* 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, May 27, 2012

Deuteronomy 4-5: Rewriting the Ten Commandments and Making a Covenant with Ourselves

Deuteronomy, the "second law" (or the second telling of the agreement between the Israelites and God), imagines Moses speaking to the Israelites as they are about to enter the Promised Land, recounting their decades-long journey and reminding them of their spiritual identity as a community.  As such, it contains some passages that read like pep-talks, and it is repetitious of information that was conveyed in previous books.  Deuteronomy 4 is one passage in which Moses tells the Israelites why their god is the best god ever, and in many ways, he's right.  Their concept of spiritual identity was indeed different from many cultures of their time.  The writers of Deuteronomy also knew that by referring back to people who had supposedly been eye-witnesses to certain impressive events, later generations would be more likely to take that spiritual identity seriously.  It's why some people believe in ghosts or alien abductions.  Eyewitness accounts build credibility.

Out of this chapter, the passage on idolatry is of particular interest.  When we read about the golden calf episode before, I wrote about our desire to worship things outside of ourselves.  If you missed it, here's a link.  Even once we get more comfortable with ascribing worth to ourselves, there will be moments of self-doubt.  Moses reassures the Israelites that even if they are driven away and wind up carving little wooden idols for themselves, when they determine to earnestly look for God, they will find him.  Spiritually speaking, this is a truth that bears repeating, or rephrasing at least.

If you should find that spark of divinity within yourself -- if you should recognize that deep truth, undeniable beauty, and intentional creativity -- and then later be overcome with doubt and look for something outside of yourself to place above you, it's alright.  You haven't really lost anything, and the divine character within you will be there when you determine to recognize it again.  It may get easier for you to see the more you connect with it, but it isn't something you can lose.  You can't make yourself worthless.

Which brings us to the Ten Commandments.  Jesus is recorded as rephrasing these commandments in a more positive light: Essentially, love God and love one another.  The apostle Paul reiterates in his letters that to love others is to fulfill the law.  It's hard to disagree with that.  The Ten Commandments were likely influenced by Hittite and Mesopotamian treaties between lords and vassals, and they contain some of the moral absolutes that human cultures of every faith and creed have accepted to a certain degree, concepts regarding the value of human life and the sanctity of personal property.  The Ten Commandments were in theory a pact between God and the Israelites, but in practical terms they were a pact between the Israelites and themselves.  They were saying, in essence, "We agree to abide by these laws in order to have a unified and sustainable culture."  I'm not saying that they didn't believe in God.  I'm just clarifying the practical reality of their agreement.

We have many laws in our culture, too.  Some of them are based on the same concepts about the value of human life and property.  Acknowledging the Ten Commandments as the model of the American legal code is hotly debated from time to time when someone becomes offended that they are displayed at a courthouse somewhere.  Instead of getting into the practical matters of legal code, though, it seems most appropriate for this venue to approach the Ten Commandments from a perspective of what can be spiritually reclaimed.

Slightly out of order, some of the commandments are covered by the idea that we will be generally happier people if we respect others, or love others if you prefer.  We cannot honor others and still lie about them, steal from them, or otherwise betray their trust.  When we are willing to recognize the universality of human value, we also recognize that we do damage to our own identities when we devalue others.  We are not above anyone else, so we are not entitled to dehumanize anyone else.  Honor and respect other people, and murder, adultery, theft, and false testimony become non-issues.

Coveting other people's possessions, relationships, or circumstances is not so much about devaluing another person as it is about devaluing ourselves.  Be aware of what you have in your life.  Acknowledge your ability to create a life focused on what matters most to you.  Cultivate gratitude, and it won't be as tempting to compare what you have with what other people have.  When you are grateful for your own life, it becomes easier to celebrate with other people rather than resent them.

Honoring one's mother and father is also good advice, if a bit vague.  One must eventually think for oneself, and it can be debilitating to base every thought on what Mommy and Daddy think.  That being said, parental wisdom is going to be an inevitable guiding force as a person develops.  The relationship perhaps bears a bit more emphasis than other human relationships because of the sacrifice inherent in raising a child.  It can be humbling to consider the choices parents make on our behalf.  Having an even softer and more gracious heart toward the people that chose to make sacrifices for our benefit is powerfully connecting.

Not all parents are willing to make sacrifices, though.  Not all parents make choices for the benefit of their children.  Although they may be few and far between, some parents are dangerous to their children in one way or another.  There is no obligation for us to bring ourselves into harm's way.  Exercise wisdom and be as understanding as you can be.  Be grateful for the gift of life if nothing else, and honor their humanity even if a close relationship seems harmful.  The relationship is not more important than your well-being.

The first four commandments are the ones that are focused on spiritual things rather than our relationships with other people.  In my post-Christian thinking, I place these philosophically closer to the bit about coveting because they are more about how we view ourselves than they are about how we treat other people.  To begin with, recognize your worth and your capability.  We've already revisited our tendency to find something outside of ourselves to worship.  The truth is that we can find that worthiness within ourselves if we are willing to look there.  Remember that there is nothing that you can do to make yourself worthless.  Instead of placing other people or things or concepts above yourself and ascribing more value to them than you ascribe to yourself, become aware of how people and things and concepts work in cooperation with one another.  Nothing is more worthy than you, and you are not more worthy than anyone else.  Some people may have certain abilities that you lack, and you have some abilities that other people lack.  That offers us opportunities to connect and co-create.

This concept of self-worth is at the heart of this endeavor, so it will come up again.  It isn't a switch to be flipped.  It's a journey, a process.  It takes time and intention.  For this reason, the concept of a Sabbath is a powerful tool.  If we do not know ourselves and understand ourselves, we cannot hope to create truly fulfilling lives.  It is important for us to set aside time -- sacred time that we prioritize -- to tap into that center of truth and beauty and creativity within us.  It doesn't have to be a whole day every week, but consistent time set aside to engage with ourselves is how we learn to see the depth of our own value, and consequently recognize that quality in everybody else.  It's tempting to find ways to numb ourselves to the things we don't like about our lives or to remain so busy bouncing from one thing to another that we never have to take a look within ourselves.  You don't have to be afraid of what you'll find there.  There may be layers of lies or negative beliefs about yourself to sort through, but if you go looking for connection, for beauty, for creativity, you will find it.

So, a suggested "covenant" we can make with ourselves, understanding that if we fall short or make a mistake that we can forgive ourselves and try again:

1. Recognize the deep truth, genuine beauty, and intentional creativity within you.

2. Value yourself as much as every other human being, and more than external things and concepts.

3. Prioritize time for self-examination to become more adept at seeing the truth, beauty, and creativity within yourself (and in other people).

4. Acknowledge the close relationships in your life and the sacrifices that other people have made on your behalf.

5. Honor and respect other people -- all people regardless of their culture or beliefs.

6. Be grateful for your life and celebrate what you have.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Deuteronomy 1-3: Wanting All of the Credit and None of the Blame

The book of Deuteronomy is an interesting part of the biblical canon.  It's more or less a review of the information included in the previous three books, written as if Moses is being quoted directly.  This was supposedly what Moses spoke to the Israelites as they were leaving their period of wandering and settling in the "Promised Land," a kind of oral history of their journey in the form of sermons.  Of course, Moses didn't have a scribe writing down everything as he said it.  The book was probably actually written much later, four centuries or more after the supposed lifespan of Moses, recording stories and ideas that had grown and developed as a part of Israelite culture for some time.  The first few chapters recall the highlights of their journey before a recounting of the ten commandments and other religious laws.

What's interesting about the words put in Moses' mouth is that they reveal a distinctly different version of things than the previous books contained.  Moses takes credit for delegating authority to other leaders instead of mentioning anything about his father-in-law offering that bit of wisdom.  He does give God full credit for their military victories and losses, as the writers of the previous books in the canon.  As was described in the book of Numbers, Moses tells of the Israelites' conquest and distribution of land east of the Jordan (although he takes credit for proclaiming that God had bequeathed the land to certain tribes rather than suggest that the tribes had asked Moses for the land directly), and he announces Joshua as his successor. 

Moses doesn't openly admit any fault in himself, however.  When he briefly approaches the topic of why he won't be crossing over into the Promised Land with the rest of the Israelites, Moses blames the Israelites for making God angry: "Because of you the Lord became angry with me also and said, 'You shall not enter it, either...'"  Moses doesn't seem to recall his angry outburst at the rock at Horeb, in which he took credit for calling water from the stone instead of acknowledging God.  Instead, the burden of Moses being denied entry into the Israelites' new home is placed on the people.  It does make sense, writing after the fact about a cultural hero, to exonerate the behavior of a great man and use the opportunity to demonstrate the dire consequences of people grumbling and complaining and not trusting God.

It's hard to blame Moses for anything said in Deuteronomy (or any other bit of scripture), since it's highly unlikely that anything the man said or did was documented reliably.  Even if the figure of Moses is based on an actual person, by the time anything was written down about him, he had become more icon than historical fact.  Still, there is a profound lesson that we can draw from the first few chapters of this book, and it applies to us as a culture as well as to us as individuals.  

Recounting history is not a bad thing.  Remembering what we've done, or what other people have done, is one of the key ways we learn and grow.  If we don't remember our mistakes, we are likely to repeat them, and if we don't remember our successes, it can be very difficult to develop any consistency in our abilities.  The way we remember history is equally important, however.  If we recall that we went into a meeting with no sleep and poor preparation and lost an account over it, we can see some things to improve in the future.  We can make changes to our behavior and reasonably expect different results.  If we recall nothing about our own preparation but only know that we lost an account, and we pair that with the belief that God is in control of everything, we can write our own history to read that God didn't want us to have the account and so he took it away from us.  There is nothing practical for us to learn from this, and there is nothing for us to do differently.  We don't have to use God as a scapegoat, though.  We can blame our boss, a secretary, a computer, lots of other people or circumstances, without coming close to looking at ourselves.  We can be very creative when it comes to avoiding blame.

Our history as a people has some great moments and some disappointing moments.  Our tendency is to rewrite the facts so that our pride isn't in danger of being bruised.  We don't want a record of any mistakes or wrongdoing.  We'd rather not think of ourselves as fallible.  The truth is messier than that, though.  It's part of our nature to make mistakes.  It's one of the ways we learn and develop.  No one is immune.  If our history suggests otherwise, we've written a work of fiction, and we've lost a valuable opportunity to recognize how we can get closer to what we actually want.  

We don't just rewrite history to make mistakes go away, though.  When we actually like the outcome, we sometimes rewrite history to make ourselves look better.  When we actually get the account, we are sometimes quick to pat ourselves on the back without recognizing that there were other people involved in putting a presentation together, training us and teaching us what we need to know, getting clients warmed up to the idea of working with us, or any number of other contributions.  We want all the credit we can take when things turn out favorably, and we want none of the blame when we don't like the outcome.  Being aware of this tendency gives us the opportunity to look at things more closely, to grow and get better at creating what we want more reliably.

This is why it's hazardous to look too quickly at uncontrollable forces.  Often our desire to attribute things to God, some other supernatural intelligence, the alignment of the planets and stars, the weather, or anything else that lies outside our control, stems from self-preservation rather than any kind of honest observation.  People have all kinds of beliefs about what governs reality, but we miss something if we discredit our own ability to make a difference in our lives and the lives of people around us.  We can get closer to what we most want by being willing to recognize our responsibility in creating it.  Looking for something greater than ourselves on which we can pin responsibility can be a convenient smokescreen from honestly looking at ourselves.  Part of this is because we have become convinced that making mistakes is shameful and that we have to present ourselves in the best possible light if we are going to "succeed."

Making a mistake is not shameful.  It's important for us to realize this for ourselves and also for us to extend this awareness to how we treat other people.  Surely, some mistakes are bigger than others, and actions often have consequences.  But the act of making a mistake is a function of being human.  We don't have to write mistakes out of our history.  When we acknowledge that things didn't go the way we wanted them to, we can examine the circumstances and determine if there is something we did to contribute to that result.  If so, we can potentially improve something and get closer to what we want.  Sometimes, the outcome really has nothing to do with us.  We are only in control of our own decisions, and that's worth recognizing, too.

Likewise, there is no reason to hoard credit when things go the way we want them to.  There is value in self-recognition, but balance it out with a glance around at the other people that contributed to the outcome.  People rarely accomplish anything entirely on their own, and there is value in acknowledging the people who made a difference.  We might not be able to see completely the complex set of factors that led to a particular result, but we can do our best to have a balanced awareness of our strengths and weaknesses and the contributions of others.  There are volumes that could be written about team management and getting a group of people focused on a specific goal, but the key to accomplishing any of that is being an honest historian, accepting appropriate proportions of credit and blame.  What you want to create can guide what you do with the data at your disposal, but there's never any real value in creating false data.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Numbers 26-36: Men Who Established an Ancient Society Don't Mandate Our Beliefs Today

The remainder of the book of Numbers essentially outlines the decisions that had to be made when the Israelites stopped wandering through the wilderness and established more permanent settlements.  There were a few legal issues to iron out, there were festivals to be established, and there were borders to be set, and every tribe needed to be given a place to settle without the whole of the Israelite community erupting into petty squabbles about who should have which plot of land.  The first step was to count everyone again, so that land could be apportioned based on a group's size.

Of course, they still had to kill the people who were inhabiting the land they were going to be handing out, but those folks really didn't count as "people" per se, since they weren't Israelites.  In fact, Numbers 35 deals specifically with murder and how to legally distinguish between actual murders and accidental deaths.  In this context, Moses (speaking for God) says, "Do not pollute the land where you are. Bloodshed pollutes the land, and atonement cannot be made for the land on which blood has been shed, except by the blood of the one who shed it."  We must assume that this is only in reference to Israelite blood, since shedding the blood of people from whom they usurped the land didn't seem to be a concern.  In fact, the Israelites are warned that if they try to inhabit the land peacefully in community with the Canaanites, God will destroy them.  More on that in a moment.  

Two distinct legal matters arise in these final chapters.  One has to do with the preservation of wealth, and the other has to do with the value of a man's word.  There was a man named Zelophehad who died, leaving behind five unmarried daughters and no sons.  According to what had been established, this man's wealth would revert back to his tribe, leaving nothing for the daughters apart from the compassion of their relatives.  So, the daughters brought their complaint before Moses, and Moses consulted with God, and God proclaimed a legal order of inheritance which all Israelites were thenceforth to follow.  

This presented a snag, however.  Some men of Zelophehad's tribe were concerned that if these daughters were to marry men from other tribes, their father's wealth would be shifted into the coffers of these other tribes as well, and they wanted to ensure that Zelophehad's wealth stayed in his own tribe.  So Moses made another proclamation (on God's behalf) that no inheritance should pass from one Israelite tribe to another, meaning that if the daughters wanted to keep their father's wealth, they would have to marry someone from their own tribe.  Which they did.  

This is an important bit of legal precedence that needed to be established.  It is curious, though.  Aside from wondering why the Israelites needed all this wealth if they were just going to slaughter everyone they encountered and plunder the remains, one wonders why God didn't see this coming.  An omniscient god would certainly have known that this issue would arise, but there is nothing mentioned about how to handle an atypical inheritance until these daughters raise their concern.  Even then, the response is imperfect because it allows for a loophole that has to be closed by another proclamation.  While it's necessary to set these guidelines, it's apparent that it was people setting the guidelines and not an all-powerful supreme being.  Once more, the concept of God is invoked to dissuade argument and shift responsibility from a fallible human ruler to an infallible being that could send plagues if you made a fuss.

The other legal matter that is dealt with in Numbers 30 has to do with vows.  If a man makes a promise, he should keep it.  Simple enough.  We get that in one sentence.  If a woman makes a promise, it becomes more complicated.  We need three or four paragraphs to understand the consequences of a female's promise.  It makes sense in the context of a male-dominated culture, but like so much of biblical regulation, it stops making sense when translated to twenty-first century society.  Thus, the concept of the Israelite's god stops making sense.  

If God is assumed to be eternal, unchanging, and constant -- and if the Bible is assumed to be the infallible, inerrant documentation of what God thinks and wants from people -- we are confronted with the fact that whoever drew these conclusions about women thinks of them as "almost-but-not-quite people".  We also are confronted with the fact that any non-Israelite is even lower in status than women -- shedding their blood doesn't pollute the land, it secures property rights.  The New Testament addresses this conundrum, but then we face the issue of scripture being wrong or misguided about something, which is tough for some people to stomach.  

At a certain point, we have to face the obvious truth that Israelite men wrote these words in a very specific place at a very specific time for a very specific purpose.  They were trying to establish a new culture, a new society that promised for them security of power and wealth, but that also promised for all of its citizens a sense of the sacred, a life made more meaningful by participation in a holy culture.  Every decision they made was focused on preserving that ideal.  But they were imperfect human decisions of a certain place and time, not rules for all people throughout eternity. 

It is still possible to believe in a deity today, even a deity that is congruous with biblical truth, but one must distinguish where the line is between truth and cultural perspective.  So much of the Old Testament narrative is about what Israelites should believe about themselves in order to maintain a cohesive cultural identity.  So little of it thus far has been about anything approaching the divine.  It's just insecure men trying to make wise decisions and avoid the pitfalls of other cultures around them.  The further one digs into the biblical narrative, the more one sees that there is not a single, consistent depiction of God throughout.  It is not specific enough to claim belief in "the God of the Bible," because even the biblical view of God changes.  A certain kind of deity was seen as valuable to the men who were establishing Israelite culture.  They needed an unassailable authority that enforced conformity, provided for the ruling caste of priests, and condoned swift and brutal justice.  That kind of god is not necessary for us today. 

So if you're going to choose to believe in something, at least believe in something that makes sense.  If you believe in God, then accept that he gave you your brain for a reason.  Think about your beliefs and what those beliefs actually mean for the way you live your life.  You become little more than a tool when your beliefs are determined by whoever is screaming the loudest, most fear-inspiring message at the moment.  You have the capacity for more depth than that kind of impassioned reactivity.  Beliefs that denigrate women or people from different cultures are not going to help you create anything meaningful in the world.  You will be much better served by beliefs that recognize human value and inspire you to have a positive impact on the lives of those around you.  I believe that everyone has the potential to be aware of what matters most, even though that awareness can be a challenge.  I also believe meeting that challenge is the heart of human spirituality.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Creationism and Morality (and the fact that there is no link between the two)

Yesterday, I heard a reiteration of the creationism vs. evolution argument in which a Christian stated that the existence of morality proved the existence of God.  The assertion was that there has to be a creator because people know right from wrong, and since morality and ethics are not traits that could evolve naturally, our understanding of what is moral and ethical must come from a higher source.  There are a few problems with this argument, as you’ll see.  If anyone wants to believe in either creationism or evolution as a matter of personal faith, there is nothing that anyone can say to sway that belief.  When people propose “proofs” for their point of view, those proofs warrant scrutiny.

The most obvious flaw with this particular argument is the idea that morality and ethics are not “survival traits” for humanity.  There is some confusion between the idea of “survival of the fittest” and the concept of “might makes right.”  The theory of evolution doesn’t place value on what is best for one individual creature in the moment, it places value on what is best for the survival of a species over time.  While there are people who engage in immoral or unethical behavior, humanity cannot thrive on those principals.  Without developing some principles of how to treat one another, human beings could never have created anything in cooperation with one another.  The concept of every man for himself would not have gotten our species very far.  Survival of the species requires sacrifice on the part of the individual.

This concept bears itself out in nature as well.  There are animals who do things that are not so healthy for the individual creature, but are necessary for the survival of future generations.  The insect world is full of examples of seemingly instinctual behavior that is detrimental to a single creature and yet beneficial to a multitude.  If creatures instinctively did only what was best for a single animal, there wouldn’t be any animals left.  Nature does not reward selfishness.

Historically, human civilization has also demonstrated the necessity of moral and ethical behavior.  When oppressed by an immoral or unethical minority, the multitudes have consistently revolted and punished the oppressors.  It may seem that people in the present are getting away with horrific crimes, committing atrocities without consequence, but historically speaking, societies have only tolerated that kind of behavior for so long.  When people openly behave immorally or unethically, their society eventually punishes them.  So, even for the individual, it’s a bit of a gamble to operate outside the accepted bounds of morality and ethics.  

Not only is there nothing in the development of morality and ethics that requires the existence of a supreme being, the belief in a supreme being has historically been used to condone immorality.  It is rather convenient to be able to defer to a presumably perfect authority who just happens to agree with your world view.  Throughout history, doing what a particular god wants has often overridden the accepted rules of behavior.  We all know that killing people is immoral, except perhaps when we are killing in the name of something greater than ourselves.  Belief in God allows for “justified” exceptions to the accepted moral and ethical boundaries of a society.

If morality and ethics were dependent upon belief in God, one would think that there would be a clear dividing line between believers and non-believers.  Yet there are believers  who behave immorally and unethically, and there are non-believers who behave morally and ethically.  Not all the time, mind you, like some two-dimensional B-movie character, but often enough that one could not reliably distinguish a Creationist from an Evolutionist based merely on how their behavior stacked up against the moral and ethical standards of their society.  This shouldn’t be the case if belief in a creator was necessary for morality, although it makes perfect sense if our sense of morality and ethics (and our willingness to try to push those boundaries) was in a broader sense evolutionary.  We are all human beings, after all, even though our beliefs differ.

The bottom line is that belief in a creator has nothing to do with one’s capacity for moral and ethical behavior.  Religion is simply a great tool for enforcing moral and ethical behavior among people who are unwilling to accept personal responsibility for their own actions.  If God says to be moral and ethical, and if God will punish immoral and unethical people, then it makes sense for someone who believes in God to be moral and ethical.  Such behavior is often thoughtless, because no one has the authority to question what God wants.  It can also be selfish, because the threat of punishment often receives greater emphasis than the value of the behavior itself.

Morality and ethics make it more possible for humanity to thrive as a species.  People should respect one another because people are worthy of respect.  People lose a piece of their own humanity when they behave in a way that dehumanizes other people.  Moral and ethical behavior ultimately benefits everyone.  Claiming that a higher power has to be involved creates the illusion that the benefits of moral and ethical behavior aren’t enough in and of themselves.  When we are willing to discard the illusion, perhaps we will be better able to see the intrinsic value of relating to one another in a moral and ethical manner.  Until then, the concept of morality really has no impact on the creationism vs. evolution debate.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Numbers 25, 31: No Matter Who Commands It, No Amount of Violence Can Erase the Value of Human Life

After Balaam blessed the Israelites (several times over), the women of Moab started seducing Israelite men and enticing them to worship the Moabite god with them.  As one might imagine, this led to death and violence.  The Israelites suffered a plague sent by their god, so they first killed the offending Israelite men, which ended the plague.  Then they sent a force into Moab and slaughtered the men, women, and boys.  The young girls they kept for themselves, along with all the livestock and wealth of the Moabite people.  At least this is how the Israelites tell the story in Numbers 25 and 31.  

We'll go back to the intervening chapters, but it makes sense to put these two together because of the connected narrative.  Plus, the violence of the Israelites and their god is honestly starting to get a bit predictable and tiresome.  It is a problem though.  For those who want to promote the Bible as the infallible and inerrant word of an almighty, omniscient, and perfect divine being, it should be especially troubling.  Here's why.

The Bible claims that God is unchanging.  The New Testament actually says that Jesus  is "the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow," but the Old Testament also credits God with the quality of consistency in many passages.  Thus, if God had a specific opinion about a certain behavior thousands of years ago, it is assumed that he feels the same way today.  And that he will always feel that way.  Otherwise, there would be no predicting what God wants or thinks.  There is no actual credible conversation happening with the God of the Bible in the 21st century, so the words written in the Bible must be viewed as dependable by those who want to know about the Christian God.  Since the words are static, it must also be assumed that God's opinions and feelings are fairly static.  Or perhaps "consistent" is a less loaded word.

So, God became angry and told the Israelites that, in order to end the plague he had sent, they had to kill all of the Israelite men who had indulged in sexual immorality and worshiped foreign gods with the Moabite women.  This makes sense, because the death penalty has already been established as punishment for just about anything an Israelite could do wrong.  On top of that, they had to kill all the Moabite women these Israelite men brought back to the Israelite camp with them.  Then the plague ended.  Then, God instructs the Israelites to take revenge on the Moabites by going in and killing everybody (except the young girls who hadn't yet had sex with anyone) and claiming the spoils of the slaughter as Israelite property (including the aforementioned young girls).

If we are to believe that the Bible is a legitimate depiction of God's character, we must assume that God still thinks like this.  This is a problem.  On the surface, it entitles believers to execute anyone in their midst who disobeys the rules of the faith community.  It comes close to permitting believers to murder any outsiders who potentially lead their brethren astray, to the point of ethnic cleansing.  To top it off, it suggests that it's alright to kidnap young girls and plunder the wealth of the people you've slaughtered.  If followed explicitly, it would seem that only Jews are entitled to this kind of violence and plunder, since they are the racial and cultural heroes of the story -- the Chosen People, as it were.  But many Christians today believe that they have been "adopted" into this prestigious covenant, since the New Testament teaches that people are equal under God.  (Paul wasn't actually suggesting that people should live by Old Testament cultural standards when he wrote that, though.)

Obviously, no one thinks like this.  Except that people do.  We frequently hear about fundamentalists in various faith traditions committing deplorable acts of violence against family members or neighbors, and although we may wince and decry Islam or some other religion alien to our own, the problem is in the dehumanizing factor of fundamentalism itself.  Even when American Christians don't outwardly condone murder, some people still dehumanize "outsiders" to their belief system -- primarily the subcultures who disagree with the values of the social ultra-conservative.  When read through a particular lens, the Bible seems to support their behavior.  As it happens, the narrative of the Bible often reveals more about human failure than it reveals about the divine.

The Bible still contains some incredibly insightful messages, however.  All of the meaning placed on a father's blessing back in Genesis still has its reflection in our society.  A father's blessing doesn't have magical power because some supernatural being somehow infuses it, but our relationships with our fathers do have tremendous psychological impact on our lives -- how we see ourselves, other people, and the world.  There is value in understanding the importance of that relationship, without the trappings of divine mystery and moral absolutes.  What a father says isn't necessarily true or right just because a father says it, but it's often going to be meaningful just because a father says it.

At a certain point in our maturity, we start looking for our own answers rather than accepting without critique the words of our elders.  That process of maturing is hampered by claims that a book of scripture is infallible and unquestionable.  This belief keeps people emotionally, psychologically, and morally stunted.  It is a way of controlling people who are willing to remain thoughtless and immature, but it is no way to build a society of people who can create a better world.  How can people create anything of value in the face of a god who commands destruction of everything and everyone who threatens the status quo?

We cannot think of God like this and thrive as a society.  We cannot look at the cultural records of a group of people who habitually engage in barbaric behavior and assume that their understanding of the divine is a legitimate depiction of a perfect deity.  It even runs contrary to Jesus' teachings in the New Testament of that very same Bible.  The god who commands death to all outsiders, whether they are outsiders by choice or by genetics, doesn't have a valuable place in our world.

Not only does it limit what kind of world we can create, it hurts us as a society.  Sending people off to "fight for our freedom" has become a euphemism for the precise kind of barbarism the Israelites engaged in: kill the people who are hindering you from getting what you want, then lay claim to what they leave behind.  And yet, we don't even see the benefits of that violence as a society.  At least the Israelites divided the spoils equally and got a generation of men who were more likely to be upstanding citizens instead of running off with some foreign trollop.  In fact, over the past few years, more American soldiers have committed suicide than have died in the line of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq combined.  It's a stark fact that points to the more subtle psychological cost of viewing the world through a dehumanizing lens.

We cannot ultimately reconcile the idea of slaughtering people with the deep knowledge that human life has value.  We do not need any scripture to tell us this, and we don't need anyone to interpret the character of any god to gain this knowledge.  It is true.  Human beings have value.  Whether they agree with you or not.  Whether they do what you want them to or not.  You cannot carelessly (or carefully) rob people of their humanity without it taking a toll on your own psyche.  A part of us cannot ignore that there is something worthy behind the eyes of every person with whom we share existence.  Perhaps when we begin to doubt that truth, it becomes easier to doubt that there is anything worthy within us, but doubt doesn't make it any less true.  Human beings have value.  You have value.  Everyone who agrees with you has value.  Everyone who disagrees with you has value.  Nothing can steal that, although some people may try.  It is an innate human quality.  We can wrestle with it.  We can deny it.  Or we can accept it and live in that truth.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Numbers 22-24: You Cannot Change What Is True by Proclaiming Lies (and a talking donkey)

Most of the book of Numbers is about what the Israelites said and did, a sort of idealized history of the community's nomadic years under Moses' command.  Chapters 22-24 contain a stories about Balaam (a non-Israelite prophet or diviner) and Balak, leader of Moab.  Since the Israelites have run roughshod over some of Moab's neighbors, Balak is apparently afraid of what the locust-like hordes of Israelites will do if they cross his borders.  So Balak asks Balaam to curse the Israelites, and after an initial refusal, Balaam agrees with the caveat that he can't do anything to change God's approval of the Israelites.

You can read the story for yourself.  You may marvel that Balaam seems to think talking donkeys are commonplace, and you may be a bit shocked that God would tell someone to take a journey just so he could send an angelic assassin to meet him on the road.  There are many folklore elements of the tale that are charming in their own way, but the meat of the story comes later, when Balaam actually speaks prophetic blessings about the Israelites instead of cursing them, much to Balak's chagrin.  The poetic "prophecies" were written down much later, and even if Balaam actually spoke the words, no Israelite was around to hear them.  So we are looking at poems that were written after the fact essentially to acknowledge how God blessed the Israelites and laid low all of the other communities of the area.

Later on, in chapter 31, the Israelites are going to kill Balaam because he apparently had something to do with Israelites being seduced by Moabite women and religion.  Based on the Israelites' own story about themselves in previous chapters, it doesn't really seem that they needed much outside influence to seduce them away from their miserable lives in the wilderness, but it's nice to have someone to shoulder the blame, even if that person only managed to demoralize Balak about the Israelites' favored status.  Jewish rabbinic literature spends a great deal of time expanding on the story, elaborating Balaam into a much more villainous character, which allows them to draw contrasts between "godly" prophets and Gentile prophets.  Muslims have their own varied stories about Balaam, although his name doesn't actually appear in the Qur'an.  Some literary characters begin to take on a life of their own.

There is some real value of the story, though, apart from the assertion that God loves the Israelites and destroys everyone else.  Throughout the tale, Balaam consistently says that he cannot say anything contrary to what the Lord puts in his mouth.  In other words (without the religious trappings), one cannot change what is true by proclaiming lies.  The reality of a situation is solid -- a discernible truth.  Sometimes our perception of that truth is skewed, and we are prone to misjudging things simply because we don't see things fully.  But we cannot make up our own version of what we want reality to be and expect it to work out the way we want.  There are things over which we have some measure of control, and there are things which we don't control at all.  It's important to recognize the difference.

When things we don't like happen, it's tempting to go into denial and assume that there is something we can do to turn the tide of locust-like hordes on our borders, or to change the attitude of a hostile co-worker, or to break the cycle of addiction in a family member's life.  We want to believe that we can force everything to work out the way we want, if we just figure out the right thing to do.  As if speaking the right words, taking the right actions, spending the right amount of money, or whatever the case may be, will cause reality to bend to our will.  Denying reality only serves to consume our time and energy.  Reality is.  Our challenge is not how to change reality, but how we are going to be in the midst of it.

There will be times when people do horrible things.  There will be times when the hordes overrun your borders.  There are things that are out of our control, and the sooner we acknowledge that, the happier we will be.  There are also things we can influence.  There are ongoing injustices in the world that can addressed.  We can take meaningful action that has an impact on the future, but that action has to be in line with reality if it is going to have any value.  I cannot assume that shooting a doctor is going to end abortion -- violent actions will have greater repercussions on my own life than on any greater issue I want to address.  Writing an angry letter may get an appeasing response, but will it really change the course of things?  It's not necessarily easy to take meaningful action, but if we are passionate about something, it's worth considering if there is anything we can do to have a meaningful positive impact.

Engendering fear in other people almost always involves distorting reality.  Fostering hope requires a little more effort, but often involves creating a reasonable way to take action with an intended result.  If you don't know what you're trying to accomplish, your actions may only serve to keep you busy for awhile.  But if you see clearly what you can and cannot influence, are willing to address things in partnership with reality, and can do so in a way that fosters hope in other people, you can potentially have a positive impact with lasting value.  The first step to it all, though, is recognizing what is real and how little of that reality you actually control.  You cannot change what is true by simply saying it isn't so.  Accept what is, and you stand a better chance of seeing how to get from there to where you want to be.