War, pestilence, inflation: these are perilous times. But before giving in to despair, consider enrolling in one of these eight courses, which offer lots of learning-and a little hope

Illustration: Joshua Gorchov

What with an ongoing war, escalating gas prices, and a deadly pandemic lurking in the wings, these are troubling days indeed. But in uncertain times, a little education can provide some much needed consolation-or, at least, some context. Here are eight classes that can help make sense of a fast-moving world-by examining different concepts of God, for example, or considering the science of stem-cell research, or simply ordering your memories in a scrapbook with the assistance of a computer.

Does God know what time it is? According to Rabbi Dov Weiss, who will teach Different Concepts of God at the Latin School this fall, it all depends on your approach. “In the biblical tradition, of course God knows what time it is. He is all-knowing, and he intercedes in our lives throughout history,” Weiss explains. “But in the Greek tradition, God is eternal, unchanging; he is above time.” Thus, a paradox. “If God knows what time it is, he is limited,” says Weiss. “If God is above time, then he doesn’t know something.”

Weiss, an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, poses a variety of paradoxical, thought-provoking questions, which range from philosophical (“How do we interpret text in which God is unjust or unethical?”) to rational (“Is there a God? Can we prove it?”) to spark critical thinking about fundamental conceptions. His course will introduce the beliefs of religious leaders and philosophers from the past 2,500 years, and class members will contemplate a number of age-old theologi­cal questions. “People have questioned evidence of God’s existence from the medieval period to the modern period-even religious figures,” Weiss says. “Just because you try to examine proof of God’s existence doesn’t mean you don’t believe in God.”

After examining biblical, Greek, and modern notions of God, Weiss will invite class members to discuss their own views. “My interest is not to convince anyone that God exists or doesn’t exist,” he says. “I hope there are both atheists and believers in the classroom, and that we’re not sure which is which. For some, their conception of God depends on what’s going on that day-or what time it is.”

Offered by the LatinSchool of Chicago‘s Live and Learn Program. Meets Wednesdays, 6:30 to 8 p.m., October 18th to November 1st at LatinUpperSchool, 59 West North Boulevard. $75. Registration begins August 22nd: 312-582-6035.

Saké-and-ginger-glazed Pacific halibut. Wild mushroom and pesto lasagna. Pot roast and roasted root vegetables. As demonstrated by Green City Meals, the new class at The Chopping Block, cooking responsibly doesn’t have to be bland. But who has time to whip up a fancy dinner after a hard day at work?

“In an urban setting, we get a lot of busy families-moms who are making hot dogs and Tater Tots for their kids and don’t have time to cook their own dinners,” says Shelley Young, the founder and owner of The Chopping Block, a shop that caters to the needs of home cooks.

With a novel take on kitchen collaboration, Young has a solution, one that also promotes sustainable agriculture. “It’s partly a class, partly a take-home meal service,” she says. “This program is for people who want to eat organically grown foods but might not have the time to [fix] it. Now, instead of taking lettuce out of a bag and slapping some bottled dressing on it, you’re using organic greens and making a fresh vinaigrette.”

Each week, Paul Tseng, The Chopping Block’s chef, stocks up on fresh meat and locally grown produce at the Green City Market in Lincoln Park. Young uses those ingredients to concoct several different menus, and then members of the class help Tseng create six entrées (four individual portions of each), eight side dishes, and a take-home salad bar. Each portion is vacuum-sealed to be served at home (cooking time is 20 minutes, tops, says Young), or they can be frozen for later use. “We do all the shopping for you, all the planning, all the cleanup,” says Young. “But you get the satisfaction of helping put it all together.”

Offered by The Chopping Block. Meets every Sunday from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and Monday from 6 to 8:30 p.m., at the Merchandise Mart, 222 Merchandise Mart Plaza, Suite 107. $200 per class. Call to reserve a spot at least 48 hours in advance: 312-644-6360.

From Abraham Lincoln to Maya Angelou, America’s poets, politicians, and philosophers have fostered a rich custom of community service. Particularly during hard times, many people tend to turn to volunteer work to promote change in their communities, whether by tutoring children, advocating for environmental reform, or registering voters. Today, more than 60 million people in the United States participate in nonprofit organizations.

In the spirit of that tradition, this August the Great Books Foundation will release The Civically Engaged Reader, an anthology of 45 stories, poems, essays, and memoirs on four themes: associating, serving, giving, and leading. The contributions stretch from Aristotle’s Politics, a work from the fourth century BC, to “Where Were We,” a selection from Dave Eggers’s 2002 novel, You Shall Know Our Velocity!

In conjunction with the release of The Civically Engaged Reader, Donald Whitfield, the director of higher education for the Great Books Foundation, will lead a study group with the same name and themes at Northwestern University. “[The Great Books Foundation] has always encouraged people to come together for discussion, whether they are voters, officeholders, or volunteers,” says Whitfield, who plans to examine the meaning behind civic service and the reasons people volunteer. “We’re using the writings of people like Toni Morrison, Jane Addams, and Andrew Carnegie to reflect on our own volunteer work,” he says. “I’m hoping people bring their own experiences to the table and use the group as a sounding board. I want people to take away a deeper, broader sense of what it means to be a volunteer.”

Offered by the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the School of Continuing Studies at Northwestern University. Meets Wednesdays from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m., September 18th to January 19th, at Wieboldt Hall, 339 East Chicago Avenue. $125 for new students. Call Donald Whitfield at the Great Books Foundation at 312-332-5870, ext. 227, to reserve a copy of The Civically Engaged Reader.

For Irving Birkner, the instructor teaching the University of Chicago’s America in the Middle East, the region’s political history is only part of the story. His class will also consider the 1980s wrestling star known as the Iron Sheik, the different perceptions of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 movie The Ten Commandments, and American and Middle Eastern political cartoons.

“How the U.S. perceives the Middle East is influenced by movies, music, television, and books,” says Birkner, the associate director of the Center for International Studies at the U. of C. “We don’t always realize that we’re equating [culture with history].”

Birkner wants to give his students a broader understanding of the Middle East from its early history to the present. He stresses the value of primary sources, using transcripts of political speeches and the executive summary of The 9/11 Commission Report. After discussing government dossiers, New York Times articles, and other movies and books, Birkner hopes, his class will realize how such sources color perceptions.

“What do you think you know about the Middle East, and where does this knowledge come from?” Birkner asks. “From commercials and songs to newspaper articles and political speeches, I want you to be able to think critically about what you see.”

Offered by the University of Chicago Graham School of General Studies. Meets Tuesdays from 6 to 8:30 p.m., September 19th to October 24th, at the University of Chicago Gleacher Center, 450 North Cityfront Plaza Drive. $215 for early registration, $245 for registration after September 8th. 773-702-1722.

Sometimes the collective pulse of society isn’t reflected in its politics, its literature, or its art. It can be found, instead, in the soulful lyrics of a ballad. In June Sawyers’s Newberry seminar, A Dagger Through the Heart: Love, Death, and the American Ballad, participants learn this firsthand by examining some modern-day masters of the form-from Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash to Joan Baez and Bruce Springsteen.

A native of Scotland, Sawyers begins the course by introducing the Scottish and English roots of the ballad, which she calls the “bedrock of American music.” And she makes a point of undermining the misconception that the ballad is a simple sort of song. “You have the murder ballad, the outlaw ballad, the historical ballad, the supernatural ballad, the disaster ballad, and the unrequited love ballad,” Sawyers says. “There is a lot of diversity in something as simple as the word ‘ballad.'”

To underscore her point, Sawyers will play samples each week from different musicians as a way of promoting casual discussion. Suddenly, listening to Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions can qualify as an academic exercise-and Sawyers is just the teacher to help students make that leap: this October, Omnibus Press will publish her Tougher Than the Rest: The 100 Best Bruce Springsteen Songs ($17.95).

“The ballad is very much alive and well,” says Sawyers. “It’s not a piece of museum history. It’s a thriving part of contemporary culture.”

Offered by the Newberry Library. Meets Thursdays from 5:45 to 7:45 p.m., September 21st to November 16th, at the Newberry Library, 60 West Walton Street. $160. 312-255-3700.

Stem cell research and cloning are hot-button issues in biotechnology, regularly debated in politics, the media, and neighborhood pubs. But with Living in the Age of Biotechnology, Beth Hussa and Michael Mallozzi hope to venture beyond sound bites and moral disputes to the heart of the matter-the science.

As graduate students in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, Hussa and Mallozzi are immersed in the biomedical sciences. Their goal is to cut through the moral, ethical, and political opinions surrounding biotechnology by approaching the issues from a scientific perspective. “A lot of decision making now is done by people who don’t have a broad understanding of the science,” Mallozzi says. “Our major motivation for this course is to encourage educated, informed decisions.”

Adds Hussa: “There are a lot of misconceptions out there. You can read what you want to read, but the facts are the facts.”

The instructors will also focus on examining biotechnology in everyday situations, with discussions on genetically modified food and the diminished effectiveness of some antibiotics. And they hope that class members will encompass a broad range of perspectives, thereby prompting some intelligent and useful debates. “Technology is proceeding faster than our ability to legislate the ethical issues that surround it,” Mallozzi says. “Education is the best way to cope with the progress of technology.”

Offered by the LoyolaUniversitySchool of Continuing and Professional Studies. Meets Mondays from 6:15 to 8:30 p.m., October 9th to November 15th, at the LewisTowers in room 603, 820 North Michigan Avenue. $275. 312-915-6501.

For Helen Roberts, there is an economic principle at work nearly every time people interact, whether they are buying a cup of coffee or hunting for a used car. In her University of Illinois at Chicago class, Teaching Economics with Current Events, she pushes her students to delve beneath the surface of things and closely examine their role as consumers.

“I want to encourage them to look more closely at what a person or a report is saying,” says Roberts, a clinical assistant professor at UIC. “On the surface it may sound reasonable, but really the person may be trying to hoodwink you.”

The bulk of the course is conducted through online message boards, with an initial meeting to introduce the software and a concluding party to assess the course. Readings include a general interest economics book of the students’ choosing (such as Freakonomics, by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, or Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat) and news articles highlighting economics in current events.

Roberts finds that online discussion prompts more thoughtful interactions than a classroom setting. “Because everybody posts their comments online, students are able to discuss more difficult ideas than they might have in person-either because in person they feel inhibited or because they haven’t had a chance to fully think things through,” she says. Discussion ranges from broad topics like terrorism, globalization, and immigration to economics in daily life-such as the problem with “fair” prices for coffee or gasoline. For teachers, the class also addresses various ways of discussing these topics in a junior-high or high-school class.

“When analyzing current events, I want the students to look beyond the surface of what people are saying and think critically,” says Roberts. “Economics is about decisions.”

Offered by the University of Illinois at Chicago, Office of Continuing Education. Meets on two Saturdays, October 28th and December 2nd, from 9 a.m. to 12 noon at the Science and Engineering Labs East (SELE), 950 South Halsted Street. $311. 312-996-8025.

Audrey Rizio has an unusually intimate relationship with her students. She has seen their fishing trips, their family vacations, and their weddings. She knows their grandparents, their children, and their spouses by sight. And as the instructor of the School of the Art Institute’s Digital Scrapbooking, Rizio can help her students turn these images-cherished photographs and other souvenirs-into lively scrapbook pages.

First, understand that the days of glue sticks and photo corners are long gone. “There is so much more technology to work with now,” says Rizio, a professor of graphic design at the school. “Almost everybody has access to a digital camera, and there is one-hour photo processing everywhere. We have quick access to everything.”

Participants learn to scan and import photos, experiment with various effects in Adobe Photoshop, study collage and layer imaging, create custom backgrounds, and design their own pages. Rizio encourages participants to create goals for themselves, such as becoming more Photoshop savvy or completing their own scrapbooks.

“It’s fun to see your progress throughout the class,” Rizio says. “And then, on the last day, you get to show it off.”

Offered by the School of the Art Institute, Division of Continuing Studies and Special Programs. Meets Saturdays from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. from September 9th to October 21st, at the MacLeanCenter, 112 South Michigan Avenue, Room 917. $318.75. Registration begins July 26th: 312-629-6700.