* 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

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. 

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