* 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

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Deuteronomy 28-34: Blessings and Curses, and Putting Deuteronomistic History in Its Place

The narrative of Deuteronomy ends with Moses passing the mantle of authority to Joshua, son of Nun, and dying on a mountain overlooking the Promised Land.  The bulk of the final chapters of Deuteronomy are taken up with promises of blessings and warnings of curses: blessings for those who are obedient Israelites, and curses for those who adopt the practices of the cultures around them.  Archaeologists can trace to a certain extent the development and compilation of the actual documents that eventually became the book of Deuteronomy, but the idea of blessings and curses from something outside of ourselves seems to be as old as religion itself.

First, a brief look at why Deuteronomy exists in its current form.  King Josiah is largely responsible.  Josiah was an Israelite king who appears biblically in the second book of Kings and whose existence is supported by archaeological evidence.  During the 7th century B.C., the eight-year-old Josiah became king of a polytheistic Israel, during a time of international instability.  When he was in his mid-twenties, temple renovations led to the discovery of a scroll which was possibly the original text of the book of Deuteronomy.  Some would say that this document was not a discovered scroll at all, but was rather written by 7th-century priests to unite the kingdom under Josiah with the church as a prominent power structure.  At the very least, the original text was adapted to serve this purpose, which is understandable given a certain amount of international upheaval around Israel at the time.  Many biblical scholars believe that the Jewish history which runs from the book of Joshua to the second book of Kings was written during Josiah's time on the throne to further solidify his authority and to anchor the authority of the temple more firmly in the culture. Monotheism served this purpose better than the polytheism that had been the norm for the historical Israelite community.

In scholarly terms, this religious reform is the core contribution of the Deuteronomist source, one of three major contributors to the Old Testament.  The Deuteronomist history reflects a movement, or a philosophical school, rather than a single individual, revising or creating books of Jewish scripture over the course of a couple of centuries, based on an ideal.  In many ways, their efforts preserved Jewish culture and religion during times of occupation and captivity by foreign empires.  Still, it's important to remember that the cultural ideal preceded the writing, and that cultural ideal related to a select group of people who were special, set apart from the rest of the world because of their bloodline, and obligated to behave in a way that reflected how set apart they were from the rest of the world.  It was clearly in violent opposition to the way the rest of the world behaved.

This may seem harsh, but you're nothing special.  Sure, you have a unique personality and skill set, and you have capabilities that other people don't.  You are the only one who can create your life, and you have a unique impact on the people around you.  But that describes every single person on the planet.  We are all special.  We are all unique.  We are all worthy of respect.  We are all valuable.  One group doesn't need to proclaim why they are better than another group, because they simply aren't.  No country or culture or religion or community has any right to claim superiority.  We are all wonderfully unique, amazing people, and we benefit from connection and relationship with other wonderfully unique, amazing people.  Life is not a contest, and it doesn't have to be a battle.  Our only real competition is with ourselves.

Which is why blessings and curses are simply a matter of perspective.  There is no entity watching our actions and waiting to smite or reward us.  We do that all on our own.  The threat of being cursed may encourage some people to do what is right out of fear, but living in fear keeps us from truly engaging in life.  Whatever we do, there will be challenges.  "Bad" things happen to everyone, and "good" things happen to everyone.  Some of those blessings and curses are direct results of our behavior.  We don't like to blame ourselves when someone else is within easy pointing range, but many times it's our own behavior that directly results in the rewards and challenges we face.  Sometimes, though, it has nothing to do with us.  We just happen to be moving through the intersection when someone runs a stop sign.  We just happen to pick the winning lottery numbers.  We just happen to have been at the company for a short time when they go through a round of lay offs.  We just happen to drive a different route on the day the bridge collapses.  Some things are just out of our control.

We make our own blessings and curses, though.  When we engage in life fully, taking responsibility for our own decisions, respecting ourselves and other people, creating lives that reflect what matters most to us, the results will look like blessings.  When we ignore our own value and the value of other people, when we blame everyone and everything around us and play the victim, when we give in to fear and deny our own beauty and creativity, the results will look like curses.  Of course, a lot of people are miserable in some areas of life, but very proud of their successes in other areas.  We all have strengths and weaknesses, and from time to time we all give some goals a lot of attention while ignoring other things that matter to us.  It can look like we are always blessed and cursed if we want to think of things in those terms.

The truth is that we are alive, and as long as we are alive we have opportunity.  We can make choices and decisions about who we are going to be and what kind of life we are going to create for ourselves.  Whatever our circumstances, and however people around us behave, as long as we are alive, we have the opportunity to create beauty, the opportunity to be connected to other people, the opportunity to experience -- life.  If there is any blessing, it is that we are alive, and that trumps any curse if we want it to.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Deuteronomy 14-30 :Finding Truth in All the Laws

We have already seen the many laws that Israel's leaders established, so the actual information in Deuteronomy 14-30 probably seem fairly familiar.  Israelite culture was in many ways all about a particular attitude or perspective, and the laws in these chapters outline how that attitude translates into practical reality.  There are laws about being set apart from other cultures in personal habits, laws about how Israelites should treat one another, and laws about how people should view their possessions.  Most of the Israelite laws are inappropriate for modern society, but looking beneath the surface can reveal some truths that surpass time and culture.

Some laws cover what food people should eat, what types of animals were suitable for sacrifice, what practices from other cultures one should avoid, what kind of clothes one may wear, and various other restrictions that may even seem heavy-handed and oppressive.  The point behind many of these laws, whether the Israelite leaders thought of it this way or not, was for the Israelites to be intentional in their behavior.  If you are restricted from wearing certain things or eating certain things, or if you must choose an animal without blemish for a sacrifice, you are likely to become very conscious of your choices.  It would be difficult for someone to go on autopilot and stay within the lines of Israelite law.  Without imposing heavy-handed restrictions on ourselves, we are still capable of living intentionally.  By being thoughtful and purposeful in our decisions, we can create more meaningful lives, even if our intentional actions are different from what other people decide.

Other laws address how people treat one another.  More than one witness is necessary to convict someone of a crime.  You can't take away someone's source of livelihood to cover a debt.  Every seven years, all debts (between Israelites) are cancelled.  If an Israelite man sleeps with an unmarried Israelite woman, he must marry her rather than dishonoring her family.  Treat people fairly rather than taking advantage of others.  Take care of the less fortunate.  Essentially, recognize that people are worthy of respect.  People are worth more than whatever could be gained by taking advantage of them.  No one is a more valuable human being than anyone else, so respect people in all your dealings.

Finally, there are laws that demand sacrifice.  Give your best as an offering.  If you miss a few grapes when harvesting, don't go back over the vineyard and claim every last one.  If you are going to war, don't take men into battle that have a good reason to be at home instead.  Essentially, recognize that you have enough.  Live from a space of abundance rather than a fear of scarcity.

Of course, there are laws about having the community stone your son to death if he's a drunkard who won't listen to you.  And there are laws about marrying your brother's widow in order to father a child that will carry on your brother's name.  Their culture was obviously different from ours.  They had no problem with  invoking the death penalty for what we would consider a minor offense, or not an offense at all.  We don't have to get caught up in the literal obedience of laws intended for a culture in its infancy thousands of years ago.  Certainly, there is a certain amount of societal control and fear of the outside world that informed the laws, but we can look past that if we choose to.  The important bit is to recognize the truth that underlies all of it, the undeniable pieces that remain despite human fears.  People are worthy of our respect.  We live in abundance.  Life is better when we are intentional about our actions.

There are also lists of blessings and curses tied in with obedience to the laws.  Do what God wants, and you will live well.  Disobey and suffer.  It's presented as compensation to be sought and punishment to be feared, but there is also a sense that following the principles will lead inevitably to a rewarding life, while not following the principles will lead inevitably to unhappiness.  Chapter 30:11-18 reads:
Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?”  No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.

See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction.  For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess.
But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess

Without veering too far from the actual scripture, it's safe to say that you have the ability to make wise choices in your life.  You can choose to live with an attitude of abundance, to respect other people, to be intentional in your decisions.  You already know what is right, even though sometimes it is tempting to choose what is convenient.  And what you don't know can be learned or discovered.  You are never lost or abandoned, even when the journey is difficult.  You are always able to put one foot in front of the other and move forward, even if you are only able to remember a few basic principles.

Guidelines and laws are useful for a society, but they don't mean as much as the principles on which they're built.  You know that human beings have value, and thus you have value.  Start from there.  You know that there is some part of every person that is beautiful and creative, even if it is sometimes difficult to see.  Honor that truth.  Recognize that you have enough, and that you have something to offer.  Be intentional about how you respect other people and yourself.  It isn't too difficult, and it isn't beyond your reach.      

Monday, June 18, 2012

Deuteronomy 12-13: What Does Your God Fear?

Since Deuteronomy is essentially a second iteration of the religious laws that had been established by the leaders of the Israelites, we are bound to see some repetition of themes.  It might seem that the Israelites had to be told something several times before they got it (if they ever got it), which is human nature to a certain extent.  It's more likely that the same oral tradition was being transcribed by many different people in different places over a long period of time, the end result being several distinct versions of that oral tradition.  As these traditions were developed, it was possible to clarify things, answer questions, revise things that didn't make sense -- allow the religious text to grow with the culture.  Once it was codified (or canonized), it became easy to believe that the religious text was complete for all time and needed no further clarification or revision.  Human culture has changed time and time again since -- church cultures have even changed many times over -- while the Bible has become something of a relic from an ever more distant time and culture.  It becomes increasingly difficult to draw meaningful spiritual value from some scriptural passages without simply using them as a template for how not to behave.

Case in point: Deuteronomy 12-13.  There are several reasons why these chapters require revision.  Although some will immediately admit that what is recorded here has already been revised in the New Testament, that doesn't explain why people can easily dismiss one problematic Old Testament passage and cling to others that are equally offensive of culturally inappropriate.  It's informative for Christians to see how their religion developed, but unfortunately, it's not a stretch for twenty-first century Christians to extrapolate misguided lessons from taking these passages at face-value.  In these chapters, the Israelites are told to establish one place to make all of their sacrifices to their god, and they are commanded to destroy all the evidence of other gods.

It's easy to see why folks would dismiss the bit about having one central place of genuine worship for the whole religion.  Even though there are provisions for what to do if you live too far away to make your sacrifices in person, the implication is that there is one geographical location where true connection to God can take place.  With all of the denominations and churches that exist in our world, it would be a real feat to get everyone who claimed the label of "Christian" to go to one specific place to have a time of authentic spiritual connection, but it's also easy to see that this rule is just for the Jews.  Except that the Jewish faith no longer strictly adheres to the same religious laws that are dictated in the Old Testament either.  I don't really have a problem with discarding or rewriting any of this.  My point is that if this passage is so clearly inappropriate for modern Christianity, why is so difficult to see that much of the Old Testament falls into the same category?  If it's obvious that this is meant for a specific culture at a specific time, why do people cling to other similar passages as if they were eternally valid?

I actually know the answer, at least in part.  Having one central place of worship is practically untenable.  Exceptions had to be made just because of the practical realities of life.  The fact that people who disagreed with the Church later broke away and formed their own sects based on their own divergent philosophies complicated things to the point where people cannot fathom a reasonable god expecting them to go to a specific appointed place for worship.  For one thing, the sacrifices are supposedly unnecessary because of Jesus' one big sacrifice for once and all.  (I happen to believe that the sacrifices are unnecessary for a different reason.)  For another thing, there's no longer any fear attached to being separated from THE temple, because religious thought has evolved into belief in an omnipresent deity who is not constrained by geography or physical laws.

What people still fear, though, is other people's beliefs.  The Israelites are told to destroy the sacred places and things of the people they encounter, and they're told to kill anyone who attempts to convince them to take part any any non-Israelite religious experience.  Obviously this is one exception to the Ten Commandments, in which the Israelites were told not to murder other Israelites, which begs the question: What other exceptions might there be?  At least it's plausible that the thought may occur to us if we were ancient Israelites.  There can be only one reason for this drastic measure, and that reason is fear.

Many people disguise their fear behind aggression.  Anger and violence are often a scary enough identity that we often don't have to deal with what we fear, although we do wind up dealing with the consequences of our anger and violence.  The Israelite leaders were not altogether secure in their new endeavor, the society they were attempting to build was not at a securely established culture, and there were many threats from the traditions of other cultures around them.  While they could have worked at deepening the beliefs of their culture to the extent that no other culture's practices would seem appealing, the easiest way to deal with those threats was to eliminate them.  After all, the culture they were establishing was one of sacrifice in obedience to a vengeful and jealous god, and some of the religions around them probably seemed much more lenient by comparison.  Merely villainizing people by calling them baby-killers might work for some Israelites, but someone would eventually get curious and figure out that there wasn't a whole lot of baby sacrificing going on.  Better to just convince the Israelites to wipe out any trace of other religions and kill anybody who even suggested participating a little cultural exchange.

The genius move on the part of the Israelite leader was to pin these fears on the god they invented.  "We don't want you to go around killing your brothers or children for merely suggesting checking out the church over the hillock, but God demands it of you.  Our hands are tied here."  Very clever.  Maintaining a hold on society by sanctifying the murder of one's family doesn't seem like a long-term plan for success, but I'm sure that the Israelite leaders thought they could eradicate the threat of more appealing religions and cultures before Israelite-on-Israelite violence became a real problem.  If we were to accept the existence of the Israelites' god, it would seem obvious that his vengeance and wrath toward these other religions was a reflection of some fear that his followers would be enticed away by more attractive gods.  We've all seen similar behavior in angry people around us who were quite obviously afraid of not getting their way.  Dispensing of superstition, though, it's even more plausible that the Israelite leaders were terrified that their society would fall apart and become subsumed into neighboring cultures if they didn't take drastic measures to ensure its survival.

Some Christian groups today sound very similar, specifically those toward the Conservative, Fundamentalist end of the spectrum.  They often project an outward image of hostility, anger, and righteous indignation to hide their fear that if all ideas are given equal attention, their version of reality would not hold up against the competition.  Except it isn't a competition unless you're trying to force other people to agree with you.  Unlike the defunct ancient Israelite religion, Americans don't have the freedom to kill people for thinking something different from other folks.  Everyone can believe what they want and practice their religion freely to the extent that it doesn't negatively impact the lives and well-being of other people (and animals) around them.  We all have a set of general laws that we're expected to live within, but until your religious beliefs start informing how other people are allowed to behave, there generally aren't a lot of restrictions on belief.

Fear gets in the way.  Whether it's fear that our religious beliefs will not be accepted, fear that someone will reject us personally, fear that we won't be considered smart enough, attractive enough, competent enough, or whatever the case may be, our fear creates the illusion of threats all around us.  We don't have to accept that illusion.  We have options aside from irrational fears.  Another person's beliefs don't determine the value of our own beliefs.  Another person's way of life is not a challenge to our own decisions and choices.  If we are willing to accept that we are personally responsible for our own choices and actions, and we are willing to let other people be personally responsible for their own choices and actions, we really don't have a whole lot to fear.  We can let go of angry and hostile masks and be our authentic selves, confident in our own beliefs and accepting of other people, even if their beliefs differ radically from our own.

When we fight so hard to defend our personal beliefs against imagined attacks, not only do we become exhausted, but we also stunt our own growth.  When all of our time and energy goes toward being afraid and projecting anger -- or however we choose to project our fear -- we rob ourselves most of all.  If we spent that time and energy on examining and understanding our own beliefs, other people's ideas wouldn't seem so threatening.  If we spent that time and energy on deepening our own awareness of who we are, what nurtures us, what matters most to us, we could make a much greater impact on the world than anyone makes through angry rhetoric or hyper-inflated outrage.

Stop attacking the things that are different.  Stop being afraid of people who think or believe differently from you.  Look at your own beliefs and test them.  If they have real value for you, nurture them in your own life without demanding that other people validate you.  You have within you a deep sense of what is true, beneath the anger and the fear, beneath the contrived hatred and the unwillingness to see other people as equally human, at the core of who you are, there are a few things you know.  People have value.  For whatever reason you want to accept, human beings have value.  You are at your core beautiful and creative, and that beauty and creativity is capable of doing more good in the world than any amount of  hostility can ever achieve.  Relax and let your beliefs be a foundation for how you will be in the world rather than a weapon to be used against it.  Let your beliefs inform how you will honor yourself and other people and the world around you, not whether anyone is worthy of respect.  When your beliefs become a justification for violence, you've slipped over into fear.  And ultimately, your fear hurts you most of all.  Start instead from the truth that people have value, and leave it to your beliefs to tell you why.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Deuteronomy 7-11: Provisions and Punishments, and Valuing Personal Insights without Insisting on Agreement

I've said that in Deuteronomy 7-11, there are three basic themes aside from the recounting of the business with the Ten Commandments and the golden calf.  The Israelites are told to abhor and destroy all of the spiritual paraphernalia of the cultures they displace or slaughter.  They are told that everything they have of value (including the displacement and slaughtering of other people) is not by their own merit, but is something that their god provides.  It is also asserted that they will be punished if their god gets angry with them; all of those blessings will be taken away if the Israelites don't behave themselves.  We've looked at that first theme, so we can turn our attention to the other two themes for a moment.

If you get the feeling that we've already talked about whether God punishes people with natural disasters or whether people can legitimately take credit for the accomplishments in their lives, it's because the theme of God's sovereignty is understandably prevalent in the Old Testament.  Hopefully, we can continue to deepen our understanding of personal responsibility, gratitude, tolerance, and insight as we bump up against the Israelites' beliefs again.  It's worth noting once more that, although there is no evidence that an external divine being is pulling strings or orchestrating events, there is also no way to disprove such a thing.  The point is to recognize the legitimacy of other personal beliefs while still coming to agreement on how those beliefs can play out to honor ourselves and the people around us.

It's easy to disagree when we insist other people agree with our personal beliefs.  One person may say, "I'm so glad I got a new car... I earned it."  And a friend may interject, "Actually, God provided that car, so you should recognize it as a gift."
"I bought this car with my own money."
"God provided the money."
"No, I earned the money at my job."
"God provided the job."
"No, I got hired out a pool of applicants because I was the most qualified for the position."
"God opened all the doors that led to that moment."

This could go on and on as far back in time as the two people are willing to argue about it.  There's no way for either of them to be right, and there is some amount of personal insight in both positions.  One person wants to acknowledge the personal decisions and choices that defined his personal journey to that point, and this is a very valid perspective.  Even if there is a divine being opening doors for us, we still have the personal responsibility to cross the threshold.  Everything we have in life can be attributed to personal decisions to some extent.

It's also a valid perspective that external events have an impact on us.  Some people may see it as a god influencing other people's decisions, and others may see it as karma or luck or any number of other things.  Any way you slice it, it's true that there are some things in life that are beyond our control.  The confusion begins when we start trying to connect the external events to things that we have done -- suggesting that we actually do control things outside of our own decisions.  "If I am obedient to God, then I will be rewarded in life with a house and a satisfying career and a healthy family and..."  Or the flip side, "If I displease God, then I will experience misfortune, disease, poverty,..."  Even the writers of the Bible had a hard time with this, not only because they saw people around them suffering without having committed any apparent acts of disobedience, but also because they saw people around them blatantly living impious lives and experiencing success and satisfaction by all outward appearances.  Their response (as we'll see later on) was convoluted because they were committed to the premise of a god capable of rewarding and punishing people with immediacy.  My conclusion is a bit more direct.

Things outside of our control are actually outside of our control.  Events outside of our personal responsibility are not determined by our actions.  We can influence other people by our choices, to be sure.  If I decide to fly through every stop sign and red light at 90 miles per hour, you can bet that there will be consequences, maybe even some really big ones.  But the lines between my actions and those consequences are directly observable.  There isn't a similarly observable connection between speaking harshly to a parent and having locusts consume my crops, for instance.  Or making a sacrifice and experiencing rain.  I don't care what kind of animal you kill, killing an animal cannot bring about a change in the weather.  There is no directly observable line of consequence, even though there may be coincidence from time to time.

So, it's valuable for us to both acknowledge our personal responsibility and to recognize the limits of our control.  It's valuable to be grateful for what we have and to see how other people have also made contributions to our lives.  Sometimes we can gain personal insights when we are honest about these things -- insights that are not possible when we automatically assume that everything unquestionably traces back to a single infallible source.  If we are experiencing drought, we may have some insights about what we need to change in our lives to thrive, or we may have some insight about how to better manage our resources.  Those kinds of conclusions aren't possible when we immediately assume that a drought means that our god is angry and wants us to sacrifice something to appease him.  We may have a personal insight about a mildly abusive relationship and come up with all sorts of things that we can legitimately control about our contact with that individual.  And yet, I have seen people remain in obviously toxic situations because they saw them as tests that God was putting them through for some reason they didn't yet understand.  The threshold between the things for which we are responsible and the things over which we have no control becomes blurred when we insist on lines of consequence that don't exist in any observable reality.

Rather than looking at the circumstances of our lives in terms of provisions and punishments, there is so much we can gain by looking at how we can grow from the experiences of our lives.  It requires a bit more work, because legitimate lessons will recognize our personal responsibility and how we can improve our ability to create lives that reflect what matters most to us.  And legitimate lessons will also recognize that there are limits to our control without assuming malice from something outside of ourselves whenever things don't go the way we want them to.  On top of that, the conclusions we draw about how we can grow may be entirely different from the conclusions that other people draw.  This doesn't mean that anyone is wrong or right necessarily, it just means that different people reach different conclusions.

There does need to be a measuring stick of some kind, but I think that measuring stick already exists within the core of our being.  For instance, we know that bringing harm to someone else for the sake of our own personal gain is wrong, and yet we go against that truth as individuals and as a society time and again.  We are the people we often harm the most in these situations, because we act in conflict with who we are at the core of our being.  In truth, we are capable of devising some other way of creating the lives we want without bringing harm to other people.  It isn't always as easy, but it honors who we truly are in a way that doesn't put us into conflict with ourselves.  When we rely on that deep sense of human value... when we are willing to see our own merit, our own beauty, and our own creativity... when we are willing to see the value and beauty and inspiration in other people... it doesn't matter whether our personal beliefs are the same or different from someone else's.  What matters is that whatever our personal beliefs are, they create a foundation of responsibility for our own lives and respect for the lives of others. 

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Deuteronomy 7-11: Fear is the Opposite of Love (The Illusory Threat of Other People's Beliefs)

Many people think that hatred is the opposite of love.  In terms of pure linguistics, it's an accurate assumption.  In terms of the human mind and heart, however, fear is actually love's opposing force.  One cannot truly love and fear simultaneously.  Perhaps one can be devoted to something one fears.  One can be obedient and faithful to the object of one's fear.  But love and fear are mutually exclusive in the human psyche.  Even the Bible claims that "There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love" (1 John 4:18).  If your goal is to love, you must put aside fear.

This is something the writers of Deuteronomy apparently did not understand, and perhaps the reason the next several books of the Bible tell the tale of the Israelites' repeated failure to live up to the impossible standards of their religion.  In Deuteronomy 7-11, there are three basic themes aside from the recounting of the business with the Ten Commandments and the golden calf.  The Israelites are told to abhor and destroy all of the spiritual paraphernalia of the cultures they displace or slaughter.  They are told that everything they have of value (including the displacement and slaughtering of other people) is not by their own merit, but is something that their god provides.  It is also asserted that they will be punished if their god gets angry with them; all of those blessings will be taken away if the Israelites don't behave themselves.  We're just going to look at that first theme for the moment.

Religion and spiritual identity are two different things entirely.  Religion and dogma are used to draw lines of distinction, to illustrate how one group of people is different from another group of people.  At one time, before cultures came into close contact with one another, religion was a way to codify the beliefs of a community -- to explain the unknown for a group of people.  When those groups of people encountered other groups of people, though, it became quickly apparent that they had come to accept explanations that were different from the other people.  If neither side was willing to modify their beliefs, then the two cultures experienced conflict on some level, because their religious identities were challenged. 

Now, we understand so much more about human nature and the world around us, we see how religion breeds conflict, and yet we are still stubborn enough to dig in our heels and insist that our belief is better than what some other group of people believe.  And we are threatened enough by their beliefs that we are often willing to resort to violence to defend our religious identities.  We make decisions based on religion that would otherwise seem irrational or immoral, but we excuse those actions in the name of a religious belief.  At least that's what we convince ourselves.  Actually, we make those decisions based on fear.

Our actual spiritual identities are not dependent upon dogma.  Our spirituality is the unifying quality underlying all of the beliefs that people have developed over the millenia.  Our spiritual identities urge us toward love, not fear.  The truth is that our religious beliefs don't matter all that much.  What matters is the way that we treat one another.  If we are convinced that our religion wants us to abuse or kill people who believe differently, we are actually acting against our spiritual nature.  In many cases, we are also acting against the modern-day interpretation of our faith tradition as well.  That all gets glossed over when we give fear control. 

The truth of the matter is that other people's beliefs don't threaten us.  If one person believes in biblical Christianity, and another person believes in the teachings of Islam, and a third person believes in the Nordic pantheon, all three of those people can arrive at the same conclusions about how to relate to themselves and other people and the world around them.  Instead of recognizing the vast swaths of similarity, however, people are drawn toward the points of distinction.  People want to assert that they are right about what they believe.  They want to be right about something that cannot be proven by any means, and they can get so caught up in that crusade that they give themselves over to fear instead of love. 

We do not need to destroy the things that others hold dear in order to bolster our own beliefs.  We do not need to denigrate the beliefs of others in order to strengthen our spiritual stability.  The answer is quite the opposite.  Love drives out fear.  Love helps us recognize that our beliefs are not something that other people have to validate.  Our beliefs are simply the way we have come to articulate the spiritual truths that are common to every person.  Our individual beliefs are like different languages we use to describe the same landscape.  The landscape doesn't change because someone else uses a different set of words to label it.  There is no legitimate reason to fear someone else's beliefs, even if we have reason to be concerned about their actions.

So, since it is our actions that truly make a difference in the world, it's important that we understand how our beliefs are compelling us to behave.  Sometimes we wind up believing things that actually create conflict within us, and that leads to us creating conflict with things outside of ourselves.  The way to avoid giving in to fear is to examine what we actually believe and to be willing to modify the beliefs that don't make sense to the way we want to be in the world.  We'll get into the implications of the beliefs about blessings and punishments from on high in a few days.  In the meantime, consider how closely the possible covenant from a couple of weeks back fits the way you want to be in the world.  What would you change about it?  Why would you change that?  Do you have a better set of agreements with yourself that truly reflects how you want to be with yourself, other people, and the world around you?

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, June 3, 2012

Deuteronomy 6: Love for the Divine (Expanding on the concept of valuing yourself)

Locating the character of the divine within oneself is not really a new concept.  The idea has been incorporated into the belief systems of other religions and philosophies, some of which are older than Christianity and evolved parallel to Judaism.  Still, some people have concerns about looking within because they are afraid they will be disappointed by what they find.  One writer stated that when he looked within himself, he found only selfishness -- that all of his relationships and activities revolved around what others could do for him.  He determined that there needed to be more to his life than this selfishness, and so he turned to the Christian church to find that something more.  My question would be: What informed the belief that there needed to be more than selfishness?  If one is only relying on what is within oneself, and one arrives at the conclusion that selfish behavior leads to a certain emptiness in life, mustn't one conclude that something within oneself contributed to that conclusion?  Something deeper than the surface level selfishness?

Different people will have different answers to that question, but what makes sense to me is that human beings are complex creatures and that one cannot merely glance within and gain a complete picture.  We have layers of thoughts and beliefs, and it requires a bit of work to truly be connected with oneself.  This is not all that different from what the writers of Deuteronomy wanted the Jewish people to understand.  It is a simple thing to say, "Love the Lord your God," but most people require a bit of guidance to put that command into practice.  Similarly, it is an easy thing to say, "Seek the divine within," but most people would actually appreciate a little more direction on that journey.  Deuteronomy 6 elucidates that command for the Israelites, so what follows is how I would update that chapter in light of a new understanding of the divine.  As the biblical chapter refers to the Ten Commandments in its opening line, I refer to the agreements from last week's discussion.

If you are willing to make these agreements with yourself, you stand a much greater chance of living a happy and satisfying life.  Cultivate respect for yourself and you will find it easier to respect others.  Love yourself and you will be better able to love others.  This requires constant awareness, and it can mean working through many false ideas that you've learned through the years.  Because there are many other voices and ideas in the world, you may find that you are reminding yourself of the truth about your value repeatedly.  This is not in any way a weakness; it's simply the process of recognizing a deep truth and beauty and creativity on which you haven't been very focused. 

This is what it takes to have confidence in honoring and valuing human beings (yourself included): Talk about the truth of human value whenever you have the chance, whether in the privacy of your own home or walking about in public.  Put up visual reminders of this truth in your home, your car, your office, and wherever else you spend time, so that you will constantly be drawn back to the reality of your worth and the worth of the people around you.  And if you teach your children to value, honor, and respect themselves and other people, they will have a much easier time living meaningful lives as adults.

Be grateful for what you have.  Recognize the benefits in your life that came about because of the generosity of others, and acknowledge the things you have created yourself.  When you are grateful, it is much more difficult to be distracted by petty disappointments, by superficial comparisons, or by pangs of entitlement that tempt you to place your value above that of other people.  When you are grateful, it is much easier to see the value of other people, to be generous with what you have, and to be connected to yourself, other people, and the world.  In short, gratitude makes life more satisfying. 

Trust yourself.  Even when you make a misstep, trust yourself to be able to improve upon it.  Test the beliefs that other people try to instill in you, and weigh cultural concepts against the truth of human value.  Our creativity can be a double-edged sword, because we can create all manner of distractions away from the reality of our own intrinsic value.  It's tempting to focus on acquiring money or things, to concentrate on what makes some people "better" than other people, or to shift personal responsibility for our lives away from ourselves.  These lines of thinking will never help us to realize our full potential.  Trust yourself to be able to see your own worth and the value of the people around you.  If you see something less than that in the behavior and beliefs you've adopted, look deeper.  At the core of your being is undeniable and connecting truth, a deep sense of beauty, and inspiring creativity.  It's at the core of all of us, even if we have covered it up with other things.  Trust yourself to find it within you.