* 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, April 24, 2012

Numbers 21: Cause and Effect Relationships and the Human Imagination

It's tempting to brush past some portions of the biblical narrative because they seem somewhat redundant to what has gone before.  Knowing that the archaeological record paints a different picture than the actual scriptures can also feed a dismissive attitude.  It helps to recall that the point here is to draw some spiritual truth from what is written, even if that truth is contrary to the point of the narrative.  In Numbers 21, there are some stories about how the Israelites were victorious in combat because God wanted them to be, and there is the story of the magical bronze snake.

There's a reason that we say that history is written by the victors.  Whether we're talking about one nation conquering another or someone getting fired from a job, the people who remain in control in a certain context get to decide how to frame events.  Sometimes we misremember events, and sometimes our perspective is different enough from someone else's that we interpret events completely differently.  Mixed in with that faulty memory and difference of perspective are the occasions in which we blatantly lie, usually because we believe that we need to protect ourselves somehow.  That protection may be as simple as not wanting to look foolish, but when we proclaim an altered history, we miss an opportunity to learn from the actual events.

Many times, we just become so convinced of something that we can't really see things through a different lens.  Once we completely believe that a friend has betrayed us, it's hard to shake the idea and trust that person, whether there's actually been any betrayal or not.  When we believe something, it affects the way we act and the way we see other people.  If you believe that you're ugly, you'll assume that everyone else thinks so, too.  You might be suspicious if someone asked you out on a date.  If you think you're doing a lousy job at work, you'll either assume that everyone else knows it, or you'll try to hide it.  When every comment that a co-worker makes gets filtered through that lens, it's tough to have honest and productive relationships.  If you believe that a supreme being is completely in charge of all that happens, you'll look at events differently than someone who assumes that there is a scientific explanation for everything.

A big problem with unexamined beliefs is that there is no challenge that can threaten them.  We assume that we are right, and we manage to justify everything that happens through a belief that may or may not reflect reality.  The Israelites had a belief in a god that was so powerful and vindictive that he sent plagues against anyone who did things he didn't like, but this god was also a mighty ally to those who were willing to obey.  Therefore, every good thing that happened in the life of the Israelite community was considered to be something that God caused to happen, and everything bad that happened in the life of the Israelite community was viewed as evidence of their failure to be obedient.  Later on in the Old Testament, this becomes a real concern when the Israelites are conquered and the temple is destroyed. 

For now, the Israelites trust God and their enemies fall before them, "enemies" being the word used for people who had occupied the land for generations, but whom God didn't like.  It's easy to write that history.  "God leads his people to victory against all who oppose them" makes a great headline.  Except that there are still complaints being made to Moses about the quality of the food and the lack of water.  So, there is a plague of venomous snakes that starts killing off the Israelites.  It's easy to write that headline, too.  "Complain and die."  But God tells Moses to make a bronze snake and put it on a pole, so that anyone who gets bitten can look at this snake idol and be spared.  Bizarre.  The writer of Hebrews uses this scene as a clever allegorical connection to the cross, but the whole scene is a bit strange.  Golden calves are bad, but bronze healing serpents are fine.

Cause and effect are not always what we imagine them to be.  Do we believe that poison can be alleviated by looking at a particular object?  Some would say, "Well, if God wanted it to work, then it would work."  It's primitive witchcraft, but it is justified because the belief in the community is strong enough to overlook the disconnect.  Flipping the calendar forward to the 21st century, we aren't just looking back at a relatively unsophisticated people and their primitive beliefs.  We are in a world of colliding beliefs that are unexamined and basically unchallengeable. There is an incredible number of people of varying faiths who believe that their god sanctions violence against other people.  We are essentially living in a technologically advanced era with a primitive worldview when we accept violence against the people our god doesn't like.  And let's face it, we assume that our god doesn't like the people we don't like.

If we assume that a supreme being is in control of all that happens, we remove personal responsibility from the picture.  Except that we still want to convince other people to behave the way we think God wants them to behave.  If God is in control of everything, isn't he completely in control of everything we might want to complain about?  And if we're complaining about how God is handling things, aren't we at all afraid that he will send venomous serpents after us?  If God is in complete control, then God is in control of abortion, homosexuality, suicide bombers, who gets killed in the wars that God has obviously sanctioned, unemployment, the distribution or concentration of wealth, ... everything.  There is nothing to complain about.

When we start to look for other causes for the effects that we see around us, however, the simplistic answer of "God said so" becomes replaced by a complex set of circumstances that aren't always easy to address.  Rather than tell people God disapproves of their behavior and expect that to change the course of their lives, when we set aside the simplistic belief that God is the cause for every effect, we may find that there are actual human beings with needs and beliefs of their own, and that we have some opportunity to have a significant impact.  It's not easy to make a real difference in someone's life while you're looking down your nose and pointing a judgmental finger at them.  There really are people who set aside simple answers that eradicate personal responsibility, and in seeking the actual causes for the things that disappoint them about the world, create something truly meaningful. 

The good news is that we all have the power to examine our beliefs and decide if they make sense or not.  We can keep convincing ourselves that there's a supernatural reason why looking at a bronze serpent can cure snakebites, or we can reevaluate what we believe based on the evidence around us.  Even evidence is subject to our beliefs, though.  As a friend of mine often says, "Statistics don't lie... but you can lie with statistics."  What we actually know may be completely different from what we choose to assume.  We all have beliefs, and many of those beliefs are nothing more than assumptions we've chosen.  Recognizing that we have a choice in what assumptions we're alright with is where wisdom comes into the picture.

What do you believe?  Not just in the big picture, "what's the meaning of it all?" kind of beliefs.  What do you believe about yourself?  About the people around you?  Are some of your beliefs in conflict with other beliefs?  Are you happy with the assumptions you're making?  You have choices.


  1. God *is* in control, and he has a plan for us. That plan includes free will. Why? He could have made an army of automatons that are perfectly obedient, so why give us a choice?

    Because God created us for love, and love, by definition, must be chosen. When a robot obeys you without ever having been given the option to not obey, there is no love. If you kidnap someone, bind them so that they cannot escape, and withhold food and water until they proclaim their love for you, is that real love? No, it is a form of slavery.

    God did not create slaves, he created humans with free will. The hope is that we use that free will to cooperate with his plan of love.

    So, while God is in control, he leaves part of his plan to be carried out by us, out of love. He graciously allows us to participate.

    As you know, the Bible documents multiple covenants that God makes with his people, which the people screw up royally time and again. But notice that every covenant leaves room for us to participate -- to "meet God halfway," as some are wont to say. This includes the New Covenant in Christ... because if Christ died for our sins and that was all there was to it, why weren't all the Christians carried up into heaven with him right then? The answer lies the gift we are given -- namely, the opportunity to choose love.

    That is the basis of understanding Colossians 1:24, which is a verse that makes many of my non-Catholic breathren squirm: "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ..."

    What could possibly be lacking in the afflictions of Christ? Nothing. But in his grace, God leaves room for us to participate.


  2. Leaving aside the thrust of my commentary on Numbers 21, and leaving aside the problem that an imaginary human construct can't actually be in control of anything, it seems like you want to have your cake and eat it too. Either God is in control of people's lives, or people are in control of their own lives. If God is in control, then that means people need to do nothing other than sit back and enjoy the ride. They don't need to question car accidents, relationships, diseases, promotions, abortions, cancer remissions, drug overdoses -- God gets the credit and the blame for everything and people are just passive participants who are occasionally able to fool themselves. People's actions don't matter if God is really in control, and people have no responsibility for their actions and decisions.

    The other option is that people are, in fact, personally responsible for their actions and decisions. In this case, actions and decisions matter, specifically because there is no orchestrator in the sky to blame or praise. Our influence has boundaries, but I maintain that people have personal responsibility for their own lives. When we don't accept personal responsibility for our decisions, we become easily fooled into thinking that what we choose to do is somehow mandated by external forces, that we don't actually have a choice. That simply isn't true.

    Of course, you are wanting to paint a picture of shared responsibility, but that doesn't mean that God is in control. It actually means that no one is in control, which is an even more convoluted reality to consider. It's the reason that so many believers get side-tracked into ultimately fruitless debates about where the threshold of human responsibility lies. I understand that it's comforting to think that there is a larger plan at work, or that everything will work out alright despite our human fallibility. It remains a clear fact of human experience that our actions have consequences, and putting an imaginary intermediary in place as a buffer doesn't change that.

    And some events do not have reasons. Sometimes a child is born with cerebral palsy. That doesn't mean that some greater purpose is at work or that a higher power is trying to teach someone a lesson. A parent may learn a lot from having a child with cerebral palsy, but that learning is self-determined. To love that child or to reject that child is a human decision that has repercussions, but there is no real value in assuming intent behind the cerebral palsy. The same goes for a great many unexplainable occurrences. Life is not completely under anyone's control, but we are in control of how we respond to life.

    Of course, if you want to assume that God is in control of some kind of afterlife, you actually can have your cake and eat it too. If you believe that human beings have personal responsibility for their actions and decisions, and when they die, some external supernatural force has responsibility for their eternal souls, I can't argue with that. In that case, I would hope that whatever a person believes they need to do to get on God's good side so that he will favor them in the afterlife would line up with what a person would choose to do if there was no God to serve as a buffer for their actions. The problem is (as I've pointed out before) that no one can really verify what God wants people to do, and some folks happen to think that killing (or at least oppressing) people who believe differently than them fits in with God's plan.

    Any way you slice it, personal responsibility is much cleaner.

  3. God is in control, and as such, he chooses to cede some of that control to us -- as a gift of free will -- so that we can express true love.

    As for children born with disease, or any number of other afflictions found in the world: from a Christian point of view, there is no expectation that nature would be perfect. Decay and deterioration and disease exist because evil entered the world and disrupted the natural design. This is also due to God's gift of free will: man had a choice, he chose sin, and now we live in a world that reflects the consequences of that sin.

    The most interesting part of your response is this: "I would hope that whatever a person believes they need to do to get on God's good side so that he will favor them in the afterlife would line up with what a person would choose to do if there was no God to serve as a buffer for their actions."

    That is seriously hopeful and optimistic! Because if there is no God, we're just sophisticated monkeys. Honestly! If there is no God, there's no absolute standard for right or wrong. There's no ultimate meaning for life. The whole universe is one huge statistically anomalistic coincidence, and nothing really matters.... so we might as well do whatever heightens pleasure and minimizes pain, regardless of what that means for our neighbors. To hell with it all!

    In fact, there are atheists who abuse the "no God concept," to borrow your phrasing. Not all atheists think like you! Many use their denial of God to reduce the world to material processes and pursuits only... which means freedom from any moral code... which justifies my earlier allusion to the pursuit of pleasure, regardless of the cost, with serious implications for society.

    That sounds like misery and despair to me, and it is completely at odds with the divinity I find within myself, the hunger for "more" that you and I often point to.

  4. Can I pick on you playfully for a moment? "Decay and deterioration exist because evil entered the world and disrupted the natural design"? Decay and deterioration are a part of the natural design! There are organisms which exist explicitly because there is decay and deterioration. Besides, an omniscient god would have planned for decay and deterioration, so there was no alternative but for evil to enter the world. Trying to take things back to a creation myth to explain disease actually seems close to "sophisticated monkey" level thinking.

    The problem of "evil" is one of human perception, by which I mean that we sometimes think that certain actions will minimize our pain and heighten our pleasure, when they only wind up making us more miserable than we were before. We don't always get the deeper value of our choices and our decisions, and we don't always make choices that reflect what ultimately matters to us. That doesn't mean that we need God to straighten us out. It means that we have some personal work to do if we want to lead satisfying lives.

    We've discussed the morality argument into the ground elsewhere, so I won't rehash all of that here. I will say that life is only meaningful if we make it meaningful, and that goes for everybody regardless of belief system. There are people who believe strongly in their families, and their lives are meaningful because they have declared a purpose for themselves. There are people who live to create beauty in some aesthetic form, and there are people who devote their time and energy to caring for people who are in the midst of crisis. This is human behavior. It doesn't require belief in any sort of god to find value in these things. You may find purpose in a man-made religion, but that belief system isn't a requirement for everyone. Life has meaning when we recognize that we can give our lives meaning. Life matters because we decide that it matters.

    People who choose to ignore the impact their actions have on other people are not happy, fulfilled people. People who try to live for the pursuit of ephemeral pleasure regardless of the cost are not happy, fulfilled people. There are people (and a lot of them think they are Christian, by the way) who live angry, selfish, spiteful, unsatisfying lives. Whether or not God exists doesn't change that. People can change that, though.

    The church doesn't really seem to be doing much to benefit society at this point. In some cases there is rampant conflict between belief systems, even among those who consider themselves to be Christian, which keeps people focused on constantly attacking the Other and defending themselves. Even in the absence of such conflict, religious dogma does not necessarily motivate people to set aside selfish concerns and consider their neighbors or their role in society.

    When we are willing to acknowledge the connection we have to one another, the responsibility we all have for our own actions, and the freedom we have to make our lives truly meaningful -- to ourselves and to others -- then we open the doors to something incredible: Life that is filled with meaning and purpose, a way of life that recognizes the value of deep and lasting satisfaction over temporary and fleeting pleasures. We have the capacity for that. It's not about perfection or absolutes, but I happen to believe that what is deeply meaningful matches pretty closely with what we would call moral behavior. Where you believe that capacity originates may be different from where I believe it's derived, but the bottom line is that we can create meaningful lives if we choose to do so.

  5. First, you can always pick on me playfully. :)

    Second, decay and deterioration were not part of the natural design. The organisms you mention only exist because death and disease exist -- they weren't there in the beginning, when paradise existed on earth.

    Third, evil encompasses more than leading less than satisfying lives. Evil exists in the world that goes far beyond anger, selfishness, spite, and dissatisfaction. We are fortunate that we live in a society where those are generally our greatest concerns -- we don't witness atrocities on a regular basis, like those in other areas of the world do. Evil is not a human perception, it is an absolute, and horrible, reality.

    Fourth, you wrote: "The church doesn't really seem to be doing much to benefit society at this point." I am very very difficult to offend, but this comes close.

    Shall I rattle off the list of Christian based charities, world-wide? We could begin with Catholic Relief Services. In 2011 alone, they improved the lives of more than 100 million poor and vulnerable people in nearly 100 countries around the world.

    Shall we contemplate the list of hospitals in my hometown of Houston, home to a medical center larger than the entire city of Cleveland, Ohio? The names alone are indicative... St. Luke's, Methodist, St. Joseph's....

    Shall I share with you my personal experience of having been adopted through the Catholic Charities adoption agency, years *after* Roe vs. Wade?

    How about religious based universities? Is Georgetown University generally not benefiting society?

    Check out the Non-Profit Times list of the Top 100. How many are based founded on a religious premise? How many are atheistic in nature?

    As for your statement that "religious dogma does not necessarily motivate people to set aside selfish concerns and consider their neighbors or their role in society," I wish I could trot out before you all the people in the world whose lives were changed for the better -- the *much* better -- by their religion, that it saved them from a life of greed, selfishness, and moral depravity. What would such a group of atheists say that their atheism has given them? The "freedom" to pursue those temporary and fleeting pleasures you mentioned, at whatever cost?

    For every truly sad example you can produce of someone who was mentally/emotionally/physically beaten down by organized religion -- the agents of which are their own breed of evil -- I can produce 100 examples of people whose lives have been enhanced.

    I am not offended, but I do take issue with your statements! Refusing to believe in God is one thing, but making these claims is something altogether different, as they are simply not true in the broad scheme of life.

  6. I'll start at the bottom, since that has the most heat on it. I absolutely agree that religion has at times been a force for good, and that individuals are benefited by some actions of religious institutions. That being said, many of the hospitals and universities you mention are no more faith-based than their secular counterparts, aside from historical data and a religious word in their name. The Non-Profit Times Top 100 list appears to be about a 50/50 split between religious and secular non-profits, but then I don't know the histories of some of the organizations. I'm also reluctant to accept that all of the organizations with religious names operate from a spiritual premise, even if a faith tradition played a part in their establishment. Or even that all of them are doing something valuable for society.

    It’s a statement of faith, to be sure, but I believe that people would somehow be as well-educated, have comparable medical treatment, and be equally able to reach out to other people in need, even without organized religion to facilitate it. Still, people who are members of churches do incredible things in the world, and some of them are motivated by their faith. I honestly have no problem agreeing with that.

    But religion is not something that is shared in society. There are people who are willing to believe anything someone on a religious radio station or standing at a pulpit tells them to believe, and these beliefs run the gamut. Even people who claim to adhere to the same faith tradition as one another cannot agree on whether homosexuality should be accepted in society, on whether birth control should be made available to people, or how people of other religions or cultures should be treated. Much of the behavior of organized religion is based more on psychological games than it is on anything of true spiritual value. As a result, religion divides people rather than uniting them. Individuals can do wonderful things. Organizations can do wonderful things. But those things could be accomplished outside the power structure of religious authority.

    Beyond actual religious doctrine and dogma, many people also modify their beliefs to match what makes sense to them. Some Christians work things out in their own heads so that they can feel justified living how they want to live. They are just as vicious, greedy, power-hungry, lustful, self-centered... just as "sinful" as anyone else. Their faith doesn't change what they create or contribute to the world around them. And some people who have no faith to speak of still contribute profoundly to the world around them. The difference isn't religion. The difference is that something has been awakened in them that inspires them to make their lives meaningful. Faith can do that for some people, but it isn't the only source.

    Sadly, I think most churches are actually filled with people who have neither been woefully damaged nor radically enhanced by the faith tradition they claim to follow. I think that many people are spiritual sleepwalkers, and sermons about the rapture, or the horrors of same-sex marriage, or how God wants everyone to be wealthy and healthy, or how ashamed we should all be of our imperfection aren't likely to wake them up to the possibility of creating something meaningful in the world.

    So, yes, there are religion-based organizations and there are faith-inspired individuals who currently make incredible contributions to the world. There are also other organizations and individuals, inspired by something other than religious conviction, making incredible contributions to the world. The difference I see is the amount of cultural baggage they bring into the equation, not in the good they are able to do. Because Christianity is inherently dishonest, I am inclined to believe that it cannot create as much good as more honest humanitarian efforts. People who want to make a difference will, with or without religion.

  7. On a lighter note (?), Creationism doesn't make sense if God's plan didn't account for decay. Is it really your belief that one (or two) human being(s) caused all of animal- and plant-kind to undergo a radical existential transformation that was unplanned when they first came into existence? Why is it so difficult to accept that death is a part of a natural cycle? I understand why early humans wanted to come up with a reason why things die. I even understand why modern humans want to understand why things die. But to blame it on "sin" (which has become an ugly word to simply say that people aren't perfect) makes no sense -- besides which, it is an utterly unprovable assertion.

    My statement about evil, though, was poorly explained. I mean to say that even people who commit atrocities do so because of flawed perception about human value and what will lead them to a satisfying existence. I honestly believe that if they truly understood what would make life deeply satisfying and rewarding, they would not create those violent, dehumanizing realities to which you refer. Evil is a word to describe what people do when they have accepted a false belief (or a set of false beliefs) about themselves, other people, and the world.

    You and I may differ on the finer details of what true beliefs we would prefer them to accept, but I was not suggesting that the perception of evil is all in the mind of the observer, or that it is limited to petty selfish behavior. Genocide, oppression, violence, greed on a grandiose scale -- these things are harmful to us as a species, even to the perpetrators. To ignore it is tantamount to collusion, and to accept it as a mere reality of human existence is to damage our selves.