* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Friday, December 23, 2011

Prophecy and the Reason for the Season (Hint: It's not to bludgeon people with religious compulsions)

Prophecy has become a topic of conversation for the Christmas season, as Christians point to the prophet Isaiah, as well as a couple of other Old Testament prophets, to prove Jesus as the son of God.  The word prophecy doesn’t quite mean the same thing that it used to, which is perhaps part of the issue.  Whereas “Prophet” was once the title given to a person who was inspired to proclaim divine will, at some point it came to mean a fortune teller, prognosticator, or predictor of future events.  Thus, at this time of year, many Christians go on a short-term crusade to “prove” the legitimacy of the church’s claims about Christ’s singular divinity, adding on the insistence that people say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” in the hopes that people will remember the “reason for the season” and turn to the Christian God.

My tone may suggest that I have some problems with that attitude.  I don’t actually care what Christians want to believe about Jesus in the privacy of their own homes or churches.  It does bother me, however, when I hear other people attempting to dictate what everyone else should believe.  And here’s why: people can’t see into the future.  Smart and well-informed people might make some insightful predictions about a particular trend, and sometimes listening to those people is a good idea, especially when it concerns the national economy and such.  But a smart person also checks the facts.  A prediction based on faulty information isn’t a very reliable prediction.  Nostradamus (perhaps the most widely known “prophet” outside of the Bible) only has a 9% success rate with his forecasts, but of course some devotees will claim that the other 91% just hasn’t happened yet.

The Jewish prophets weren’t even trying to predict the future, though.  They were “prophets” – proclaimers of divine will.  They were sharing their insights about what was wrong and right with the world in which they lived from a divine perspective.  Later on, people were so insistent on labeling Jesus as the Messiah figure who appears in some of that “prophecy” that they even write some silly things about his actions just to make the story fit together.  The bottom line is that the prophets were writing for their contemporaries.  Incidentally, this goes for the writers of the books of Daniel and Revelation, too, but that’s another topic altogether.

Just as one cannot use a word as its own definition, one cannot prove Biblical fortune-telling by the Bible itself.  Instead, it would perhaps be more satisfying to actually remember the reason for the season, by which I mean, the meaning ascribed to this time of year before it was reclaimed and repurposed by a zealous imperialistic religion.  The winter solstice has meant a lot of things to different cultures throughout history.  Some see the passing of the solstice as a time of renewal, passing from dark to light as the days gradually begin to lengthen once again.  It is a time for generosity, for sharing what we have with an attitude of abundance.  It is a time for human warmth and affection to stand in for the warmth that is lacking from the sun.  Winter reminds us of many things worth celebrating.  We run the risk of missing the actual peace with one another and joy with life itself when we put on battle gear and set ourselves on a mission.

So, whether you prefer “Blessed Solstice” or “Happy Hannukah” or “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” or any other iteration of the spirit of this time of year, remember that it isn’t the words that matter most.  It is the attitude we cultivate, the people we honor, the gifts of life we appreciate, the hope we maintain for the future, and the joy we are willing to share in spite of differences.  Which is largely what the prophets were getting at anyway.  We are the reason for the season, actually.  All of us who share this time and place together.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Exodus 14: The Other Side of the Coin (Recognizing When You Are the Leader and When You Are Not)

Thus far in the Exodus story, I’ve suggested that it’s more accurate for us to identify with the personal power of Moses rather than the victimhood of the other Israelites.  I’ve also suggested that what we think of as the divine is not an external intelligence but an inner part of ourselves.  It’s important to remember that the same is true for everyone, that each person has the capability to tap into a deep truth, beauty, and creativity.  Exodus 14 provides a couple examples of what happens when we fail to acknowledge our personal power and the personal authority of others.

Moses leads the Israelite plunderers on a cunning escape route that provokes the Egyptians to pursue them and attempt to reclaim their stolen goods.  When the Israelites see the Egyptians coming, their response to Moses is, “Were there not enough graves in Egypt that you led us out into the wilderness to die?”  Encouraging words from a devoted following?  Hardly.  And yet, there are probably similar accusations leveled at leaders all over the world each and every day.  While spiritual leadership can be abused, it’s also important to realize when someone else is exercising their capabilities for the greater good.

Every leadership role lives and dies by the trust of other people.  Some people are good at winning trust and fall short on the follow-through.  Some people are incredibly capable but have a difficult time helping other people see a lofty vision.  Some people fail to recognize how their strengths could turn the tide of a situation, so everyone loses out.  And some people are too busy trying to maintain control to recognize where their strengths end and another person’s strengths begin.  There is a balance that must be struck between embracing our own personal power and opening space for the capability of other people to shine.  When we tap into the deep truth, beauty, and creativity within us, our perception of equality may be challenged.

All people are equally valuable as human beings, but all people are not equally skilled in all things.  It’s simply dishonest to treat life like a game of kids’ “fair and fun” sports, where no score is kept and there are no winners and losers.  A false sense of equality leads to frustration, stagnation, and separation.  We wind up complaining about leaders instead of giving their ideas a chance to succeed.  We sometimes decide that we are being overlooked and spend our time trying to outdo someone else rather than focusing on the things that we are uniquely capable of doing.  Recognizing the deep truth, beauty, and creativity within ourselves and others leads to an honest sense of what we are able to contribute to the world and honest acknowledgement of the contributions of others.

As the story of the parting of the Red Sea continues, the people following Moses become convinced of his capability for a short time.  His connection with the divine was perhaps stronger than theirs was at the moment.  They don’t make much effort to develop their own connections to the divine, though, and before long, they are complaining once again and demanding that Moses’ leadership look like what they want it to.  They complain about things without suggesting any practical alternatives.  They make demands without considering what is required to satisfy those demands.  They expect to have something done for them rather than being part of a cooperative effort to make things better.  And as we’ll see later on, when leadership apart from Moses does emerge, it’s shallow and irresponsible.

Connection with the divine brings a certain amount of personal responsibility with it.  This goes for people who claim the labels of organized religions as well as people who chart their own spiritual courses.  It’s unwise to blindly accept the words of everyone who claims to speak for God.  But it’s also unwise to dismiss everyone who speaks with authority just because they may say something we don’t like.  Hostility and petty conflicts most often result from fears and false beliefs.  Our connection with the truth, beauty, and creativity within us combats those fears and beliefs and opens paths of cooperation.  Paths where we can confidently bring our honest strengths forward while allowing space for the honest strengths of others to shine as well.  Trying to tear other people down, or building ourselves up in dishonest ways, can never yield the same level of satisfaction that honest and authentic partnership brings.  Great satisfaction comes from partnership that places equal value on people as human beings while recognizing diverse abilities.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Exodus 4-13: The Exodus Model of Spiritual Leadership and the Dangers of Blind Obedience

The tale of the ten plagues visited upon Egypt is famous.  When the Israelites were under the heavy burden of Egyptian slavery, Moses compelled the Egyptian pharaoh to release them by proclaiming a series of increasingly costly events, enacted by God upon the Egyptians.  The Israelites were spared the direct cost of the plagues, and eventually left with stolen goods from Egyptian households with Egyptian soldiers in pursuit.  The story of the plagues culminates in the ritual of Passover, a significant piece of Jewish culture that reminds participants of God’s favoritism toward his chosen people and his promise of redemption.

There is considerable doubt in the archaeological community that the Israelites were ever slaves in Egypt, much less that they proclaimed and were spared from an epic series of plagues upon the Egyptian people. Some suggest that the assumed timeline of Egyptian history is incorrect, and at least one researcher has offered that significant volcanic activity could account for almost all of the plagues.  However, to take the story as pure documentation of historical events misses its point.  The three essential messages of the story are (1) Our god is better than your god, (2) God chooses spiritual leaders whom the multitudes must follow, and (3) Ritual has meaning.

While it seems silly to put the first message in terms of a grade-school taunt, there are plenty of people in the world today for whom that simple statement is the summation of their faith.  “My god is better than your god, and therefore you are less worthy as a human being.”  Less worthy of respect, less worthy of societal rights, even less worthy of life in some cases.  It’s a central problem to the concept of an external deity, especially when certain people believe that they can understand that deity’s character and intentions better than anyone else.  It must be incredibly frustrating for believers to hear such a cacophony of voices all proclaiming to know what God wants and rarely agreeing on anything.  Responsible believers would do well to research their own scriptures and decide for themselves what spiritual truths lie therein, but the message “people need leaders to guide them into spiritual understanding” often stands in the way.

When we started looking at Exodus, I mentioned that we would do best to identify with Moses rather than the masses of Israelite “victims” in the tale.  That isn’t implicit in the text, though.  The story clearly suggests that there is a vast gulf between the chosen spiritual leaders and the masses they lead.  The role of the masses is to be obedient to the leader, because the leader is proclaiming the will of God.  To be obedient to the spiritual leader is to be obedient to God.  And if you aren’t obedient, you will suffer – perhaps even the death of a child.  Blind obedience is a fine way to maintain cultural integrity.  Not so much for developing personal spirituality.

The problem, of course, is that people eventually abuse that spiritual authority.  It would almost be a respectable system if those leaders cared first and foremost about the spiritual well-being of their flocks, but when a spiritual leader develops a personal agenda, it becomes a personal crusade.  People with the authority of a pulpit or a microphone speak for God and proclaim who should be persecuted, who should be defended, who people should fall in love with, what people should legally be allowed to do with their bodies, who should be elected to office, what country the United States should bomb, what movies to watch or avoid…  They strive to influence all manner of beliefs, behaviors, and decisions.  And within the context of a religious culture teaching people that obedience to spiritual leaders is equivalent to obedience to God, people sometimes fail to use their own personal discernment in the face of messages from these authorities.

Then there is the matter of backlash in the face of disillusionment.  Some people, upon recognizing that a spiritual leader has in some way failed them or led them astray, decide to take charge themselves.  Religious institutions are filled with people on a quest for personal power, sometimes with a sense of righteous purpose, but almost always fueled by a measure of vindictiveness toward a person or group that didn’t quite fill out the role of spiritual leader satisfactorily.  In many cases, these selfish campaigns for personal power ignore the impact on the broader spiritual community, and the negative ripples may spread further than the crusader even realizes.

It’s probably fortunate for some people that there is not an intelligent divine being looking on to the chaos caused by those who claim to be his mouthpieces.  It’s dangerous to believe that you have a corner on the market of understanding what a god wants from his followers.  Prophets and their devotees spend more time and energy arguing with one another than they spend on actually living spiritually meaningful lives.  Unless, of course, arguing incessantly has some spiritual merit in a person’s belief system.  I suppose that’s possible.  I believe that there is a more satisfying way to live.

Leaders are important.  I don’t mean to suggest otherwise.  Innovators, visionaries, and mobilizers are necessary to propel a system forward, whether it’s an organization or a nation or a world.  The key is for people to realize that these human beings are just that.  Leaders are not granted divine immunity from fault or criticism.  There are a lot of people who speak for particular beliefs or causes, but there is no one who speaks for God.  Anyone in leadership benefits from people who are willing to think for themselves and evaluate the direction in which they are being led.

Which is where the third point of the Exodus story comes into play.  Ritual is powerful.  The Passover probably began as a bit of witchcraft, smearing lamb’s blood on a doorframe to keep evil spirits away.  It evolved into a colorful story about a people’s relationship with their god and a practice that preserved a culture.  The ritual embodies what is held to be spiritual truth, and it is a powerful symbol that touches the deepest parts of the human psyche.  The Passover ritual also becomes translated into Christian communion, the church having converted the ritual into a new spiritual context, as organized religion so often does.  Without the ritual, people may understand a set of beliefs intellectually, but the ritual reaches into places that the intellect doesn’t tread.

People have created rituals for a very long time.  Rituals were initially ways to connect people with the natural world around them.  Some of our contemporary celebrations (religious and otherwise) have been adapted from rituals honoring the natural occurrences of solstice and equinox.  The key is to recognize what beliefs a ritual is establishing for you.  Don’t take part in rituals that are not in alignment with what you truly believe.  If you want to become more deeply in touch with the divine, be a part of or create your own rituals that speak to that truth.  That goes for any belief system.  If the rituals you participate in have become habitual and empty, find a way to revitalize the practice.  When you are more deeply aware of who you are, you are more apt to see that value in others.  This goes for people who believe that they are forgiven children of God as well as people who believe that the divine is something they embody within themselves.

When we are honest about the deep and undeniable truth, beauty, and creativity within us, we are able to inspire that awareness in others and we are able to guide progress in a direction that truly honors our connection to ourselves, the rest of humanity, and the natural world.  In those moments of clarity when we set aside fears and personal agendas in order to consider the truths that run deeper than doctrines, then we stand a chance of speaking for the divine.  And in those moments of clarity, it doesn’t matter who we convince. Truth does not need a bullhorn.  Truth does not need to attack anything.  Truth does not need defending.  Truth does not need anyone to agree with it.  Truth is simply and undeniably true.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Exodus 3-4: Purpose, Passion, and "Calling" Come from Within (no shrubbery conflagrations required)

Moses’ story continues in Exodus 3-4, in which he is called by God to return to Egypt and negotiate the release of the Israelites from the country. When Moses argues that he isn’t capable of the task, God teaches him some magic tricks (gimmicks that were known by other “sorcerers” of the time). When Moses still resists, God angrily suggests that Moses’ brother Aaron can help. God also promises that there will be “dramatic displays of power” that will convince Pharaoh to do what God wants, and that God will forcibly keep Pharaoh stubborn until the displays of power have run their course. If Pharaoh acquiesced after the first couple of plagues, it would be like the audience leaving before the grand finale. As icing on the cake, God promises Moses that the Egyptians will heap wealth upon the Israelites when they leave, going so far as to label it a robbery on the part of the Israelites.

Then there is this tricky little scene that is so fraught with pronouns and euphemism that every translation says something slightly different. Basically, when Moses fled Egypt and ran to Midian for safety, he married Zipporah and adopted the cultural and religious practices of the Midianites. As such, Moses’ son went uncircumcised. When Moses and his family set off for Egypt, after God has gone through a great ordeal to convince Moses to even consider the journey, the Lord decides that Moses’ son needs to die because he wasn’t circumcised. So, with her son in the throes of what appeared to be a life-threatening illness, Zipporah gave in and circumcised her son. Depending on the translation, this was either something done with an understanding of symbolic ritual, or it was a repulsive act she performed out of desperation for her son’s life. Either way, once he’s circumcised, the boy gets better.

The matter of free will is certainly central to how things play out for the character of Pharaoh, and there will be plenty of opportunity to explore that in later passages.  Having established the character of the biblical patriarchs and their god in our exploration of the book of Genesis, it is not of utmost importance to go through each verse in meticulous detail to point out further moral, ethical, and psychological issues with the narrative and its characters.  It is more useful to look beyond the assumptions of the text and draw spiritual insight that can be meaningful in everyday life.

Accepting that the divine is something within us rather than outside of us, there are some significant ideas in Moses’ confrontation with the divine that are worthy of consideration. The divine is displayed as a burning bush which is never consumed. Fire can be frightening and fascinating. We talk about a people having a “fire in their bellies” or being “on fire” for a particular cause because we recognize the similarities between actual fire and human passion. Passion for an ideal or for another person can at times be frightening as well. It may threaten to overwhelm us and take precedence over everything else in our lives. Some of us tend to be afraid of being controlled by our passions, but it’s foolish to try to ignore them completely.

The things that we are passionate about stem from our essence. They are deep truths about us becoming manifest. Everyone isn’t passionate about the same things or in the same way, but there is something that burns within every person, untamed, unquenchable, and ultimately unavoidable. When we stoke our passions, they burn brighter, and when we ignore them, our own energy and sense of purpose gets consumed. There are ways to focus our passions and maintain them in a way that doesn’t run roughshod over every other aspect of our lives. However, in order to manage that fire, we have to embrace that it exists and that it is divine.

To say that the passions we have are divine is to acknowledge that they originate in that place of deep truth, beauty, and creativity within us. If it seems that the most obvious way to express our passions is to do something harmful to ourselves or another human being, we are missing something. The fires of our true passions are not about gaining power, but rather they inspire us to exercise the power we already possess in a meaningful way. That may seem like a challenge sometimes, but the reward is authentic connection with ourselves.

When Moses asks the burning bush for a name, the response is “I am who I am” (depending on the translation). While this is often interpreted as an indication as to the character of the Israelites’ god, it is also a healthy point of view for us to adopt about ourselves. We spend so much time worrying about being healthier, skinnier, more beautiful, wealthier, happier, more socially connected, more influential, more knowledgeable, more vindicated, and on and on. We are who we are. We can aim for lofty goals, provided those goals are tempered in the reality of our capabilities. That is precisely what our passions drive us to do. But any time and energy we spend detailing the ways in which we don’t measure up to some arbitrary ideal is squandered time and energy.

All of us can name some essential truths about ourselves. They may be character traits or things we experience for just a moment. We may think of them as positive or negative, but truth is simply true. If a person is sad… or unsociable… or fearful… or obese… or angry… or whatever, judging that state of being as inappropriate or wrong is a denial of truth. People are able to take action and make changes, but in order to travel to any destination, you have to be aware of your starting point. You are who you are. I am who I am. That is a divine truth.

Acknowledging who we are includes acknowledging the passions that blaze within us. If your passion is making birdhouses, it doesn’t make sense to spend all of your time campaigning for a political cause. There are other people who are passionate about various political causes, and it wouldn’t make sense for them to spend all of their time building birdhouses. Other people do not have to validate who you are. Who you are is simply true. People will not always agree on what is most important in life, in politics, in industry. But no one can determine what is most important to you except you.

Like Moses, we often make excuses as well. Fire is scary. Passion is scary. Truth can even be scary if we are accustomed to thoughtlessly accepting other people’s opinions as our own truth. There are plenty of resources on the market to help people stop procrastinating, stop making excuses, and take action. The key is that you know when you are making excuses. You may fool yourself into thinking that the excuses are true, but the part of you that burns with inspiration knows better. The truth of who you are is not a secret to you, although for some there are decades of excuses piled on top of that unquenchable fire.

Within each of us, that which we call “divine” burns with a passion for something that honors the truth of who we are in congruence with the value of every human being. It may be birdhouses. It may be freedom for people suffering in addiction. It may be dancing. You are who you are. You know what your excuses are. You can be done with them whenever you are ready.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Exodus 1-2: Identifying with the Oppressed, Idolizing the Heroic, and Being Truly Human

First, it bears mentioning that, after a century of archeological research, no physical evidence has been discovered to suggest that the Exodus story is factual, while considerable evidence has been discovered which contradicts the biblical account.  I mention this not to write off the story completely, but to clearly justify an examination of the story from a purely spiritual perspective rather than getting caught up in the debate about what parts of the story are fact or fiction.

That said, there are many people who identify with the oppressed, at least in their own minds.  In popular media and in conversation, we often demonize people with power or wealth.  Quite understandably, we can feel somewhat oppressed by comparison.  Even when we do what we believe is right, like the Israeli midwives in the story, we lie about it when confronted by people we fear.  We either turn ourselves into weak and vulnerable caricatures of people, or we see ourselves as shadow agents working through subterfuge under the radar to stick it to the Man.  “We’ll show you, Pharaoh!  We won’t kill those boy children, and then you’ll get your comeuppance!” 

When we see ourselves as weak, we often do things that artificially make us feel strong.  That included ordering larger meals at fast food restaurants in one recent study.  In our minds, more food somehow equals more power.  So the things we do to counteract our perceived weakness aren’t always healthy.  Quite the opposite, actually.  It’s a clever way of spinning our wheels and maintaining a false sense of victimhood in the long run while not making any real difference in the world.  Some individuals manage to turn their awareness of oppression into purposes that change reality for many people, and that requires something slightly different from wallowing in victimhood and taking potshots at the villains we create in our own minds.  The people who make a difference recognize two things: They understand that people are not the enemy, and they acknowledge their own strength.

This sort of person becomes something of a hero in the eyes of others.  Like Moses, we may invent a dramatic origin story for them.  All of the boy-children were getting drowned in the river by the CEO’s henchmen, but Moses escaped (through the will of God) and was raised as the CEO’s grandson until he became a violent civil rights activist and had to go into hiding because of his crimes.  We build up certain people into heroes partly because what they accomplish is so extraordinary.  Unfortunately, part of the reason we build up other people into heroes is that we don’t want the responsibility of making a difference on our own shoulders.  If we realized that our heroes are not superhuman, we may start to see how we could take action in small healthy ways, not to reclaim a false sense of power, but simply to do what we know is right.

There are many characters in the story.  It may be fun to identify the people we despise as the Egyptians and to identify ourselves as the poor oppressed Hebrews, but the truth of the matter is that every person is potentially Moses.  Of course, Moses’ first response to injustice went too far.  He killed a man and made another human being the enemy, and he was ashamed of that act.  He knew that standing by and watching another person get beaten was wrong, and he knew that he had the power to do something about it.  He just hadn’t figured out how to use that power effectively.  We are no different, when we are willing to acknowledge our own power to act.  We may not get it right the first time out of the gate.  That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try.

So, understanding spiritual truth comes from an awareness of what archetypes we identify with and how that alters our perception of the world.  We have authentic power that stems from a deep truth, beauty, and creativity.  And we can balance exercising that power with value for the truth, beauty, and creativity in others.  When we embrace those two truths, we can do extraordinary things.  And the more we do those extraordinary things and inspire others to do likewise, the more those acts will seem like ordinary behavior. After all, it isn’t really a matter of being heroic; it’s just a matter of being human.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The End of the Beginning: Concluding Genesis and Articulating Spiritual Premises to Move Beyond the Biblical Purpose of Cultural Preservation

Except for an odd tale of intrigue in Genesis 38 and a scene in which God renames Jacob "Israel" (even though the stranger Jacob wrestled with by the stream had already done so), the remainder of Genesis is about Joseph, one of Jacob's sons.  It is through Joseph that Jacob and his children wind up settling in Egypt, which is important for the cultural narrative of the Jewish people.  Basically, the story is that Joseph's brothers conspired to kill him because he was Jacob's favorite (and Joseph had prophetic dreams that his brothers would be bowing down to him), but then decided to fake his death and sell him into slavery.  These are the same men that wiped out a city because their sister had been defiled, but perhaps matters are different when it's your little brother that Daddy likes best.

Through various events, Joseph gets himself into and out of prison in Egypt and winds up as an influential overseer helping Egypt prepare for a coming famine.  Jacob's other sons go to Egypt to buy grain, and Joseph toys with them for a few trips before revealing that he is their brother, alive and well and bearing no grudge against them.  He tells them to get everyone from Canaan and come to live in Egypt, where he'll see to it that they're taken care of.  Of course, things don't turn out as well for Jacob's descendents in Egypt as the generations wear on, but through the momentary use of his influence, Joseph is able to make life a little bit easier on his father and brothers. 

The stated lesson derived from Joseph's story is that God was working in the actions of Joseph's brothers when they sold him into slavery; God took a malicious act and used it for good.  Good toward the people who had committed the malicious act and good for the victim of the malicious act.  Given the entire narrative up to this point, this benevolence may seem slightly incongruous, since the paradigm has been set that wicked people earn punishment and righteous people earn reward.  In that Genesis 38 story, God even puts one of Jacob's grandsons to death because he "spills his seed on the ground" when he's supposed to be impregnating his brother's widow. 

But actually, the bottom line in all of this is that God takes care of Abraham's descendents because he and Abraham had a deal.  Of course, Jacob's son Judah had gone off the reservation and had children with a Canaanite woman, so his children from that marriage weren't covered by the deal.  Thus, when Judah's sons do wrong by God's standards, they get instant death.  The God of the Old Testament is more of a cultural deity than a moral absolutist, and it's clear that the primary goal of the book of Genesis is cultural preservation.

If we twenty-first century people are interested in spiritual truth, in an understanding of the divine that has meaning for us in our lives, we cannot accept the Jewish deity as he is presented in the Old Testament.  This is why the New Testament is necessary for Christians, although many of them continue to look back at the culture and narrative of Genesis to determine how people and governments should behave today.  There is certainly some value in the spiritual truth conveyed in the Bible, but that truth is not always what people focus on when they look to scripture.  An abundance of cultural clutter gets in the way.

So, putting aside the cultural narrative and recognizing that people universally have much more commonality than they have difference, how can the book most Westerners turn to for spiritual guidance be re-evaluated?  There are some foundational assumptions that will guide us forward, and I've already articulated most of them through our look at Genesis:

First, spiritual truth is not the same as historical or factual accuracy.  Concern for validating the historical accuracy of what is written is a distraction from seeing spiritual truth that can be meaningfully applied in day-to-day life.

Second, people are not broken or in need of some external redemption.  Human beings have value because human beings have value.  People are capable of making decisions and taking actions without having to attribute the outcome to a deity or external spiritual entity.  When things go well, people are worthy of acknowledgment, and when things go poorly, people are strong enough to handle the criticism.

Third, that which people call the divine is a human characteristic.  The divine is the deep sense of truth, beauty, and creativity within every person.  Sometimes it is hidden, and sometimes it is more obvious.  The divine is a part of ourselves.  We are capable of ignoring it or working actively against it, and we are capable of tuning into it and trusting it.  It is the stranger we wrestle with internally when we are of two minds about something.  It is the voice that defends us to our internal critic.  It is the vision within us that connects us to the world, other people, and ourselves.

Fourth, we exist in the finite spectrum of an earthly life.  What happens after a person dies is a matter of faith, but we do know with certainty that we have an impact on the people around us.  If there is good that we are capable of doing, it is up to us to do it.  If there is any reason to seek reconciliation with someone, it is up to us to ask for and offer human forgiveness.  We have the precious resources of this world and the people around us at our disposal for only a lifetime; it is up to us to value them.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Dinah and the Shechemites: Not a New Band, Just a Story of Senseless, Violent Retribution

The actions of Jacob and his children didn’t always reflect an awareness of any sort of divinity, except perhaps with the assumption that they could do whatever they wanted because their god was better than other gods (which may not actually be any sort of awareness at all).  Consider the tale of Jacob’s daughter, Dinah, in Genesis 34.  Once Jacob and his family were settling into their new stomping grounds, Dinah went out unescorted to meet the other local women.  Shechem, the son of the area’s ruler (Hamor) saw Dinah and was instantly smitten, so he took her and slept with her against her will.  At least that’s the story recorded in scripture.  Jacob’s sons (Dinah’s brothers) were outraged, but they played it cool, deceiving Hamor and Shechem into thinking that they approved of a marriage between Dinah and Shechem.  They insisted that all of the men under Hamor’s authority be circumcised before plans could continue, to which Hamor readily agreed.  While the men were recovering from the minor surgical operation, Jacob’s sons slaughtered all the men, stole all of their wealth, livestock, women, and children, and considered it justice.  Jacob was angry that his reputation in the area was going to take a hit from his sons’ actions, but they showed no remorse.

When people tell stories about events that have happened to them, there’s no way to tell how much of the story is truth and how much is elaboration.  Even in this day and age, when two people engage in a moment of passion, they may have completely different accounts of the incident, should the occasion to talk about it arise.  If one person winds up feeling shame about the event, or thinks there might be something to gain from playing the victim, the story could easily become radically different from reality.  Even in reading the biblical account, it seems that Hamor and Shechem have a completely different understanding of the situation than Dinah’s family.  The alleged rapist wants to marry Dinah, Hamor wants to share his land with Jacob’s family, and they are willing to have all of their men undergo circumcision as part of the agreement.  It doesn’t seem like the behavior of ruthless criminals. 

Rape does happen.  And most people would agree that rapists deserve some sort of justice.  Even though it may be difficult to get to the truth when there are conflicting accounts, people who have been raped should not have their lives, behavior, or clothing scrutinized merely because they are brave enough to come forward.  That being said, it’s important to get as close to the actual truth as one can before meting out justice. 

But perhaps evaluating the nature of intimacy between Dinah and Shechem is out of place, considering the culture of the time.  If women were considered property, then it wouldn’t really have mattered whether Dinah consented or not, Shechem’s actions would constitute theft.  Maybe a closer story in today’s culture would be slightly less emotionally charged than considering one’s only daughter or sister as the victim of a violent sexual crime.  That image could understandably provoke a person to violence.  So, let’s consider a story about a car.

Imagine you have a classic car parked in a parking lot somewhere.  This car is a real beauty, your pride and joy.  But when you get back to the car after leaving it alone in the parking lot, you realize that someone has ripped open the steering column, hotwired the car, and taken it for a spin.  You are beside yourself with anger and disbelief, when a man approaches and says, “That is a great car.  I saw it sitting there and I just had to take it for a test drive.  I’d like to buy it from you.  Name your price.”

With your best poker face masking your rage toward this man, you say, “Sure, I’d love for you to have this car.  But, you and everyone in your neighborhood have to drink a bottle of this delicious wine.”  The man agrees, goes back to his neighborhood, and proceeds to get everyone drinking wine.  When the neighborhood is recovering from the alcohol, you go on a killing spree, slaughtering everyone in close proximity to this guy like you’re filming a slasher film.  Then you steal all of the cars in the neighborhood, as well as any valuable electronic devices, jewelry, cold hard cash, …you get the picture. 

Justice?  Not by a long shot.  Of course, this modernized retelling doesn’t capture all of the nuances of the cultures involved in the original story, but it doesn’t really need to.  No matter how you look at the situation, the actions of Jacob’s sons constitute a disproportionate response out of unchecked rage.  It’s a pretty impressive feat—killing a community’s men and making off with all the women, children, and valuables—but it’s far from model behavior.

Even as the heroes of their own story, the sons of Jacob come across as barbaric and nearly amoral.  Their sister was “defiled” by one man.  Their response is to kill an entire city of men and make off with everything and everyone else in the city.  And they set the stage for the slaughter by making a mockery out of the sacred sign of a holy pact with God.  It may seem clever, but it’s hard to call it just.  It would almost seem inhuman if it weren’t so close to some beliefs held by many people in the 21st century.  Many people still seem to find the idea of wiping out those who are different so much more compelling than the idea of learning how to find common ground and share the world with fellow inhabitants.

So, if we are not going to emulate over-the-top violence as a reaction to situations and people we don’t like, what is the alternative?  There are probably many, and the best among them are going to involve seeing other people as equal partners in creation.  People are all valuable and fallible, even the person who looks back at you from the mirror.  It isn’t about permissiveness or accepting wrongdoing.  Justice still has a place, when it is actually just and stems from the acknowledgement of every person’s inherent value.  Every person has that divine essence of truth, beauty, and creativity, but every person doesn’t tap into it equally.  So, in a word, we’re talking about forgiveness.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean eliminating consequences.  Forgiveness is simply a word for letting go of the dehumanizing hostility we so often direct at people.  There is no honest assessment of spiritual truth that can lead to the conclusion that forgiveness is an inappropriate response.  It’s a wonderful image to think that an all-knowing, benevolent god handles all matters of forgiveness, that mercy is ultimately the purview of the Almighty.  The concept of a Christ dying for the world’s sins can leave some people with the impression that the issue is handled without them needing to be involved.  But the act of forgiveness is our responsibility, regardless of religious persuasion.  Moreover, the act of forgiveness itself is healing, not to the one being forgiven, but to the person doing the forgiving.

Forgiveness is crucial to human relationships on every scale.  Without it, we are in a perpetual state of war with everyone, including ourselves.  There is still a place for justice, and actions have consequences.  We don’t have to make those consequences worse for ourselves and others by embracing hatred.  It is our responsibility as human beings to act toward one another in a way that honors our mutual value.  And when someone makes a misstep on that path, it is our responsibility to forgive.  It is one way of recognizing the deep truth, beauty, and creativity within ourselves, to recognize that even in the darkest of circumstances, we are capable of letting go of hatred.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Wrestling with God, Fear, and Ourselves: A rigged match that could have a big payoff

Once matters are settled with Laban, Jacob turns his focus to settling matters with his brother in Genesis 32-33.  Fear of Esau's anger was one of the driving forces behind Jacob's departure two decades earlier, since Jacob had tricked Esau, his elder brother, out of his birthright and their father's blessing.  So, Jacob approached expecting hostility.  He was prepared to offer great gifts of livestock in exchange for his brother's tolerance.  He never really considers apologizing or asking his brother for forgiveness, but the bribe seems to be a sort of supplication in itself.  Basically, Jacob has invented a scenario in his mind about how things are going to go and he plans for the events his imagination has concocted.

Before he and Esau are reunited, there is an interesting night in which Jacob wrestles with a stranger until daybreak.  In the story, the stranger suggests that he is God, and he changes Jacob's name to Israel.  Of course, he wrenches Jacob's hip out of socket first.  Now, there were no witnesses to this incident, and it seems like a fanciful bit of folklore.  Setting aside the question of whether the story is accurate, though, there is certainly something true about the lesson embedded in it.  It's common to hear talk of people "wrestling with themselves" about an issue, or being "of two minds" on a subject.  Neurologists have even been able to watch the physiological indicators of a mind struggling to reach a conclusion about a complex matter.  While we may not all have the experience of literally wrestling with a god, we can certainly relate to the feeling of wrestling within ourselves.

What if the two experiences were actually the same thing, though?  What if wresting with ourselves was actually wrestling with the divine by a different name?  While there may not be an external divine being to wrestle with, people certainly possess the characteristics of the divine within themselves.  We don't always recognize the truth, beauty, and creativity within ourselves, and we are often conflicted when expectations and actions don't line up with that deep sense of truth.  Whether it's our own expectations and actions, or the expectations and actions of other people or society as a whole, life can be pretty messy.  It can be a real wrestling match to come to terms with how we are going to be in the face of conflicting expectations and beliefs.  We can hope that the divine within us will win out, that the deep truth, beauty, and creativity will be stronger than misguided beliefs that foster fear and violence.  When we are really in tune with the character of the divine within us, the fearful and violent reactions might even seem silly.  Other times, the fear wins.

Like in the case of Jacob when Esau came to greet as a brother.  Esau didn't seem to hold any grudges.  He wanted to do everything in his power to make his brother's homecoming easy.  Esau had his own prosperity.  He wasn't suffering.  And he wasn't angry.  Still, Jacob just can't quite embrace that reality.  Whether it's out of shame or suspicion, he keeps his brother at arm's length.  We do the same thing when people or circumstances surprise us.  Sure, if something seems to be too good to be true, it probably is.  But sometimes we decide that something is too good to be true simply because it doesn't lock into the fears we've cultivated.  In those moments, the divine within us has lost the wrestling match.

The good news is that we are capable of changing how we see things, if we want to.  When we find ourselves wrestling within, we can hone in on the invented fears and imagined dangers we've been believing and wrench them out of socket.  We can let the divine -- that deep sense of truth, beauty, and creativity -- win the wrestling match.  We can ask for forgiveness without bribing someone into accepting our apology.  It isn't weakness to acknowledge when we've made a mistake.  We can receive the gifts that others offer graciously without trying to figure out what their angle is, or what's going to be expected in return.  Suspicion smothers beauty (although we can be very creative when we let our suspicions runs free).  We will most likely never find ourselves literally and physically wrestling with a god next to a stream until daybreak, but when we wrestle with ourselves -- when our fears and doubts wrestle with our divine character -- we choose which side wins.   

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Twelve Tribes Born of Jealousy, Fear, and Deceit: How the Children of Jacob Came to Be

Looking at the title for this entry, it becomes apparent that certain moral judgments are inescapable when people hear or read stories from other cultures.  To be fair, the Bible doesn't always blatantly pass judgment on the behavior of people like Jacob's wives; it simply states, "This is how she felt, and this is what she did."  Cultural mores and a cultivated societal understanding of right and wrong are bound to color how people are seen.  In a way, that's the point of much of this conversation.  In order to accept the Bible's teachings and apply them to modern-day life, one must be discerning about what makes sense and what doesn't fit with contemporary society.  It cannot all be equally accepted without analysis.  Many people want to lift up scripture as morally unassailable, but the truth of the matter is that we must use an internal sense of morality in order to judge what we read.

As an example, take the story of Jacob and his wives in Genesis chapters 29 through 31.  Back when Abraham was looking for a wife for Jacob's father Isaac, he was insistent that the wife be brought to Isaac instead of Isaac going to get her.  It's as if Abraham knew that his kinfolk were trouble.  Jacob has to find this out the hard way in dealing with Uncle Laban, who soon becomes Father-in-law Laban.  When Jacob had worked seven years to earn the wife he wanted, Laban changed the rules and told Jacob he had to first marry the elder (and uglier) daughter, Leah.  So Jacob worked for another seven years to get the wife he wanted, Leah's sister Rachel.

Laban was the very epitome of shrewd cunning.  When Jacob finally wanted to take his wives and children and head home, Laban played the grateful employer and (after over 14 years of not paying Jacob a wage) told his son-in-law that he could name his price to stay on and keep tending Laban's flocks.  Jacob wanted all the speckled or spotted goats or lambs, so after agreeing to the deal, Laban sent his sons to weed out all the speckled or spotted goats and lambs from the herds Jacob was tending.  Then he put three days between him and Jacob, probably feeling quite smug.  Jacob, while most likely feeling betrayed by his uncle, pulled a crafty bit of witchcraft and essentially bred his own wealth.

When he had had enough of Laban's tricks, Jacob took his wives and herds and children and headed back toward his father's land without telling Laban.  Just to twist the knife a bit, Rachel also took her father's household gods (or idols).  When Laban came to chase him down, Jacob was indignant, Rachel hid the idols, and Laban was forced to cut his losses and make a truce with Jacob.  So Jacob got the last laugh, not by being more righteous, but by beating Laban at his own game.

During all of this time, Jacob's wives had been having a breeding war.  Although Jacob loved Rachel more and found Leah to be less appealing, Leah was the one who got pregnant first.  In fact, Leah had four children by Jacob, which made Rachel very jealous.  Since she wasn't getting pregnant, and the problem obviously wasn't with Jacob, Rachel suggested that Jacob sleep with her maidservant Bilbah.  When Bilbah got pregnant, Rachel felt vindicated through a strange bit of vicarious conception.  After Bilbah had borne two of Jacob's children, Leah's competitive side kicked in and she threw her servant into the mix.  Leah's servant, Zilpah, also gave birth to two of Jacob's offspring.  The two sisters even traded herbal conception aids (mandrakes) for the opportunity to sleep with Jacob.  In the end, Leah had two more sons and a daughter with Jacob, and Rachel at long last (perhaps due to the mandrakes?) had a son, Joseph.  Some time later, after the departure from Laban, Rachel died giving birth to another son, Benjamin.

So, Jacob wound up with twelve sons by four different women, which wasn't a bad thing in that culture.  But wives were often considered valuable only in terms of the offspring they could provide to further the bloodline.  In fact, the story takes special care to point out why Rachel would be kept around if she wasn't bearing any children: She was aesthetically pleasing to Jacob, she was useful in hiding Laban's idols, she was loyal to her husband, and she had a handmaiden that could do the important work of conceiving children as a surrogate.  The fear of being worthless compelled Leah and Rachel to suggest some things that seem utterly alien to today's society, but it wasn't anything strange from Jacob's perspective.  Maybe the early Jews thought the situation strange, but every English translation conveys the story in very matter-of-fact terms, the impression being that this is just a recounting of how the twelve tribes of Israel came into being.  Whether there is any factual or historical accuracy to the story or not, it can at least be assumed that there is some cultural accuracy involved.

There are some spiritual lessons in these stories of Abraham's children and grandchildren as well.  In this particular case, there may be some lesson about trusting one's own ability rather than relying on an abusive "patron".  People often stay in situations in which they are being taken advantage of, simply out of a lack of faith in themselves.  Jacob's story encourages people to take responsibility for their own wealth and well-being.  His sacrifice for what he really wanted (Rachel) is also a lesson.  If something is worth having in the long run, it's worth some hardship in the short term.  In Jacob's case it was fourteen years of working without wages, but some people today are unwilling to make sacrifices for even a month or two in order to get what they truly want.

The lessons one can reap from the stories of these people are manifold, but they must be cast through the lens of the society in which a person lives.  A 21st century American man cannot expect to marry two wives, get to sleep with their maidservants as well, and perform a magic spell to make his wealth multiply.  He can expect, however, to wait for what he values and to cultivate a willingness to do every ethical thing within his power to create the life he wants.  Readers cannot look upon the words of the Bible, or any other text, and take it at face-value.  People must engage their minds in interpreting what is there, and that means tapping into the internal sense of what is right -- a sense of truth that surpasses personal preferences, and an awareness of beauty and value that sees beyond what is convenient. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Fear and Family Ties: Examining the Exotic Cultural Origins of Judeo-Christian Thought

Some say that blood is thicker than water.  It's also scarier than water for a lot of people.  In the story of Isaac and Rebekah and their sons, Jacob and Esau, we find that Judeo-Christian ethics emerge from a culture that is very foreign and very familiar at the same time.  It is the very insular and fearful culture of one family that forms the basis for biblical spirituality.  This, again, refers to passages in Genesis chapters 24 through 34.

Fear is a natural human emotion, and certain circumstances and relationships can foster fear more than others.  In Isaac's case, a certain amount of fear is learned from his father, Abraham, and he responds to it as Abraham did.  When Isaac is living in Abimilech's land, his fear of the other men there leads him to tell the same lie Abraham had told about his wife on more than one occasion.  Isaac identifies Rebekah as his sister.  When Abimilech sees Isaac and Rebekah being affectionate with each other, he realizes the truth and chastises Isaac.

Abraham's insistence on purity of the bloodline is also handed down to Isaac.  When Esau (technically the eldest son) marries local Hittite women, his parents Isaac and Rebekah are not pleased.  But Esau was responding to a dynamic that his parents created.  Even though Esau was the elder son, his brother Jacob was the one that mommy loved best.  In fact, Rebekah encouraged Jacob to steal a final blessing from dad while Esau was out hunting.  If the story is to be believed, when the two brothers were younger, Jacob had demanded his older brother's birthright in exchange for food.  When their father was about to die, mom apparently wanted to make sure the deal was sealed.  So, in a feat of trickery that seems unbelievable, Jacob tricks Isaac into believing that he is Esau and Isaac blesses him.

Here is the weird bit: When Esau returns, Isaac oddly declares that he only had one blessing to give and now he's out.  Even understanding that words have power and such, this seems like a strange claim to make.  "I have two sons, but only one of you can receive my favor."  How does that not equal atrocious parenting?  To make matters worse, when Esau challenges Isaac on the "only one blessing" claim, Isaac basically curses him with a prophecy of a challenging and violent life.  No wonder Esau gets back at mom and dad by marrying a few Canaanites.

As has been mentioned, it's a simple thing to write prophecies back into stories after the fact.  If the history of these two brothers and the legacy they leave behind are the main themes of the story, then prophetic words from the mouth of their father make for good storytelling.  This is essentially the way that an oral tradition works.  One has to keep the listener interested in the story if they are to remember it and pass it down to their descendents, and foreshadowing is a very effective tool for maintaining interest.  Still, the impression of Isaac as a father comes across as less than model parenting.  And while it may still be the way some mothers behave, the intensity of Rebekah's favoritism (which leads her to encourage deceitfulness between her children) isn't much closer to an idealized picture of what a mother should be.

In any case, according to the story, Rebekah and Isaac are not happy with the idea of Jacob also marrying some local trash, and Rebekah is afraid that Esau may be angry enough to kill Jacob.  Thus, Jacob is sent off to find a wife among his family's people and live with his uncle, Laban (Rebekah's brother).  He finds two wives, as a matter of fact, and they are sisters.  Rachel and Leah are actually Laban's daughters, and as the story goes, they are the first women Jacob sees.  Since they are Rebekah's nieces, that makes them Jacob's first cousins.  Since they are also Isaac's cousins twice removed, the two sisters are also Jacob's second cousins twice removed.

Laban doesn't make Jacob's courtship easy, either.  Jacob wants to marry Rachel, and Laban demands seven years of labor in exchange.  At the end of the seven years, Laban pulls a fast one and sends Leah instead of Rachel.  (Laban and his sister must have learned from the same teacher.)  But Jacob wants Rachel, so he works for another seven years and earns her hand as well.  Their story has lessons of its own, but the basic theme in all of this can be seen in the best light as maintaining purity and in the worst light as insular and xenophobic.  After all, holiness in its most basic definition means to be set apart.

The patriarchal family of the entire biblical narrative creates a belief system out of a fearful, insular culture in which deceit is practiced even within the closest familial relationships.  All of the mandates and "shalt nots" in the scriptures can be traced back to this behavioral tradition.  While we sometimes hear arguments that the culture of biblical times was different from modern-day culture, we rarely stop to think just how different it was.  This family preferred marrying multiple cousins in order to maintain a purity apart from the influence of the rest of the world.  Does that level of paranoia seem healthy on any level?  Why do we accept rules and axioms based on fear and deception?  Why is it impossible to conceive of a scenario in which brothers are encouraged to coexist peacefully and relatives don't deceive one another just to get their way?  Aren't people capable of more than this?

That's a rhetorical question, of course.  Some people don't believe people are capable of anything more than this.  Some people believe that we are indeed deceitful, conniving, and scared at our very core, just like Abraham's family.  The only person in the bloodline who seems to have any sense is Esau, who sees the relationships around him and decides he wants nothing to do with it.  Although even he goes a bit overboard with marrying four Canaanite women just to spite his parents.  Children of all ages are influenced by their parents' dramas, and the patriarchal line of Genesis is no different.  Everyone has choices, though.  We are only bound by the fears and beliefs of our parents as far as we want.  We have the option to claim an identity based on trust and hope rather than fear and deception.  And we don't have to go overboard like Esau in order to do it.

The desire for separateness brings up another issue for modern American society, however.  If those who wish to honor biblical standards of behavior also were content to keep themselves apart from mainstream society, there are few people who would challenge them.  Like Abimilech, leaders would most likely say what they could to make believers feel safe and let them do as they wished provided it didn't infringe upon the livelihood and well-being of others.  However, some believers want to hold everyone to their standard.  They want the whole of the population to be compelled to adhere to a standard that has more to do with fearfulness than it does with right and wrong.  And many of them are quite willing to practice deception in order to get their way.  While we can see a biblical precedent for this kind of behavior, this is not keeping oneself apart.  This is not maintaining holiness.  This is bullying, plain and simple.  Frankly, I believe we are capable of better than that.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Evaluating the Power of Prayer: Is It Magic, Meaningless, or Personally Transformative?

A couple of times in the story of Isaac and Rebekah, the practice of prayer comes up. It will continue to come up frequently in scripture, obviously, so a basic understanding of prayer seems appropriate at this point. Even among religious people, there are different beliefs about the value of prayer. Some people claim that prayer can heal disease, mend broken relationships, provide guidance or comfort. However, there are also medical studies which suggest that people have more post-surgery complications if they know that strangers are praying for them. Whatever the case, any understanding of prayer has to take into consideration the belief system in which it originates.

Most Christians would agree that the God they believe in is omniscient, omnipotent, and loving and compassionate beyond human capability. In light of this view of an external divine being, prayer can have only a few possible interpretations. Sincere prayer can only be magic, meaningless, or solely valuable to the person doing the praying. Public prayer can also be used by people who want to convey the appearance of righteousness and holiness for political reasons, and prayers can be used by people who want an excuse for certain actions or decisions. These distortions are less than sincere, however, and this is an important distinction to make. It goes without saying that the practice of using prayer to manipulate other people’s opinions or perceptions is despicable and abusive.

But why would sincere, effective prayer be equated with magic? Any time people believe that they can have a supernatural effect on the world around them, this is the practice of magic, witchcraft, or alchemy. If God can be convinced to take action by a person’s persistence or faith, this actually places power in the hands of the believer rather than a deity. It is really no different from deciding that if the right color candles are lit and the right incantation spoken, you can make another person fall in love with you, or recover from an illness. Of course, one may believe that God is a loving and all-powerful being who simply waits for the actions of believers in order to have an impact in the world. There’s nothing to prevent a person from believing that the prayers of the faithful can move God to action. But a person who believes in that particular flavor of witchcraft or magic should at least recognize it for what it is.

If there is an all-knowing, loving deity who cares for people, then it follows that such a being would do what it was willing to do, whether people asked for it or not. If God intended to heal someone, it would seem that the person would get healed whether anyone prayed for it or not. So, if prayers are not magic, and if God is completely powerful and loving, then there’s actually no real value to prayer. God will do what God will do, whether believers request it or not. Otherwise, people are constantly at the mercy of those who choose to pray rather than a divine power.

None of this changes when one considers the idea of prayers for guidance. In witchcraft terms, this would be called divination. People have also used astrological charts, tea leaves, Tarot cards, bones, gut instinct, self-help books, and any number of other resources for guidance. It’s natural to want to know what the right answer is before making a decision. But if one can coax an answer from God by fervent prayer, this is really no different from sorcery. Likewise, if God wishes to put a believer’s feet on a particular path, wouldn’t he do so with or without a specific request for guidance? There is nothing loving or compassionate about playing games with people’s fates based on whether they ask the right questions.

There is another option, however. Whether any sort of divine being exists or acts in the world, prayer can alter the perspective and the attitude of the person doing the praying. When people take the time to quiet their minds and sincerely align their attitudes with their values, there can be a profound personal impact. One may not be able to cure cancer with an attitude adjustment, but a person can certainly find peace and guidance from a still moment of contemplation or prayer. There is also the matter of gratitude to be considered. Recognizing and expressing one’s gratitude can be an extraordinary way to align one’s actions and intentions with deeply held values.

The objection may be voiced that prayer must be directed outward, by definition. How can one seek guidance if there is no higher power to do the guiding? How can one express free-floating gratitude without someone to be grateful to? I honestly don’t see the problem with turning inward for guidance, or in acknowledging gratitude without a deity to address. Just as happiness and anger and sadness are emotions that don’t always have discretely defined objects, gratitude is an emotion. One can be thankful without addressing the thankfulness to anyone in particular. And I believe that many people already know the answers to their important decisions, although we don’t always trust ourselves. We want some sort of reassurance, especially when our ideas seem out of sync with mainstream thought. Realizing one’s capability to guide oneself can empower a person to take action even when there are no blatant signs from above to rely on.

In fact, taking action is perhaps the most effective way to ensure that a prayer will be fulfilled. There is perhaps a temptation to wait for an external deity to do something. This temptation is fueled by a perception of an external divine that is wiser than any person and capable of producing miracles with the same ease that human beings breathe. Without an illusory deity to grant wishes, it falls to the individual to act in accord with a sincere prayer. Hopefully, such action will not only be in accord with an ephemeral wish, but also in alignment with deeply held values. So often, people can be their own answer to prayer, if they are only willing to act in accord with what they want and bring forth the power of creation that dwells within every person.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Relying on Signs from God and the Abdication of Personal Responsibility

Much of the book of Genesis is about cultural history: where places are located and the origins of their names, the lines of successions of various places’ rulers, and the lineage of the forefathers of the Jewish people. Then there are stories about those forefathers, some of which seem like they could have been written by a sensationalist modern-day screen writer. Although some people see only encouraging spiritual lessons in these stories, the tales contain some rather disturbing content as well. Taking things in bite-sized chronological chunks doesn’t necessarily give a complete picture of what’s going on with these people, so the next few segments will dwell on a span of chapters from Genesis 24–36.

After Sarah dies, Abraham takes on another wife, Keturah (presumably a local Canaanite girl), and she is young enough to bear him six more children. The descendants of these children became the Letushites, Leummites, and the Midianites. Although the Letushites and the Leummites are not mentioned again, the Midanites thrive as nomadic, polytheistic shepherds until Moses raises up an army to destroy them. The atrocities of that hostility are not enough to put the Midianites down, though, because they return later on to be a thorn in Israel’s side during Gideon’s time.

Abraham apparently did not have the same kind of close or instructive relationship with the sons of Keturah as he did with his son Isaac. Still, before he died, Abraham gave considerable gifts to the children of his concubines (plural) and sent them away, leaving Isaac with whatever was left. But Abraham didn’t think a Canaanite girl would be good enough for his son, so he sent his right-hand man back to the land of Abraham’s people to get a wife for Isaac. The servant set out for Nahor, the town founded by Abraham’s brother, where he met Rebekah, the grand-daughter of Nahor (which means she’s Abraham’s grand-neice, and Isaac’s first cousin, once removed).

When the servant sees Rebekah, he knows that this is the woman for Isaac. He claims that this is because he prayed to God and defined the precise signs by which he wanted God to guide him. The precise signs were the first girl who offered him water to drink and water for his camels, and to make it easy on God, the servant stood next to a spring. This level of hospitality was not uncommon for the region and the time, so the servant was basically making it easy on himself. When he saw Rebekah, he also rushed to intercept her, doing his part to help things along.

Rebekah’s brother, Laban (who will show his true colors when Isaac’s son Jacob comes a-courting), and her mother, Bethuel, approve of the marriage and send Rebekah off to join Isaac in Canaan. The story suggests that they approve because of the servant’s tale about praying to God and then seeing Rebekah, and her display of hospitality in offering water to him and his camels. While it is impossible to know what goes on in the mind of every modern-day believer, it seems suspect to dictate exactly how a god should reveal the right decision. If I want to go out looking for a wife, I could say, “God, send me a sign by having the woman you want me to marry smile back when I smile at her.” I could then go out and smile at any attractive woman I encounter, and voila! God has spoken.

On the other hand, if I am enjoying bachelor life, I could say, “God, send me a sign by having the woman you want me to marry ride up on a grizzly bear, juggling artichokes and singing Mack the Knife.” I could then sit in my house all day and determine that God doesn’t want me to marry anyone. I might make such demands based on my level of interest in the result, or as a way of acting out a self-destructive drama. Either way, the decisions I make determine the likelihood that I will get what I want out of the situation. Attributing things to God serves the twofold purpose of getting human beings off the hook and making the decision indisputable.

The response to a prayer of Isaac shows a different side of the perceived external divine, however. Rebekah was childless, so Isaac prayed to God that she would have children. His prayer was answered. Rebekah got pregnant, but she had a feeling that something was wrong. God told her that the twins she was carrying would establish nations which would be at odds with each other, and that the older would serve the younger. Some kind of cosmic practical joke? “I will answer your prayer for children by cursing you with children who have problems getting along with each other.”

Well, these kinds of prophecies are easy to make after the fact. There are many women in the world who get pregnant without praying for it, and there are many women in the world who don’t get pregnant despite fervent prayer. Just as prayer doesn’t make the right bride appear, prayer doesn’t make conception occur. If it did, that would be like magic. And while it’s convenient to blame a divine prophecy for the behavior of siblings, the story reveals plenty of reasons why Rebekah’s twins, Jacob and Esau, would have a difficult time getting along with each other, not the least of which was parental favoritism which led to bullying and deception. We surely can’t lay all of that on the shoulders of an external divine being.

It’s convenient to place control of all that is good or bad in the hands of an external, all-powerful being. When we like something that has happened to us, the external divine can serve as an object for our gratitude. When we don’t like what has happened to us, we can blame an external divine instead of our own choices, and if we are fearful enough of that external divine being, we will accept the consequences without too much complaining. After all, “everything is just as God wants it to be.”

The problem, of course (as has been stated before), is that people make decisions and choices that impact their lives and the lives of people around them. Sometimes, it would be easier just to be honest with ourselves about what we want. After a long journey, if you are willing to ask the first attractive girl you see to marry your master’s son, just be honest about it. Gut reactions and personal desires are going to determine those things anyway. Just be honest with yourself. If you want to go out and get a job, make the decision to go out and do everything within your power to get it. If you just think that you should be working, out of a sense of obligation, be honest that your heart isn’t really in the search. Figure out what is standing in your way, and be honest about what you want. The results of being blatantly honest with oneself can be profound and life-altering. Attributing every outcome to something outside of oneself is a form of victimhood, and it can lead to seeing oneself as weak and incapable. Most people are strong enough and capable enough to be honest and take responsibility for their own actions.

Accepting a realistic level of personal responsibility for our circumstances is healthy, as is recognizing what aspects of our lives are simply out of our control. Just because something is out of our spectrum of control, however, doesn’t mean that it is meant to be or willed by an omniscient being. Sometimes, things just are. There’s no divine purpose behind a bad relationship, or a toxic work environment, or problems with the construction of a house, or the death of a family member in a car wreck. One can potentially reap spiritual benefits from any circumstance, but that again comes down to personal choice.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Morality of Being Willing to Kill a Child Doesn't Change Just Because You Think God Told You to Do It

Continuing with the narrative of the Old Testament story, Abraham and Abimilech make peace, the elderly Sarah gives birth to Isaac and promptly becomes too jealous of Hagar to bear having her around, and Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael (Abraham’s firstborn) out on their own into the wilderness, with God’s blessing. Which brings us to Genesis 22, in which Abraham takes his son Isaac to a mountaintop with the intention of sacrificing him to God. He reportedly does this because God told him to, and thus Abraham is willing to go through with it. At the last minute, a ram caught in a nearby bush (seen to be provided by God) is substituted for the boy, and God makes a promise about the future of Abraham’s bloodline.

Supposedly, the promise God makes to Abraham at the end of this horrifying story is the seventh promise God has made to him, but the promises are all strikingly similar: God grants Abraham a stretch of land (although he doesn’t provide any legal documentation that anyone else would honor), he promises Abraham lots of “children”, and he makes promises about how mighty and prosperous those children are going to be. Since the Jewish people are the ones who scribed all of this after passing it down through word of mouth for generations, one would expect them to be the heroes of the story. The promise by God is obviously intended to be indisputable, except that this story calls into question God’s morality and trustworthiness.

First of all, why did God find this test to be necessary? Abraham had already made a pact with God involving sacrificing animals, and then he made a further pact with God requiring physical mutilation, for which Abraham and his descendents really didn’t get anything further from God for the additional requirements. It is as if an insurance company decided to add an enormous fee onto the premium while offering no additional benefits, simply because they don’t quite trust their customers. Even though Abraham is faithful with the requirements of previous agreements, God decides he needs to be tested. The primary reasons to test people are either because you want to verify they know the material or because you don’t trust them. Abraham obviously knew the content and requirements of the previous arrangements, because he did what God had requested of him. So, this test can only be about God not trusting Abraham, which seems remarkably insecure for an all-powerful deity, but there it is.

Readers of this story may see spiritual lessons about trusting God in difficult times or about God providing what one needs or about God honoring the faithful. Such lessons are much easier to accept if one doesn’t think too much about the motivations of God in the matter. It’s one thing to think of a being as all-powerful and deserving of respect, but the all-powerful being’s behavior in this story is petty and manipulative. Who challenges someone to see if he will kill his own son, just to prove a point about divine might? Later on, Christians would see this story as a mirror of God’s own sacrifice of his son, which is an obvious narrative parallel, except that the God of this story in Genesis seems to have some psychological issues, not the least of which is a profound insecurity that leads him to require further evidence of Abraham’s faithfulness, just so God can renew a promise that wasn’t made with an expiration date.

So, apparently to satisfy his own ego, God commands something immoral, confirms that Abraham is willing to do this immoral thing without question, and then steps in and saves the day. Say what you will about God’s provision or trustworthiness, but the entire situation wouldn’t have existed unless God had contrived it and the sacrifice wouldn’t have needed to be provided if God hadn’t required it. Certainly, there were other gods worshiped in the area at the time, and there are reports of other people sacrificing children. The archaeological evidence of any widespread culture of child sacrifice in the area is scarce, but the Jews certainly accused some neighboring peoples of the practice. To the casual observer, the willingness to sacrifice one’s child is evidence of equal moral depravity, whether a ram gets substituted in the end or not.

It comes down to a matter of blind obedience. Trust without thought can be dangerous, even dangerous enough to put people’s lives at risk. If one believes in a Creator, then surely one must assume that the Creator provided human beings with brains for a purpose. Not to use those brains for rational thought seems like an insult. Beyond that, trusting in an external source to provide a way out of difficult situations abdicates personal responsibility. If one knows that killing a child is wrong, it is ludicrous to lose one’s moral compass for the sake of trusting something outside of oneself. The concept of an omnipotent and all-loving external divine being opens the door for people to stop reasoning for themselves. And if they can pin any horrific behavior on that omnipotent and all-loving divine being, then the mindless faithful and the god are both beyond reproach.

The entire concept of trusting God, even when what he asks seems suspect, opens the door to rampant justification for bad behavior. On top of that, people often wind up with different ideas about what God wants. How does one determine who is right? It would makes sense for believers to rely on their own internal awareness of what interpretation respects other people and acknowledges the innate beauty and value of every human being. Instead, the deciding factor is often which interpretation is expressed with the greatest amount of outrage and conviction. Plenty of horrific acts throughout the course of humanity have been pinned on God, because no one can legitimately argue against God. The truly horrific part is that God did not swoop down and stop any of those actions with a ram caught in a bush. Nor will he. The conclusions believers choose to draw from that observation are likely to be different from the conclusions I come to, but the fact remains that God does not intervene when people do immoral things in his name.

Reading or hearing the story of Abraham being willing to sacrifice Isaac may convince you of God’s trustworthiness and the value of faithfulness, but the God of this story behaves in such a petty, manipulative, and insecure manner that I would find him difficult to trust if I believed in him. But where do we turn in the absence of an all-loving, omnipotent divine being? Some people are happy to believe in an external divine being, even one which displays symptoms of severe psychosis, just because there seems to be such a void without such a belief. I would suggest that human beings have value, and that we all possess the means to acknowledge and respect that value, should we choose to be thoughtful and aware. I have written these words before, but they bear repeating: Every person embodies an innate truth, beauty, and creativity, and every functional adult is capable of taking personal responsibility for honoring and respecting that innate truth, beauty, and creativity. That is the divine nature. It is not outside of us, driving us to do immoral things so that it can swoop in and save the day and gain our eternal gratitude and adoration. The divine is that truth and beauty and creativity within us, and we have the power to acknowledge it in ourselves and in every other person.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Human Condition: Why Making the Same Mistake Over and Over Again Doesn't Mean We're Broken

Leading from the idea that there are discrepancies in the narrative of the Bible, Genesis 20 is an excellent case in point.  Back in Genesis 12, Abraham lied to the Egyptians, claiming that Sarah was his sister instead of his wife.  Although Abraham prospered for a while because of his deceit, he was ultimately driven out of Egypt, and the lie cost him a great deal of comfort and security.  So it seems a bit odd when, much later in his life, after it is already declared that Sarah is an old woman and no longer able to bear children, Abraham lies to another group of people and claims that Sarah is his sister.  Quite honestly, it seems that this is just another version of a story about an important event or lesson in Abraham's life.  It seems unlikely that a man would make the same huge mistake twice, especially considering the level of maturity Abraham is supposed to have reached by this point.

The stories do end a bit differently.  Not only did the lie in Egypt cost Abraham, it cost the whole world a great deal of peace and security, if we take the story at its word.  One of the things Abraham gained in Egypt was Hagar, the Egyptian servant with whom Sarah suggested Abraham sire a child.  This was not only acceptable in the culture of the time, it was justified between Abraham and Sarah as following God's will.  Well, according to the story, Sarah winds up getting pregnant in her old age as well, and she winds up resenting the Egyptian servant woman and the boy that Abraham fathered with her.   So, Hagar and Ishmael are eventually sent away, and this Ishamel is the forefather of Muhammad, and thus is an important figure in Islamic culture.  Meanwhile, Sarah raises her own son, Isaac, a patriarch of the Jewish people.  No one can say what would have happened if Abraham had simply told the truth in Egypt, or if he hadn't slept with Hagar.  The end result of Abraham's first lie about Sarah has been centuries of conflict between the descendants of his two sons.

Of course, that conflict hadn't become an issue when Abraham lied the second time about Sarah being his sister.  It's worth stating again that the story seems unlikely as an accurate historical record of Abraham's life, but there is something that rings true about it on a deeper level.  Abraham indicates that it was habitual for Sarah to be portrayed as his sister and not his wife.  It had apparently been the practice in their relationship to deceive people out of fear for Abraham's safety.  Fear is a powerful motivator, even if it leads us to make mistakes we have made before.  That is the aspect of the human experience that makes the story plausible.

People do sometimes make the same mistakes over and over again, even when it costs them a great deal.  Some may look at that trait and determine that human beings are hopelessly broken.  That isn't the most helpful perspective.  Deciding that a person is incapable or that a situation is hopeless denies a deep truth about personal responsibility.  When we believe that we have no real power in our own lives, it's easy to keep making decisions that yield different results than what we want.  When people realize their own responsibility in a situation, they also recognize their own control.  If a person sees the realistic power to change, then the possibility for making decisions differently becomes an attainable option.

People make decisions for all sorts of reasons.  Fear is often a huge factor.  In fact, just about every decision we consider to be a mistake is the result of fear in one way or another.  There is something to learn from those decisions.  We might make similar choices many times before we fully understand our power to do something different, but once we reach some measure of awareness about our own power and responsibility in our own lives, we have many more options than what fear allows.  When we acknowledge the deep truth and beauty and creativity within every person, we open the door of possibility. 

People are not broken.  People are not hopeless.  People are not incapable.  Some people have more apparent challenges than others, but all people embody the capacity to do good in the world.  Even as we make the same mistakes over and over again, the possibility always exists to recognize the deep truth and beauty and creativity within us.  It is not out in the universe somewhere, pulling strings or watching and listening and judging.  It is immediately accessible within our own beings.  Our mistakes (no matter how many times we have made them) call us to recognize the falsehood of our fears and to acknowledge the truth about our own personal power and responsibility.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Why the Concept of Scriptural Inerrancy Is a Matter of Faith and Not Evidence

There are those who believe that the Bible is true, and there are those who believe that the Bible is not true. Among these groups, there are a number of refinements that can be made. Sometimes beliefs form out of an opinion regarding one specific aspect of scriptural content. Some may think that the miracle stories are far-fetched, or that the creation story is not to be taken literally, but they think the historical and geographic record is more or less based on fact. Incidentally, this is the camp where I usually place myself. Some who claim that the Bible is true mean more or less the same thing, except that they probably believe in the divinity of Jesus and the validity of the resurrection. In fact, many times when people say that the Bible is true or not true, they are really expressing their belief about one very specific event in the Bible: the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.

Many Christians understand that this is a matter of faith. One cannot prove much about even the existence of Jesus, since there is so little trustworthy information about him outside of the scripture. If something is a matter of faith, then by definition it must be believed without concrete proof, and many people of faith understand this. It causes some problems when believers insist that other people believe the same things they do, at which point having convincing evidence makes a bit more of a difference.

Thus the “truth” of the Bible enters a prominent place in the discussion. Some people determined that if the Bible was accepted as absolutely true, then there should be no question about the existence, divinity, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus, nor should there be any doubt about the need for salvation and the gift of grace. Likewise, if any part of the Bible is seen as fantastical or outright falsehood, then the value of the passion story is potentially jeopardized. It is as if faith needs at least some supporting facts for some people. Thus, every time an archaeologist makes a discovery that coincides with a Biblical account of geography, some of these proponents of scriptural inerrancy claim, “See, the Bible is true! Every last bit of it.”

There are some problems with the concept of scriptural inerrancy, and the biggest problem is the absolutism of the idea. If one part of a story is factually accurate, one cannot assume that the entire tale is factually accurate. Suppose I told you that there is a Recognized Bank building on the corner of Willow Avenue and Market Street, and on the 12th floor of that bank building, there is a law office. In that law office, there works a secretary who is a vampire, and she keeps blood packets in the break room. With just my story to go on, you might think, “There’s no such thing as vampires, this story can’t possibly be true.” But, when you drive past the corner of Willow Avenue and Market Street and see the big Recognized Bank building, do you then suddenly believe the whole thing? Do you accept that there is a vampire working in a law office on the 12th floor of that building, just because you have verified one aspect of my story?

You wouldn’t have to accept it as true, of course. You could look into the matter. You could go to the 12th floor and see if there was a law office there. You could examine the secretary. You could investigate the break room. If any part of my story is false, it doesn’t erase the fact that the building is exactly where I claimed it to be. It is completely plausible that one fact in my story checks out and another detail turns out to be false. So proving one fact that was recorded in the Bible only proves that one specific fact. It does nothing to prove any other scriptural claim.

“Ah,” some might say, “but we have verified the trustworthiness of the writer. If he is right about one fact, why should we doubt the rest of what he wrote?” (Yes, I think some people may have slept right through the vampire secretary example.) Which scriptural writer are we to trust, exactly? The biblical canon was composed over a number of generations by a number of different people, and the decision about what to include or leave out of the Bible was made hundreds of years later by a completely different group of men (at the Council of Trent in the 16th century). There is no one writer for us to trust, even if it made sense to think that a person’s story is more trustworthy because they placed it in San Diego rather than Gotham City. Sure, San Diego exists, but that doesn’t mean that every story placed in San Diego is true.

Aside from the historical accuracy argument, there are really no other logical principles on which scriptural inerrancy is based. Some would say that the Bible claims to be true, and therefore it must be, because God cannot lie. This entirely self-referential argument cannot be accepted as evidence to anyone seeking any kind of proof. One cannot verify the accuracy of a written document simply by virtue of an author’s claim. In fact, every so often, a new book catches everyone’s attention because of the revealing “insider” details it contains, and everyone is equally disappointed to learn that the author made up most of the story. Anyone who needs the Bible to be infallible or inerrant in order for their faith to be bolstered would surely understand the problem of a self-referential justification.

Claiming the Bible to be absolutely and completely true based on church history and tradition isn’t any better. This is really just a self-referential argument by proxy. It would be like your friend telling you about the vampire secretary and claiming that it was true because he heard from a trustworthy source. You may trust your friend, and your friend may trust the story’s source, but if there is no way to check a source other than blind trust, then we are talking about faith, not provability.

The only claim that makes any sense with regard to Biblical inerrancy is one that does not attempt to convince anyone else. There is nothing wrong with a believer who claims, “I believe that the Bible is completely true.” If personal experience and reason have led an individual to a statement of faith—belief in something which cannot be proven—that is a matter of personal choice. No one else need accept that belief in order for it to have value, and no archeological discovery can strengthen or weaken a determined belief. Only the individual can determine the criteria by which to accept or reject the validity of spiritual writings, and those criteria don’t need to have the same meaning for anyone else.

Ultimately, a belief in scriptural inerrancy is entirely a matter of faith. If one actually looks closely enough at scriptures, one is confronted with some inconsistencies. While this may not bother someone looking for the spiritual truth underlying the words, when someone needs for the text to be completely accurate, it presents a problem. On the matter of spiritual truth, one must also deal with how to interpret what is written. One must be discerning to know when people claim to speak biblical truth that they are not actually conveying a personal interpretation. There is no “one truth” of the Bible, no absolutely correct way to interpret what is written on its pages. If it were so, then Christians would be united under one banner instead of bickering back and forth among and within various denominations and factions.

My perspective in writing this sequence of scriptural interpretations is not to prove or disprove anything, although I will state clearly that I do not believe that the Bible is entirely accurate or trustworthy. I approach it with a skeptical lens, to be sure, and at the same time I want to see what is spiritually valid and appropriate for our time. The Bible provides a spiritual jumping off point, because it is familiar to me and to so many other people. What I write is what I see as truth, in the hopes that I will inspire other people to think for themselves and discover or claim a deeper truth for their lives, even if their truth is different from mine.