulls the rug out from under our feet and says, but we don't know what it is we've proved. Religion was helping us to deal with aspects of life, facts of life for which there are no easy answers.
ARMSTRONG: Well, Dawkins is a great biologist, and I have been inspired by his account of natural selection. ARMSTRONG: Well, I think some of his characterizations of religion are a bit - sort of simplistic and uninformed, really. ARMSTRONG: Religion is about helping us to deal with the sorrow that we see in life, helping us to find meaning in life, and helping us to live in relation to that transcendence that I was speaking about earlier. That if we can get beyond that, especially in the practice of compassion, when we dethrone ourselves from the center of our world and put another there, we live much more richly and intensely. You were committed to Christ and to the church, and then when you left, when you decided that this life was not for you, you left religion behind for a while. ARMSTRONG: Well, for me, my study, my study of these wonderful, wonderful texts has become my form of meditation or contemplation. ARMSTRONG: Well, when I was in my convent, we'd have to make a meditation every morning for a whole hour, and I could not keep my mind on this for one minute at a time.
The thought of a sort of a worry about it, just like some people might have after having had a, say, a bad sexual experience, that they don't want to go there again. And the fact that it has such a grip in America is a sign of, I would say of an unhappy society, dare I say it. ARMSTRONG: Oh well, England is just not interested in religion at all, and I think only about 6 percent of Britons attend a religious service regularly.
And a lot of it, like that anti-Christ thing, reflects real A, the aggression that we have inherent in the modern world. ARMSTRONG: Well, I was given this award by the TED conferences, and they like to give a prize to people whom they think have made a difference in the world, but with their help could make an - even more of an impact.
ARMSTRONG: Yes, definitely because you know, when we hear about religion, when it hits the headlines, it's either something like that anti-Christ poll, or else we hear the voices of hatred or extremism, or we hear our church leaders condemning things, like condemning homosexuality, or enforcing rigid beliefs.
And so I want to restore compassion to that and so that we have instead of religious antagonism, religious aggression, we have a voice that speaks continually of compassion; that endlessly tries to put us, make us put ourselves in the position of the other. And it's only later on in modern times, when science comes in, that there's this more literal version of it. And when violence becomes ingrained in a region, where warfare becomes chronic in a region, such as the Middle East or Afghanistan, then religion gets sucked into the whole unholy mess and becomes a part of the problem, too.
David Bianculli reviews last night's Emmy Awards and previews the new fall season that starts tonight. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. What we mean by God is, some theologians have said, is being itself that is in everything that is around us and cannot be tied down to one single instance of being.
They went out into the forest, and there they made a retreat, put themselves into a different frame of mind. I mean, in India and throughout the world, the gods were seen as real beings, unseen beings.
And we know the prophets of Israel were very, very concerned about idolatry, the worship of a human expression of the divine.
We have an idea of what we're talking about, but God was, as the Muslims say, allah hu akbar - God is always greater than anything we can understand. They're parables, symbols of realities that we, with our finite, earthbound minds, can't grasp. You can't go off into a dream about gods, and you can't mix myth into politics or the economy, though that's been done sometimes recently, I think, and it's not a good idea.
When Copernicus had actually presented his theory in the Vatican some 60 years earlier, the pope had given it a cautious approval, but things were tougher by the time you've had the Protestant Reformation.


He believed that you shouldn't mix the two, and yet he kept continually bringing up Scripture in a way that was no longer quite safe to do in this new, hard-line climate. It was only a few generations before later scientists were able to dispense with God as the beginning of the universe, a necessary explanation.
Nobody before the 17th, 18th century understood the first chapter of Genesis as a literal account of the origins of life. Once you've got people like Laplace, who says - a French physicist of the early 19th century - who says that he doesn't need the god hypothesis, he can account for the universe perfectly well without God - and finally Darwin. And when they don't get it, and when science no longer comes up with the goods they want, atheism becomes inevitable for some people.
Her new book is called "The Case for God." When we left off, she was talking about how religion and science first came into conflict, and how that led to a new form of atheism from people who demanded scientific proof of God. But their ideas of God have got stuck in this rather infantile mode, which mistakes the symbol that God is supposed to be for hard fact. I don't like the way he says that we should withdraw all respect from religion because whether he likes it or not, the vast majority of human beings on the planet wants to be religious, want to live in relation to transcendence. And when I'm sitting at my desk or even in the British Library, I can have moments of awe and wonder and excitement that lift me up beyond myself, give me intonations of something touching me deeply within.
My mind would instantly go skittering off down a whole - alleyways of distraction and worries and anxieties. And the last thing I ever thought I would end up doing is writing about religion and yet, here I am.
And then among Republicans, 14 percent said yes, Obama is the anti-Christ, and 15 percent said they weren't sure. It's a couple of chance remarks of Saint Paul, and then there's the "Book of Revelation." But the whole idea of there being end-time battles reflects a more, sort of Zoroastrian view of the world. And atheism is almost de rigueur among the chattering classes of London, which makes it a rather lonely existence for me here.
The 20th century was a terribly violent century, and religions absorbed some of that violence - and also profound anxieties.
And so my wish was that they would help me to create and craft a charter for compassion that would restore compassion to the center of the religious life. Because I'm worried that if we don't manage to implement the Golden Rule globally, so that we treat all peoples, wherever they are, as though they were as important as ourselves, that we - I don't think we'll have, if we don't do that, a viable world to hand on to the next generation.
That's what the Garden of Eden story is telling us about, that good and evil are inextricably combined in our - in our hearts, in our - all, every single individual. And if religion - your experience of God speaking to you or whatever, compels you to live a more compassionate life, then it's doing its job. It was present in the stunning realization of the absolute powerlessness of language and speech to describe this. And of course before the scientific era, there were so many aspects of life that were unseen - like wind, emotion - that are realities in our lives, and they thought the gods were more powerful than they. There was a clear distinction, always, in people's minds between the gods and what the God beyond god. He was accused by the Vatican of heresy and sentenced to house arrest for the rest of his life. How do you see the coming together of science and religion as creating - or at least opening the door to -fundamentalism? The great Jewish mystic Isaac Luria, 16th century, created an entirely new creation myth that bore absolutely no relation to Genesis at all. Then no longer is the advanced thought of the day with religion, as it had been for 200 years. And it certainly deals a blow to the simplistic idea of God as creator that has taken root in the West since the early modern period.
And so I think that in pointing out that you can think about God in this way, Dawkins could have done a service to religion in getting people back to a more developed and symbolic sense of the divine that lies beyond us. And that's become my path, and I can't see any one of the world religions as superior to any of the others.
And I think it reflects a very pessimistic view of life, that the world seems to be so evil that it's hurtling towards some unimaginable catastrophe in which the evil and the evildoers will be vanquished, and Christ will be victorious.
I mean, friends will actually ask me not to speak about religion when I come around to dinner, as though this was some kind of really, a retrograde subject, and find it difficult to imagine why I should bother with this discredited stuff.
We've got so much to worry about at the moment that perhaps it's no wonder that it surfaces, perhaps, in a religious form. And instead of seeing religion as part of the problems of our world, would actually help religion to make a positive contribution towards peace.
Religion - all the world faiths have developed their own version of what's been called the Golden Rule: Don't do to others what you would not like them to do to you. But you know, just really, isn't it true that throughout human history, there have been religious conflicts? And if it's filling you with respect and awe for the natural world and for all God's creatures, it's doing its job. And there's always a danger that we will mistake this symbol for the absolute, for the reality to which it's supposed to point. It was a new, hard-line Vatican that wanted people to tow the line, and Galileo was not going to tow the line.
And Newton discovered such a magnificent order in the universe that he said that the only way you could explain this was by an absolute, divine intelligence that was omnipotent, omniscient, all-knowing, and that - and here I quote - was also very well-skilled in mechanics and geometry. And many religious people talk about God today in a way that's really quite simplistic, even primitive, and give rise to the kind of attacks that Dawkins - I think he sometimes goes too far in his attack, but we - thinking about God and talking about God far too easily. You want to nudge it, perhaps, into a more healthy form of evolution, if I can put it that way, and I don't like his aggression. We're making scapegoats and looking at people to blame for the immensely difficult and complex problems of our world. Twenty-seven years and more than 20 books later a€” including the best-selling A History of God a€” Armstrong releases her latest book, The Case for God.
I think that in our very polarized, dangerously polarized world, we can't afford yet another divisive discourse that puts us at odds with one another.
She thinks of the poet as an acrobat who moves, as she puts it, with "laborious ease, with patient agility, with calculated inspiration." Szymborska's poems generally focus on everyday subjects or situations, and her tone stays firmly in the middle ground. In it, she argues that religion is a practical discipline that teaches us to discover new capacities of the mind and heart. And God, as I've said earlier, can be abused and made to back up that hatred, because religion is very difficult to do well. We all experience the inimitable, limitless God in as many different ways as there are human beings. Szymborska compares this to the way in which writers have long argued that when they died, their work would live on a€” granting them a kind of immortality.
She doesn't think anyone exists outside of time, or that writing poetry is a matter of falling on the right side of an abyss.
But if that's the case a€” if we can't continually evade death a€” then this is at least something we all share. And yet it's hard not to think that, with all her delicate power, she somehow still walks on air above us.



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