* 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

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Fear of Not Having Enough: Challenging the Scarcity Thinking of Genesis 13

I've mentioned that fear can keep us from recognizing the truth, beauty, and creativity within ourselves and other people in various ways.  It crops up again in Genesis 13, in a way that has created conflicts that have spanned generations.
Fear can also lead us to dig in our heels about issues of entitlement.  Whether we think we deserve something because we have worked hard for it, because someone made a promise to us, or because we deem it unfair that someone else should have something we don’t, a sense of entitlement is a sure way to work against the truth and beauty within us.  It may be a salary range, a particular car, a specific-size house, or a piece of land.  It could even be a designer purse or pair of shoes or a piece of electronic wonder.  Believing that we are entitled to it, whatever it is, can be an incredible roadblock to happiness.

One problem is that we seem never to have enough.  If we get the house we want, we need a bigger one.  If we get the land we want, we need more of it.  If we get the toys we want, we need the newer model.  And when we treat people like possessions, it works the same way.  Whatever it is that we believe we are entitled to have ultimately fails to satisfy us completely.

Here is a difficult truth, if only because it seems so harsh: Life is not fair.  Some people have more and some people have less.  Some people get sick and some people stay well.  From the outside looking in, it seems that some people have it easy and some people can’t catch a break.  There are some things we can do to improve our chances of getting what we want in life.  Insisting that our lives be different out of a sense of fairness isn’t one of them.

Not only is life not fair, life does not make any promises.  Even if parents and teachers and ministers and authors told us differently, there are no actual guarantees about what we will have or what we will lose in the course of our lives.  People who work hard often get the income they want, but not always.  People with healthier diets sometimes live longer, but not all of them.  There is no secret formula that will ensure with 100% certainty that our lives will be what we want them to be, as individuals or as a people.

There is good news in all of this, even though no one is really entitled to anything and even though there are no guarantees.  There is enough.  When we engage our innate sense of deep truth, beauty, and creativity, there is enough of whatever it is that we want.  There is enough land.  There is enough food.  There is enough money.  There is enough.  Certainly, there are some commodities that are scarce, but the things that are necessary are plentiful.  We may lack sufficient crude oil for all that we would like to do, but we do not lack sources of energy.  Recognizing opportunities and abundance simply requires a different baseline premise.

If we begin with the premise that a divine being made a promise to someone thousands of years ago, and that we are entitled to reap the benefits of that promise, immediately we run into trouble.  Other people may have just as much of a sense of entitlement as we do, and both sides may go to great lengths to defend that belief, with neither side being able to offer any real evidence toward the validity of their claim.

If, on the other hand, we begin with the premise that there is plenty, we then get to engage our creativity in an entirely different way.  We are capable of creating a multitude of solutions to any challenge of resources, but a sense of entitlement unavoidably limits what we can create.  When we start off accepting that no one is entitled to anything, no matter who they are or what promises may have been made, our true strengths as human beings have an opportunity to shine.  There is not only a way for everyone to have access to what is necessary, there is certainly a way for everyone to have access to what is desirable, if only we are willing to seek it out and engage our minds and actions in creating it.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Liars Deceive Themselves First: A Life Lesson from Genesis 12

Some of what I've been suggesting as a re-interpretation of the Bible may be difficult to accept without question, especially with the number of competing beliefs and assumptions we already have running around in our minds.  We have certain ideas about other people and about what we have to do to survive in this world.  Not all of them are accurate, but they all seem absolutely true.  One of the most common conclusions we draw is that it would be easier to deceive others than to tell the truth.  Or if not easier, then at least safer or wiser.  As many of us know from experience, lies often wind up being much more costly than the truth in the long run, even when our motivation seems on target.

Reasons for lying or bending the truth often seem quite logical, but it almost always amounts to a matter of safety.  We think that we will be somehow safer if we keep the complete truth hidden.  Through maintaining falsehoods, however, we put ourselves in a position of constant threat.  At any moment, someone may find us out, our deception will be revealed, and we will suffer the consequences of that deception, regardless of the truth we initially sought to hide.

At their core, people are not frightening or untrustworthy.  It’s true that there are some people who do frightening things, and there are some individuals who betray confidences.  That doesn’t change the value of the adage that "honesty is the best policy."  Fewer people get hurt by honesty than by deception, and after all, most deceptions spring from fear that could be entirely irrational.  When we are willing to wrestle with the possibility that people may actually embody a deep truth, beauty, and inspiration, and that our fears may be nothing more than the creations of our own imaginations, deception seems quite unnecessary.

I have largely steered clear of story-telling because of how subject to interpretation stories can be.  For now, though, recall the story in Genesis 12 of a man journeying to a foreign land with his wife.  A famine had struck their own homeland, so they were traveling to a place of greater abundance.  This man didn’t trust the people of the foreign land, however, believing that the men of the land would kill him and take his wife.  So he told them that the woman with him was his sister and not his wife, thinking that this would keep them safe.  Since she was an attractive woman, the ruler of the land desired her.  After claiming that the woman was his sister, what could our traveler say to the ruler’s proposal of marriage?

The traveler was given many gifts as a result of his deception, and he lived a life of luxury since the ruler welcomed him as a brother-in-law.  But the ruler and his court soon experienced a plague of curses which could only be traced back to the marriage born out of deception.  Calling the traveler into his presence, the ruler rebuked him for his persistent lie, and he returned the man’s wife and sent them both packing.  They had to leave behind all of the gifts and luxury, and they were no longer welcome in a place that could have provided for them while their own land was in the throes of famine.  Although it may have held some benefit in the short term, deception wound up costing the man the very security he had lied to obtain.

There are those who will conclude, "Ah, but if the traveler hadn't lied, things would have been much worse."  Such arguments have very little merit.  No one can tell the future, and no one knows what would have happened if...  For every un-manifested bad consequence a person can imagine, a more desirable outcome could likewise be conceived.  The fact is that when we deal in deception, we rob ourselves of our innate value and we create a reality for ourselves defined by suspicion and fear.

Of course, the way we choose to express the truth also makes a difference.  Angry or belligerent truth-telling can be difficult to hear.  Such tones stem from some potentially false assumptions about the willingness of other people to hear truth and the ability of ourselves to speak it clearly.  Connection and trust often requires a bit of vulnerability, and when we are willing to see the intrinsic value, beauty, and inspiration in others and ourselves, that vulnerability and truth-telling becomes easier.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Wisdom of Acknowledging Similarities over Differences: Rewriting Genesis 11

One of the most familiar biblical tales, the story of the Tower of Babel appears in Genesis 11.  It makes sense to blame or credit a divine force for the dispersion of cultures and peoples, and from the context, it even seems like this was considered a wise thing to do.  My revision, or course, stems from a radically different perspective. 

We like to notice differences.  It’s something that our brains do well.  Differences in language, for example.  Some might say that if it weren’t for our differences, we could accomplish just about anything as a unified people.  But when we start looking for differences between people, the list is nearly unending.  Every culture has its own unique way of doing things, its own stories, its own songs, its own language.  Every family has its own unique history, its own traditions, its own inside jokes.  Every person has unique experiences, beliefs, strengths and weaknesses.  However minutely we might want to parse groups or individuals into different categories, there are innumerable differences we can use as criteria.

Like children with a healthy sense of curiosity, we may notice all of these differences and wonder why.  Why are we not all the same?  Why do we have different stories, different songs, different traditions, different strengths?  Some people think there must be a good reason for us to have so many differences.  There must be a good reason for us to have such an obstacle in the way of accomplishing the great things we could do if we shared more in common.  Some of us might conclude that a higher power must have ordained the vast differences we observe.

Of course, there’s also something within us that hates to be wrong.  If someone does something or believes something differently from us, then we slip easily into judging which is right and which is wrong.  Most of the time, we are quite insistent that our language or beliefs or traditions are right, and therefore those that are different must be wrong.  If we have the approval of a higher power supporting us, then we have even more reason to be convinced of our own rightness.

If we take a step back to the question of why all these differences exist, there’s a possibility that we don’t really need an answer.  Merely accepting that there are differences between people and families and cultures might even lead us to look for commonalities.  Not only does the list of commonalities between people extend at least as far as any tally of differences, the truth and beauty and creativity at the heart of every person certainly outweighs any differences we may perceive.  In fact, that very sense of truth and creativity is what allows us to overcome any challenges that arise because of differences.

The 21st-century world has room for a multitude of beliefs and traditions and songs and languages.  While there are ethical and moral circumstances in which right and wrong are legitimate concerns, our personal beliefs and cultural traditions are not truly threatened if we give credence to the beliefs and traditions of others.  Humanity is full of differences, but human creativity, persistence, and ingenuity have devised ways to overcome those differences time and again.  We are actually alike enough that it is essentially as though we all share a common language.  When we truly acknowledge all that we share in common with one another, nothing we plan to do in unity will be impossible for us.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Problem with Theocracy (and why a born again evangelical president is a scary

Amid my re-contextualization of the Bible, this seems like an appropriate time to address The Response (a prayer rally organized by Texas Governor Rick Perry), given its implications for religion and politics…

I don’t know Rick Perry’s heart.  My conclusions are therefore more about generalities than about anything specific regarding a single individual.  My take on things may be seen by some as cynical. I see some people’s take as na├»ve.  That’s fine.  We all have our opinions.  But some “believers” I’ve heard over the past couple of days are confused about why anyone would have a problem with a devoted Christian president.  They think that fear of authentic Christian leadership is totally irrational, and they may be right. There are a few issues worth keeping in mind, however.

First, I have a very difficult time believing that there is nothing political about a politician organizing a massive prayer meeting with people who are celebrities in the eyes of typical Christian Conservatives. Anything a politician does in public is political. If it isn’t, then we’re talking about a very uninformed or thoughtless politician. Anything and everything a politician does can make or break an entire political career, so everything a wise politician does has to be calculated. Timing the event one week before he officially announces his intention to run for president of the country suggests a very calculated political decision.

"But over the course of the seven-hour event, nothing was mentioned about anything political. It was just prayer and worship."  Someone doesn’t have to come out and say something political in order for their actions to be politically motivated.  In fact, not saying anything about national politics was a very smart political move that potentially won over the hearts and minds of thousands of Christian voters.  If it wasn’t intentional, then the man isn’t half as smart as I give him credit for being.

"But he prayed for President Obama and his family."  Again, doing so was very politically and strategically astute.  In a time when a large number of people are very frustrated by news about ineffectual partisan bickering in Washington, the only appropriate response by a presidential candidate is to illustrate how well he can get along with the other side.  He didn’t just make a campaign promise, he prayed for his potential opponent in front of tens of thousands of people.  I simply cannot believe that this was not a politically-motivated decision.

There is nothing wrong with a politician being political.  That’s what politicians are supposed to do.  Politicians are also supposed to be elected based on their ability to make appropriate decisions and lead effectively, not because of their fervent and passionate faith.  Preachers, on the other hand, are supposed to preach.  Christians look to pastors for faith matters, because the role of a religious leader is to guide people in matters of spirituality.  To elect a president based primarily on his statement of faith is tantamount to saying that our country’s problems can only be solved by God.  It’s like saying that we need a leader who will not rely on his own wisdom, but will be subservient to God’s will.  I understand that some people do indeed hold this belief, which is why I believe it’s important to point out a couple of problems.

Spokespeople for the Christian Right have claimed that secular thinkers are arrogant for believing that they know better than the word of God.  It’s true that some secular views differ from the views of some Christians, and they often differ from a Fundamental biblical perspective.  Christians don’t all agree on what God wants, though.  Some Christians think that homosexual couples should be allowed the freedom to marry, and some Christians are on record as believing that all homosexuals deserve to burn in hell.  Some Christians believe that God wants his people to be prosperous and some believe that the model of the early
church in the Bible demonstrates that socialism is the appropriate model for a godly society.  Christians interpret the words of the Bible with incredible variety and nuance, and no person can know with certainty that one interpretation is better than another, because God has never clarified it distinctly enough for all Christians to come to the same conclusion.  So, while secular thinkers may seem arrogant for coming up with an idea that isn’t overtly Christian, every Christian who boldly claims to know what God wants is being equally arrogant.

Trusting one’s own ability to draw a reasonable conclusion is a good thing.  It’s a trait that leaders need, even when they are willing to hear a multitude of different views on a subject.  Effective leaders make difficult decisions and take responsibility for what they decide.  This goes for leaders who embrace secular ideas as well as leaders who base their conclusions on spiritual conviction.  Secular leaders don’t have any real excuse when an idea doesn’t play out as planned.  They can blame their advisers, but ultimately a leader with integrity bears the responsibility for his decisions.  Few leaders have unrestrained ability to act on their ideas, so it’s often easy to spread the blame around.

People who base their decisions on spiritual conviction are not really all that different.  While some people may seem to be spiritually attuned and utterly convinced of the rightness (and righteousness) of certain ideas, their position is no less subjective than a secular view point.  Since all Christians do not agree on what God wants, every believer has an individual responsibility to determine what makes the most sense.  Certainly there are broad schools of thought, but the same is true of secular thinking.  The conviction that an idea is better because it is based on some scriptural passage is just as arrogant as any other conviction that an idea conceived by a human mind has merit.

Here’s the hitch: There is no way to debate Conservative Christian absolutism.  It doesn’t matter what the conclusion is -- if it originated from something in the Bible, it is unassailable.  Secular ideas can theoretically rise and fall based on their own merit.  If something doesn’t work, it can be dismissed in favor of a better alternative.  When an idea is thought to come from God, it cannot be legitimately questioned, it is "beyond human understanding", it is allowed to fly in the face of human wisdom, and to ignore or dismiss it is a rejection of the Almighty.  Secular leaders may be able to get away with blaming their advisors from time to time, but how does one respond when a spiritually-motivated leader “blames” God?

Sure, it creates the ultimate illusion of humility for a leader to claim, “I am not the important one here. I am but a vessel for the work of Almighty God.”  It also creates the ultimate deflection of responsibility.  Whatever happens is what God wanted to happen, and no one can truly measure a person’s obedience to God’s will without making assumptions about what God wants.  When anyone uses the argument that God spoke to them, the conversation is over.  There is no real way to refute an argument that needs no logical explanation and must be accepted on blind faith.

This is why theocracies are essentially no different from dictatorships.  An unscrupulous person can declare whatever he wants and frame it as a command from God.  People may think that they would be able to see through such chicanery, but some of those same people likely believe that there was absolutely nothing political about Governor Perry’s prayer meeting.  A smart person can easily take advantage of the absolute authority some Christians bestow upon a mouthpiece of God.  If a majority of voters decide to elect the person who seems to walk closest with their God, it is really no different than electing a high priest.

All of the usual checks and balances will still be in place, of course, and a leader with wild ideas is likely to meet opposition in Congress no matter where he claims the ideas came from.  And Governor Perry’s idea of what God wants may not be all that bad.  Maybe he knows that God wants us to stop killing people on foreign soil in the name of freedom.  Maybe he knows that God wants women to have the freedom to make up their own minds about whether they are willing to be good mothers.  Maybe he knows a truly Christian government would set an example of humble servanthood, would turn the other cheek, would pool everyone’s resources and ensure that no one went without.  Some Christians think those things.

I don’t know Rick Perry’s heart.  But along with at least 15% of the American population, I find it difficult to trust the intentions of a person who claims to take his marching orders from on high.  My sense is that anyone elected to the American presidency with the political support of the Christian Conservative bloc will mirror their values.  If they represent the majority view of the American public, then it’s understandable that someone who reflects their values would be placed in charge of the country.  If such a person is elected based on personal capability and strong leadership skills, every citizen can reasonably expect an appropriate measure of responsibility and accountability.  However, if a person is elected based on perceived godliness, it sets a dangerous precedent that could be easy to manipulate and difficult to challenge.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Genesis Chapters 5-10

Genesis chapters 5-10 covers a lot of genealogy and the story of a global flood that has parallels in about 500 stories from diverse ancient cultures from every area of the globe.  Coming from a perspective that rejects the idea that natural disasters are punishments from on high, what I make of these chapters is a message relating to how we incorporate the lessons of the past into our lives in the present.  My re-contextualization of these six chapters boils down to one paragraph...

Leading in from my reinterpretation of Genesis 4: It is up to us to break the spiral of fear and shame which stifles connection, and to embrace the truth and beauty and creativity that can bring us back around to satisfying relationship. This requires being boldly honest with ourselves.

In part, this bold honesty requires acknowledging the past without being chained by it. This applies to our own past as individuals, and the past of our parents and lineage. When we blindly accept the mandates of our parents and ancestors, we cease to acknowledge our own truth and beauty and creativity. Many people who went before us made decisions based on fear and shame, and it is not for us to continue along that path. Many people who went before us understood and embraced the truth and beauty and creativity within themselves and others, and we can learn much from their legacies. Therefore, we must greet the past with honesty and discernment, so that our own journeys are enhanced and not impeded by those who have gone before. Their blessings and curses only mean as much as we allow.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Letting Go of Shame: Genesis 4 Revisited

In response to a great suggestion about last week's entry, here is Genesis 4, which is primarily the story of Cain and Abel.  You can read it in whatever translation you prefer.  This may help to draw some lines of comparison between the original message and my revision, should you so desire.  I hope the spiritual truth I convey here stands on its own, but I also understand the value of tracing the train of thought back to the original text. 

One of the results of the fear that keeps us from honoring the truth and beauty and creativity within ourselves and other people is envy.  It may be that we fear that we won’t be taken care of, that we’ll miss out on some important experience, or that we won’t get a satisfying amount of respect and adoration.  Our fear may even seem justified when we see other people getting what we deem to be better results than we are.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of measuring people’s value by how much they own, the car they drive, the clothing they wear, the food they eat, or the house they inhabit.  These trappings don’t impact a person’s value one iota.  People have intrinsic value because of the truth, beauty, and creativity within them, not their bank account or lifestyle.  When we have wealth, we fear losing it; when we see other people with more than we have, we fear that we will not have enough.  And of course, there are plenty of other fears about wealth and lifestyle.

The frightening thing is that we sometimes do atrocious things to one another out of fears that are based on misguided nonsense.  Our fears lead us to insult, steal, and even kill.  Our fears create conflict where none needs to exist.  Once again, shame often springs up in the wake of our fear-based actions, and instead of seeing the truth and beauty and creativity in ourselves and others, instead of being inspired by the world around us, we seal ourselves off from it and suffocate our own souls from the connection upon which we thrive.

We can recover from our misdeeds.  Other people can recover from our misdeeds (and their own).  The world can recover from our misdeeds.  It may not be pleasant, and it may take time, but the possibility always exists for true connection with the natural world, with other people, and with ourselves.  It is up to us to break the spiral of fear and shame which stifles connection, and to embrace the truth and beauty and creativity that can bring us back around to satisfying relationship.  This requires being boldly honest with ourselves.