* 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, 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.