Sunday, January 23, 2005

Some thoughts since coming to Finland

Since I've been in Turku, I've had lots of important stuff to get done, including (among other things) opening a new bank account for the moderate fee of my left arm, purchasing a cell phone (because land-based telephones no longer exist in Scandanavia) for the reasonable price of my other arm, registering for membership in the local Student Union (a federal law in Finland, so that I have an 'advocate' against the sinister coniving designs of the university). All the student union asked was for the legal rights to my first-born child. Besides these every-day house-keeping activities I've become acquainted with new skills such as how to ice skate from my apartment to class without demolishing my tail bone, and how to string lots of vowels and consonants together to say words like hyvaa huomenta. This is how one says 'good morning' in the great land of the Finns. Amidst all these exciting new adventures, I've also had the opportunity to go to class, which I suppose is the real reasons I came to Finland, anyway. I have classes on Finnish (a shocker), Investment in the Russian Regions, Russian economic history, and the future of transatlantic relations. I have felt that I have a bit more free time than I am accustomed to while attending school, since I am unemployed for the first time in quite a while. I've also realized that teachers at the university here (at least in my classes) rarely give assignments, so I have little to do other than attend lectures. The evaluation period will come at the end of the semester in the form of a monster exam. This will do little to assist me in overcoming my procrastination tendencies, but I'm sure I'll learn some new study skills. In spite of the asphyxiatingly high cost of living, I can certainly say that the first two weeks in Finland have been most pleasant. I live in a section of student housing reserved for foreign exchange students, and so obviously everyone uses the international language, Urdu. Just kidding, everyone speaks in English. I actually have met several people from various countries in Europe who came here specifically to practice their English. Yes, the Finns speak it that well. So I try not to feel that my language is cheapened at all by the fact that everyone and their dog (and I mean that literally...) speaks English. In addition, I try not to feel foolish when someone asks me a question on the street, and before I can assume my dumb American expression, they're already asking me with a nice Oxford accent whether or not I need any help. I've also found that politics is certainly an issue where Finland (and Europeans in general) are much more homogenous than Americans. The general political opinion is, first of all, that Americans don't have a clue. One this fundamental principle is well understood, the discussion can move to more subtle points of analysis. I've done my very best to convince people that Republicans in general are not complete and utter morons, but I don't think I've convinced anyone, yet. I'll keep trying, for the sake of transatlantic relations. I've found the discussion strikingly similar to the many I have with conservatives back in the great state of Yootah as I try to convince them that liberals in general aren't pompus immoral buffoons. It's always difficult because when you defend someone, people automatically assume that you're one of the foolish group you're defending, and so you therefore obviously need tutoring in the fundamentals of the 'right' way to see things. It could get frustrating, but I've always been so flippant about politics, anyway, so I don't let it bug me too much. What does bug me is the following statement that I invite any person to logically support, because I just can't:

"I'm don't like people who are extremely religious because all the greatest human tragedies in the history of the world have been caused by religion."

This is a personal bone that I have to pick with people, I suppose, because I am religious, and everything that I've ever learned tells me that this is complete and utter nonsense. I bring it up because I hear it A LOT, and so it must have some grounding in reality that I just can't see. So here's why I think that this is bogus:
1) Such a statement seems to ignore history. Let me see if I can come up with a list of some really bad tragedies attributable to people. There were Stalin's political purges, the Holocaust, the great world wars, Rwanda, Napoleon, Alexander the Great, the Assyrians, the French Revolution. Not too much religion involved here, my friends. Each of these really bad things seem to have been caused by a few very secular people who were ambitious for lots of power. While religion-bashers like to use the examples of the Crusades, Bosnia, Ireland, Darfur, or the current multitude of problems in the Middle East, these are certainly not the most egregious tragedies in terms of life lost in the history of the world. So one could say that some of the lesser great tragedies seem to have religion as part of their underlying problem. But it seems to me that even with the seemingly religious-based debacles, religion is merely used as an excuse to mask other problems. No one could possibly believe that Milosevic in Bosnia was religiously motivated, though much of that tragedy involved a Christian-Muslim conflict. Experts agree that this tragedy was fuelled by ethnic friction and nationalistic ambition. I would argue that similar problems in Darfur, Ireland, and even the Middle East are also fundamentally cultural and ethnic clashes, and that though they may involve a religious element, they occur not because of religion, but in spite of it. I would even go so far as to say that religions are hijacked in the name of selfish, hateful ambition.
2) These statements ignore the tenants of religion. I have never seen a religion that does not advocate people to become good. Indeed, I think that this is part of the fundamental definition of religion. Religions that don't profess to make people better are useless. In fact, they are not religions at all. They are hobbies or philosophies or diversions. Religions teach people to be good to others. They teach people to be honest, to be fair and just. Those people who are most religious, in other words, who understand and practice the tenets of their religion, will not be driven to conflict with other people. Those people who incite such conflict are merely proving their complete inability to be religious and to solve their problems in the way their religion teaches, in other words, by being nice to people. I'm not saying that to be nice you have to be religious, but I'm certainly saying that to be religious you have to be nice. Period. So am I saying that Osam bin Laden isn't particularly religious? I doubt he'd be nice enough to grant me the time to discuss the issue of his religion. Since I'm a religious person, does that mean that I'm always nice to people? No, it doesn't, but it does mean that when I'm not being nice, I'm also not being very religious at the time. I think that if this applies to me specifically, then it applies to groups and events and the world in general. Don't blame good beliefs just because people refuse to live the beliefs.

So anyway, I'll get off my soap-box, and I truly do invite someone to disagree with me. I might return to my political discussions with people, later. We'll see.

In terms of other knewz out here, it seems that as soon as I got settled in Finland, I'm going to be headed out, again. I'll renew some of the work I started this summer with FINCA, when I spend 3 weeks in Kyrgyzstan. I leave this Thursday, and will return at an unspecified date in the middle of February. To be perfectly honest, I don't know exactly what they want me to do out there, but I anticipate that it will be different than the projects I've pulled off the last two summers. I hope to visit my old mission in Russia on the way back, if I possibly can, and have lunch with my sister Anna who's currently serving in my old stomping grounds in St. Petersburg. That might be more ambitious traveling than I can handle, right now, so I'll just take things one step at a time.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Back to blogging

After about a 6-month hiatus, I've decided to continue my online updates. It's not that I had nothing to report, the past little while, but when I'm away from friends and family, circumstances demand that I use the old blogsite as a means to stay generally in touch.

I have been in Finland for about a week and a half, now. For a brief background, I received a grant from the US Department of Education through a program called the Good Governance Consortium to study public policy in Europe. A combination of my own preferences and circumstance picked Finland for me, so I'm taking classes from three different universities in Turku, on the western coast of Finland. Turku is the oldest city in Finland and was the capital of Finland when it was part of the Swedish empire. There is subsequently a rather large Swedish minority in Turku, an officially bilingual city, and I am in fact taking one class from the Swedish university, out here.

There are lots of interesting things that I can comment about, but I think I'll save them for future blogs. There's no sense giving out too much candy at a time, I always say. I will also update my pictures online. If there aren't any new ones, just wait, there will be soon enough.