* 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

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Numbers 1-4: Counting People and Organizing a Society

Thus far, we've looked at the first three books of the protestant Christian Bible, which are traditionally attributed to Moses, although scholars have determined that the books were authored by several different contributors over a long period of time.  Thus far, the books have largely been about the preservation of Israelite culture, primarily through belief in an external divine being who favors the Jewish people somewhat arbitrarily.  Part of the establishment of this religiously rigorous culture involved elaborate sacrifices for various things, essentially giving up something personal to make amends when one acts contrary to the culture's policies.  A special group of people were assigned to oversee the religious life of the Jewish people, and these were the Levites, those men descended from Levi, Jacob's third son.  More about the Levites in a moment.

Rather than accept the culture-specific deity suggested in the Old Testament, most Christians primarily rely on the story of Jesus and the teachings of the New Testament to bridge the gap.  Essentially this reflects the belief that over time, as culture changed and developed, spiritual truth evolved as well.  It is no longer necessary to offer elaborate animal sacrifices whenever a person does something wrong, because Jesus eliminated that requirement.  It is no longer necessary to adhere to strict dietary guidelines, because Peter had a holy vision.  And in some cases, people just assume that the Bible's earlier teachings are invalid because we have grown in our understanding of how the world works.  We don't hang twisted sticks by a water trough in order to make livestock be born with curly hair because we know that biology doesn't work that way, and we don't worry about whether a person is "clean" or "unclean" because hygienic and medical practices have become more robust in the thousands of years since these laws were written.  What's odd is that many people seem to be just fine with the idea that some "laws" can change with the culture, while other laws are immutable, even though they are all declared with the same authority in the biblical text.

In my own language, I have been suggesting a redefinition of the divine as something within us rather than something apart from us.  Rather than eliminating the idea of what people consider divine, to a certain extent I am merely repositioning those qualities in our cosmology.  I believe that there is no external intelligence watching, guiding, punishing, and rewarding humanity.  The guidance and punishment and reward comes from within us, from a part of ourselves of which we aren't always aware.  Psychologists have given different names to this piece of our psyches, but it carries the characteristics of the divine.  This part of us does not fear, and therefore it does not deceive.  It is the part of us that sees the deep truth about ourselves and the people around us, the vast similarities that lie under the superficial differences.  It is the part of us that understands the beauty and value of who we are and seeks to discover that beauty in other people and in the natural world.  It is the part of us that creates, whether it is creating works of art, practical solutions to problems, or connections with other people.  The divine is within us and it is us, and when we are in tune with it, we realize how little we actually have to do to be at peace with ourselves.

Being at peace with ourselves is important, because all of our experience hinges on whether we are accepting and loving toward ourselves.  The beginning of the book of Numbers reflects how the Israelites expected to interact with the people around them.  Their god, through Moses, had proclaimed that other nations would fall before them.  Other nations were essentially infidels, although the translators of the Christian Bible don't often choose to use that term.  The preservation of a pure Israelite culture required the prevention of intermingling, so anyone who wasn't an Israelite was an enemy of the Israelites and their god.  Thus when the first census is taken among the Israelite community, they count only the men at least twenty years old who could serve in the army.  They didn't need to know how many women or children were in each tribe because the warriors were the ones who would be driving away the non-Israelites.  At the time, women and children were essentially property, not fully recognized people.

It's interesting to note that when a command in the Bible is attributed to God, he often seems to adopt the worldview of the people through which he's speaking.  Since the men of the day saw women and children as property, God saw no point in counting women and children in the census.  There are also plenty of other examples in the previous books and in the books that follow.  Wouldn't it have made more sense for God to maintain a sense of the value of all human life, even when the people to whom he was speaking didn't?  This is the problem with relying upon any person's declaration of what God wants.

Moses meant well.  After all, he wanted to preserve his people and their culture.  The authors who wrote the Old Testament meant well.  They were striving to keep their culture sacred.  They probably actually believed the righteousness of their words.  But when a person sets out to control other people's behavior, it is usually more from an inward fear than from any sense of what is true.  Moses tapped into some divine guidance from within and sought to impose order on a people who hadn't reached any measure of spiritual awareness.  And instead of training people to look within themselves and discover the truth about how to live with one another in a productive and healthy society, Moses and the early Israelite leaders attempted to lock the culture down.  Only a select few were allowed to be in touch with the divine, and all the rest hundreds of thousands of men, plus their women and children were supposed to be good followers and do what the religious leaders told them to do.

These religious leaders, at the beginning of the book of Numbers and beyond, were the Levites.  The Levites were counted differently from the rest of the Israelites, because the Levites were not going to be fighting in any battles.  Instead of counting every male of twenty years and older, the Levite census included every male of one month and older.  One month out in the world was when a male Levite became a legitimate person according to God.  Not at birth.  Not at conception.  Not at some age of reckoning.  One month.  Inerrantists and militantly religious anti-abortionists, take note.

We know more now than the Israelites knew.  We know more about the natural world, we know more about how individuals behave and why, and we know more about how societies and subcultures function.  When someone tells us something intended to sound factual, we know how to check our sources and verify the truth of what we're told.  And when someone tells us something spiritual, we know how to test that within ourselves.  We are not incapable of thought.  We don't need someone else to think for us, but that often seems easier than digging into ourselves and discovering something of value.  When you allow someone else to think for you, though, you give up personal power and you make yourself vulnerable to whatever ulterior motives another person may have.  Don't just drift along on other people's assertions.  At least be aware of your own beliefs.  Think for yourself.

The Israelite leaders may have wanted what they thought was best for their society, but that doesn't mean they had the only solution.  Many people today are willing to go to war against all manner of things in order to do what they think is best for society, and many people simply want to preserve power.  It isn't always easy to tell the difference, but fortunately we don't have to.  Here is something few people realize: You cannot be at peace with yourself and at war with other people.  When you are at war with other people, you must vigilantly defend yourself against them.  And when you are vigilantly defending yourself, you are not really aware of that deep sense of truth, beauty, and creativity.  Your focus is outward, at what threats may be coming.  When you are peace with yourself, you are aware of the truth, beauty, and creativity within you and you are simultaneously able to recognize those qualities in the people around you.  This is the most powerful spiritual position a person can assume.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Rewriting Leviticus, the Little Book of Legalism that No One Really Likes

The book of Leviticus gets its name from the descendants of Levi, who had special religious and political responsibilities among the Israelites. While there are certainly spiritual lessons to be gleaned from the Bible, the book of Leviticus has a very legalistic message that largely has little bearing on modern life. There are a few verses here and there which have merit as sage advice, as we’ll see, but even within the overall context of the Bible, the legalistic approach didn’t work. That’s the whole point of the New Testament, actually.

Which is a point worth mentioning, since there are those apologists who promote the concept of biblical inerrancy and insist on using the Bible as proof of its own veracity. A large portion of the book of Leviticus deals with the appropriate way to handle blood sacrifices: which animals are appropriate for what kind of sacrifice, how the sacrificial animals are to be handled, and how soon it has to be eaten by the priests. If the Bible is absolutely true and without contradiction, then these regulations (from God, mind you) have to be addressed. Most Christians would say that all the business with sacrifices was nullified by Jesus, and that’s all well and good. Except that it means a portion of the inerrant, infallible scripture has been improved upon and rendered obsolete. Which is not to say that the New Testament has it “right” either, but merely to point out an obvious discrepancy.

Another large portion of the book of Leviticus is about cleanliness, as in what kinds of things make a person clean or unclean and what a person must do to regain purity. Among the things that make a person “unclean” are: leprosy, menstruation, having a discharge of any kind below the waist, giving birth (especially giving birth to a girl), touching certain animal carcasses, or eating a creature found dead. Ritual washing after a waiting period is typically enough to cleanse a person from those impurities. Mold is also unclean, and if washing moldy clothing or walls doesn’t get rid of it, a priest can order the moldy object to be destroyed. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. We still have issues with mold in our homes today. Some of the ideas about what makes a person “unclean” reflect a certain level of ignorance within the culture, however.

Of particular interest are the regulations about what can be eaten. Orthodox Jews today still follow many of the prescribed dietary laws of Leviticus, if not all of them. Americans will be disappointed to learn that fat is prohibited, along with pork, rabbit, shrimp, monitor lizards, and “flying insects that go about on four legs.” The laws even go so far as to dictate something of a “resting period” for fields, years in which nothing is harvested so that the land will continue to be bountiful. That part’s not actually a bad idea. Most people wouldn’t have a problem giving up bats and weasels from their diet, although they may not be keen on adding grasshoppers to the menu. The biggest problem with this whole topic (aside from the idea that what a person eats can make them innately impure) is once again with regard to the issue of inerrancy.

In the New Testament, it is proclaimed that all food is clean. Peter reportedly had a vision about it, and Paul wrote explicitly that all food is clean and people should stop getting hung up on such insignificant issues. I’ll just come out and say that I agree with this point of view. It bears noting, however, that the same Bible that declares all food to be clean also declares that, according to God, eating some things will make you unclean and could get you kicked out of the community of chosen people. Both statements cannot be true. And if God is infallible, then how can he have changed his mind on the subject? Since the Bible obviously holds contradictory information, it doesn’t make sense to cling to the concept of a completely inerrant body of scripture. And, truth be told, most self-proclaimed Christians use a certain amount of personal discernment and judgment about such things anyway.

The last big topic in Leviticus is sexual impurity. We don’t really need divine guidance to tell us that we shouldn’t sleep with our close relatives, but it’s understandable given what we know about Abraham’s family tree that this was important information for the Israelites to clarify. And it is clarified in great detail. It is spelled out exactly with whom (and what) a person should not be having sexual relations. Punishments for disobedience range from being ostracized or childless (which their god could obviously determine), to being burned or stoned to death. If nothing else, it certainly offers some insight into how the Israelites were tempted to pass the time as they were wandering in the wilderness.

Leviticus also records some very wise advice, though. For instance, it recounts the commandments about not stealing from each other, not deceiving one another, and not lying about people. It commands employers to deal with their workers honestly and justly, and it instructs people not to hold grudges. One of my favorite lines urges people to confront people directly and earnestly instead of sugar-coating things or just standing by and watching someone’s unhealthy behavior. In fact, it is here that the Bible first admonishes, “love your neighbor as yourself.” It’s a shame that these tidbits of wisdom are scattered in and amongst rules about not trimming the sides of your beard. It can be easy to lose sight of what’s important when confronted with the legalism of exactly how a purification sacrifice has to be done and exactly which of your family members you can’t sleep with.

But it isn’t all threats of punishment from on high. There is a short passage in which God expresses what the reward will be for following all of the laws. He’ll send rain to nourish the earth, and he’ll make their harvests plentiful. He’ll make the land peaceful, eradicating all the wild beasts and keeping invaders out. In fact, he’ll make the enemies of the Israelites fall by the sword before them. He’ll increase the Israelites in number, and he won’t hate them. If they just do everything properly.

These sorts of promises seem somewhat problematic. How many people have to do things right in order for the harvest to be plentiful? If it doesn’t rain, how do we know whose fault it is? And if it does rain, does that mean that we’ve been perfect? If our numbers increase, does that mean we’ve done everything right? Or right enough, at least? Or is it only the actual number of Jews that we should be keeping track of? While there are some people who still believe that natural cycles are a direct measure of God’s satisfaction with humanity, most people understand that weather patterns are not based on whether my neighbor eats fat or sleeps with his aunt. The abundance of our food supply depends on a lot of factors, but none of those factors has to do with whether we have properly put our community’s sins into a goat and set it free in the wilderness.

The book of Leviticus reminds us how ludicrous we can be sometimes when we start trying to control every detail and ensure perfection in how we orchestrate our lives. For those who are Christian, the book shows the need for a savior, since it would be impossible for anyone to do everything precisely according to the law. From another standpoint, perhaps it is worth looking at the few rays of insight that shine through the legalism. Which basically boil down to one thing. Respect people. Just respect other people. Not for any particular reason. Just because they are human beings. We don’t need magical rituals to purify us, and we don’t need to stone people or burn them when they make mistakes. We have done and will do some things that we’re not proud of. We’re all in the same boat as far as that goes. If we could just cultivate a little respect for other people, we might eventually even be able to make a few more laws obsolete.

So, the book of Leviticus rewritten? Respect people. All people. And if you fail to do so, forgive yourself and go back to respecting people again.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Being Chosen: The Incompatibility of Predestination and Free Will

The remainder of the book of Exodus (chapters 35 through 40) goes into meticulous detail about the construction of the tabernacle and the lampstand and the container for the stone tablets God rewrote for Moses -- everything that the Israelites considered necessary to create a sacred place where sacrifices could be offered and worship could take place.  Since we've already discussed the importance of consciously choosing what we are going to make "sacred" in our lives, these chapters do not offer much more spiritual meat.  Of course, they would be great resources if you happen to have some gemstones and precious metals lying around and you're looking for a project.  

There is one short paragraph at the end of Exodus 34 in which Moses is described as glowing after he has been in the presence of the divine.  It may be hard to imagine what that looked like, since no one these days seems to get close enough to God to come away from the experience with radiation poisoning, but there are people who visibly exude authority, power, even spiritual depth. Some of this may be good acting, but some people genuinely "shine" when they walk into a room.  They attract attention because of the intensity of their presence.  It's much easier to imagine Moses radiating an intimidating sense of authority and power, even spiritual understanding that surpassed the average Israelite.  After all, Moses was chosen by God.

This may be an opportunity to compare the integrity of radiating from the divine within us with the fleetingness of radiating because we got close to some external source of divine power.  However, I believe that by this point the premise is clear that what we call "divine" is a part of ourselves that we often keep hidden and of which we may even be unaware.  The divine is something we can discover and develop within ourselves rather than an external intelligence who acts to aid or hinder us.  The idea of Moses being "chosen" does provide an opportunity to address one of the logical fallacies about God many people hold to be true, namely the connected concepts of omniscience and predestination.  This topic has been addressed by many others, but that's no reason to avoid it here.

Not all people who claim the label "Christian" believe in predestination, and there are some people who believe in a form of predestination and don't consider themselves to be religious at all.  They call it something else, like Fate, but they mean more or less the same thing, that some force has already chosen a path for our lives.  There is a prevalent belief that if one lives according to this predetermined plan, then one will be happy and successful, and if one goes against this plan, it leads to misery.  In the sense of the Christian concept of God, this idea of predestination springs doctrinally from two sources.  The first is the belief that God is omniscient, or has complete knowledge of everything.  The second source is a handful of scriptures which specifically mention predestination.  We'll take a look at the actual biblical passages first.

Although there are many scriptures which suggest that trusting the guidance of the divine is better than ignoring it, there aren't many scriptures that specifically say that everyone's path has been determined in advance by a divine being.  One oft-quoted passage comes from the first chapter Jeremiah: Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations. Taken in context, it is clear that this is intended to credential Jeremiah specifically, not as a universal message to everybody.  As a part of his final words to his disciples, Jesus is quoted in the book of John as saying, "You did not choose me, but I have chosen you."  Again, in the context of that phrase, it's clear he's talking specifically to the men gathered around him at the time.  So, it's important to recognize the context of biblical passages, even if one chooses to believe that the Bible is completely infallible.  

The clearest support for the idea of predestination comes from the letters of Paul and Peter, who make mention of the concept that before time began, God already had chosen those who would believe in him and have salvation.  Paul puts it this way in his letter to the Romans (8:29-30):
For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son . . . And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.  
In his letter to the Ephesians, he wrote:
In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.
Other mentions of predestination by Paul and Peter are along the same lines.  God supposedly selected at least some people ahead of time to be called into religious service.

Again, I want to be very clear that this perspective is not one I espouse as an atheist.  It's one of those concepts that I found difficult to accept even when I considered myself to be a "believer," and there are many different interpretations for the concept even among Christians.  While there are some ways to interpret this that make some theological sense, let's start at the other extreme.  There are some who reason that if God knows all things, then God knows the future of every person.  This would mean that God already knew, before you were born, what job you would have, who you would marry, what your kids would be like, what kind of relationship you would have with your parents, who you would vote for in every election, and, of course, whether you would go to Heaven or Hell when you die.  By this reasoning, God already knew that I would be writing these words and that you would be reading them, before time began.  This perspective eliminates any illusion of personal choice or freedom.  Not only does it make the idea of "saving" or "redeeming" anyone ridiculous, it eradicates the entire concept of personal responsibility.

"Wait a minute," you say, "just because God knows what I'm going to choose doesn't mean I don't have a choice!"  You can't have it both ways.  If God is infallible and knows all things perfectly -- past, present, and future -- then no person has any choice about anything.  If God knows what will happen, every decision has already been determined in advance.  This can be comforting on a certain level.  Whether your job is crappy or sublime, it isn't because of anything you did -- it was foreordained by God.  No matter what kind of spouse or parent you are, there's nothing you could possibly do to change -- it was all determined in advance.  This also means that there's no point in getting bent out of shape about other people's behavior or decisions, since God's foreknowledge prevented them from doing anything differently.  When someone bombs an embassy, drives drunk, drowns a child, overdoses on drugs, or flies a plane into a skyscraper, God knew all along that they would do that, and therefore they had no real choice in the matter.  If they had a choice, then God would have been wrong, and a perfectly omniscient God cannot be wrong.

If this is true, then God also knows far in advance who will believe in him and who won't.  He knows who will go to church for a spiritual experience and who will use religious institutions as fiefdoms of personal power.  He knows who will become Buddhist, who will be Wiccan, and who won't be anything at all.  You can't change what God knows.  There is no point in trying to evangelize if God already knows who will go to Heaven and who will go to Hell.  If God is perfectly omniscient, there is no real hope for the hopeless, and there is nothing that the "chosen" can do wrong.  It's great if you consider yourself to be one of the chosen, I suppose.  There is simply no way that this definition of predestination can coexist with the concept of free will.

So maybe God's omniscience is not a past-present-future kind of thing.  Maybe God knows all things that can be known.  So, people still have freedom of choice in every moment, but as soon as the decision is made, God knows.  People always have the opportunity to change course, to reconsider their beliefs and their actions, and thus free will is restored while God's omniscience is preserved.  But what about the idea of predestination?  If God has "chosen" some people, predestined an elect group out of the whole of humanity, then there would still seem to be some limit to human choice in spiritual matters.  You can choose where you're going to work and whom you're going to marry, but God has already decided where you'll spend eternity?  Any level of predestination suggests a certain amount of futility on the part of those not "chosen" while justifying a certain amount of superiority among those who consider themselves to be "chosen."

If you are going to choose to believe in an eternal soul which can be rewarded or punished, and if you are going to choose to believe in a benevolent external intelligence who oversees spiritual matters, there are not many definitions of "predestination" that make sense in the context of a larger belief system.  Incidentally, some Christian theologians conclude that God has predestined everyone for salvation.  Some Christian ministers have been ostracized for preaching a "gospel of inclusion," teaching that all people are destined for Heaven.  It can be comforting to believe that God is working things out according to a plan, that when tragedy strikes, there is still someone in control of everything who loves you.  I would suggest that it's still important to examine how that belief plays out in terms of taking personal responsibility for your decisions and the way that you treat other people.  When concepts like predestination become tools for justifying one's bad behavior or dehumanizing other people, though, they become disconnected from anything divine.  I am confident that our eventual examination of the biblical character of Jesus will bear out that assertion.

Moses was considered to be the divinely-chosen leader for the Israelites.  The leaders of the early church also viewed their positions as divine appointments.  There are plenty of people today who believe that God has "called" them into positions of authority, and who can argue with that?  People in churches do not always view their pastors with the same level of respect, but there is literally no way to refute the claim that a divine power is behind the scenes working to place specific people in positions of authority.  There is also no way to definitively prove that such activity is taking place.  It comes down to a matter of belief without conclusive evidence. 

From my perspective, it makes more sense to conclude that every person embodies divinity, that every person is worthy of my respect, and that I am likewise worthy of respect.  I don't believe in fate or predestination, but I do believe that there is an inner drive that gravitates toward the things that will nurture and fulfill me.  Part of me wrestles with that pull, because the things that I am drawn toward do not always line up neatly with societal expectations or lessons I learned in childhood.  Sometimes I am afraid of where I will end up if I follow that inner drive.  But when I am willing to acknowledge that guidance from within and quiet the obstinate chatter of my fears and the perceived judgment of the world around me, it can look very much like a path is laid out before me.  It is a path of my own design, determined by my own passions and abilities. 

If someone wants to believe that those passions and abilities were bestowed upon me by some outside source, I gain nothing from arguing against that belief.  My own understanding of who I am simply doesn't require any external source.  I am confident that anyone -- regardless of faith tradition or spiritual beliefs -- who fearlessly seeks that guidance from deep within will eventually find it.  I would only qualify that with the assertion that the character of the divine within us embodies an awareness that all people have value and are worthy of respect, ourselves included.  It isn't predestination.  It is always a choice.  And it is, in the deepest sense, true. 

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Exodus 34: The Fear of Being Weak Makes Everyone Look Threatening

It's no wonder that some modern-day Christians seem so militantly closed-minded about any ideas that didn't come straight from their home church's pulpit.  The words of Exodus 34 are directed exclusively to the Israelites and refer specifically to groups of people who existed thousands of years ago, so if one is inclined to take the Bible completely literally, it would seem that at least some of the information is obsolete.  Still, the passage reveals something about the nature of the Israelite god, and it grants some insight into how beliefs about our essential nature impacts how we see the world around us.

As a brief tangent, there is one little phrase in this passage that bears pointing out to those who want to take the entirety of Christian scripture as accurate and infallible.  The Israelite god commands, "No one is to appear before me empty-handed."  It's one of those things that Jesus never directly contradicts in the New Testament.  How many Christians take this to heart, I wonder?  And how many of them justify their empty-handedness by claiming that their devotion is worth more than anything else they could bring before God?  How many people believe that they're not appearing before God empty-handed if they've contributed to a radio station or a pregnancy crisis center or an organization that delivers Bibles to China?  The meaning is pretty clear here: God expects your wealth.  If you want to take the Bible as perfectly literal and true, you don't get to decide how he uses it.

Alright, now take a look at the image of God established by the Israelites.  After Moses spends a long time chiseling new stone tablets (since he broke the first ones in a fit of rage), God is described as being compassionate and gracious, "slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness," and although he forgives wickedness, rebellion and sin, "he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation."  This is the perfect description of a scapegoat god, the kind of deity that can be blamed for any misfortune, because he's just punishing some wickedness.  Some wickedness that he has presumably also forgiven.  It's a bit odd, come to think of it. 

Taking this belief to its ultimate corollaries, if something bad happens in life, God may just be punishing you for what you've done.  Or he may be punishing you for what your father or mother did.  Or your grandparent or great-grandparent.  For anyone who buys into this completely, there is no reason to try to help the poor, the sick, the abused, or anyone else who is suffering.  They are just getting their punishment from God for something someone did, and why would a believer get in the way of God's just consequences.  It's also a great belief for those who are wealthy, healthy, and happy in every way.  God is obviously blessing them because their family has managed to go four generations without doing anything wicked or sinful.  Right?

If that strikes you as slightly off, it's because our minds reject the nihilism of the concept that God is punishing everyone and there's nothing that can be done, because he punishes even those he has forgiven.  No one can go through their lives without doing something worth being punished for, and our definition of forgiveness conflicts with the idea of punishing a person for what her father's mother's mother did.  Fortunately, Jesus came along and turned a lot of this business on its head, but then, how can one claim that the entire Bible is true?  What people believe about the character and behavior of God becomes filtered through what makes sense to them, and how we think God should treat us personally is often very different from how we think God should treat other people.  It's fine for God to punish that other person, but we want forgiveness for ourselves to be absolute and pain-free.

The Israelites in the Exodus story wanted the same thing.  Their god promised to wipe out the neighboring cultures (whom the exiled Israelites were technically invading), provided the Israelites had nothing to do with them.  Don't even entertain the thought of learning about their beliefs or culture, and don't even consider the concept of a treaty with them.  Why?  They'll corrupt you.  In fact, the Israelite god is named Jealousy in this passage.  Jealousy is the same thing as "envy," right?  So their god is defined as being one of the seven deadly sins, but they consider themselves to be the righteous people in this situation.

Unfortunately, they also consider themselves to be the weak people in the situation.  They are afraid to make treaties with people, to participate in the culture or religious observance of the Other, because they believe they will be turned from their own faith.  That level of small-mindedness isn't actually faith, though.  It's ignorance.  Why in the world would God suggest that his people remain ignorant about every other belief system around them?  In order for those alternate beliefs to be a threat, the commitment of the Israelites would have to be pretty insubstantial.  I've heard about many different cultures and religious belief systems over the course of my life, and I've only rarely been tempted to adopt any of them into my own perspective.  My beliefs are strong enough to come into contact with other people's beliefs and remain intact.  What was wrong with the Israelites that they would be so threatened by other cultures that their god would warn them not to even make treaties with those other people?

This type of passage from the Old Testament still informs the Conservative Christian worldview in the twenty-first century to some extent.  There is no interest in learning about other cultures or faith systems.  We just need to send our troops and wipe them out.  We need to crack down on how many of Them are allowed into our country.  They are out to kill us, and we need to kill them first.  Even with regard to other belief systems in America, there is hostility based on assumption.  Fear.  Small-mindedness.  Ignorance.  These are not healthy lenses through which one should look at the world.  I know there are Christians who sincerely believe that they are under constant threat from people with different beliefs, but it is simply not true.  The only way it can be true is if the Christian in question is so weak in his or her faith that any other suggestion is going to create some crisis of belief, and I would suggest that that isn't faith at all.

Whatever we believe about ourselves, we are simply not that weak.  People are not so vulnerable to external ideas that they cannot establish a set of criteria for themselves to determine what they are and aren't willing to believe.  Different ideas are not a threat, they are simply other people's ways of viewing the world.  We are capable of deciding what makes sense to us, regardless of our chosen belief system, and we are capable of interacting with other people without being "corrupted" or "led astray."  When we encounter a belief that seems to be a challenge, it's just possible that we are experiencing growth at a certain level.  We don't necessarily figure out all that there is to figure out about the world and human spirituality in grade school Sunday school classes. 

There may be ideas that make a great deal of sense to us that we don't have a chance to explore until after we have traveled a bit down a particular belief path.  If we view those other ideas as threats, we are essentially stagnating our own growth.  We are claiming a desire to remain immature and ignorant in our beliefs.  We would find it somewhat disturbing for a child to determine at age 10 that he isn't going to grow any taller and force his body to remain stunted.  And yet, we are comfortable doing that with our own spiritual selves.  If a belief is worth maintaining and nurturing, it will stand up to scrutiny.  If our beliefs are shattered the moment they come into contact with a different way of seeing the world, what good were those beliefs really doing us?  The only way our beliefs can be altered is for us to encounter a perspective that makes more sense than what we previously held to be true.  This is growth, plain and simple.  And there is nothing really threatening about growth, even though it may seem a little bit scary and unsettling.

Whether it is in the realm of politics, religion, personal relationships, business practices, or whatever, encountering new ideas is beneficial.  When our beliefs are challenged by a new perspective, we either walk away from that with our old beliefs strengthened or we walk away with beliefs that make more sense to us.  It may be a radical change, or it may be a subtle refinement, but either way we grow.  We are strong enough to accept that other people will believe different things from us.  They aren't a threat to us at all.  They are simply different.  Let's stop worshiping Jealousy and Ignorance and Fear as if they had any true power.  The only thing those gods do is lie to us about ourselves and other people.  And we are strong enough to let go of those lies.