* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

A Tangent to Judges: Israelite Religious Leaders Were Spiritual Pioneers

Imagine for a moment that the Yahweh of the Israelites was not an external entity of any kind.   Imagine instead that the Yahweh of the Israelites was a representation for an inner shared truth – something inherent to everyone, yet so deeply buried in the human psyche that it could not easily be addressed or discussed.  Imagine that the religious leaders of the Israelites were pioneers in articulating how the “divine” intersected with mundane life.  They may not have gotten everything accurate in every sense of the word, but their insights created a spiritual foothold for a community.  Yes, their framework was exclusive to the Israelite people.  Yes, their perspective placed Israel’s culture and well-being higher than the rest of humanity.  But we are capable of looking past misconceptions and ethnocentrism.

Considering the Ten Commandments, we see a statement that ultimately professes that if you bear false witness against another person, or take another life, or act in a way that discounts the value of another human being, your actions are not in alignment with the divine character within you.  The truth, beauty, and creativity within you is in opposition to the anger and fear that leads to what the Israelites called “wickedness.”  When you behave in a way that is in opposition to the actual divine character within you, you do harm to yourself—you kill yourself in some sense, you ostracize yourself from your true nature and capability.  The punishment of death or exile is not truly something that a community must do to mete out justice; they are merely the internal consequences of fear-driven behavior.

The sacrifices and rituals that are prescribed then become clearly positioned as actions to benefit the people performing the sacrifices rather than obligations to a deity.  When we have done something wrong and there seems to be no way of undoing our mistakes or taking back the angry, fearful actions, our response can only be despair.  But if we know that we can do something about it, we have hope.  The sacrifices and rituals may have gotten a bit out of hand, and their value may have been diluted over time, but they were clearly a way for people to manage the guilt that accompanies behavior that is out of alignment with our deepest selves.  A way to move forward spiritually and psychologically.

How could people thousands of years ago have articulated the internal truth of who we are as human beings with precise clarity?  We don’t expect that they clearly expressed the real nature of disease, or electricity, or atomic energy.  They didn’t understand those concepts as well as we do today.  Even a few hundred years ago, civilized people with quality educations still had no clue how to vaccinate against a disease or how to create a dry cell battery.  Why would we expect them to have a profoundly sophisticated understanding of spirituality when they didn’t have a profoundly sophisticated understanding of so much of their world?

So, in the book of Judges, we have the Israelite community falling into depravity and suffering for it, then being plucked up and set straight by a competent leader, experiencing a time of peace and prosperity before falling into depravity once again.  The text suggests that their god punishes them and saves them, but what if the suffering and the prosperity are merely the natural consequences of behavior and not an intelligently conceived plan of punishment and redemption? 

The Israelites resolve to act in alignment with the truth, beauty, and creativity within them.  They respect one another.  They handle their fear and anger responsibly.  Life is good.  Over time, fear and anger build, perhaps in response to events in the world around them, and they lose sight of what is true.  They lose interest in living according to their deepest selves.  Life is not so good.  Misery and suffering prevail.  Then, along comes someone who disrupts the status quo, who restores the community’s awareness that there is a way to live in greater accord with the truth, beauty, and creativity within them.  This reminder gives the Israelites enough hope to start managing their fear and anger differently.  They start behaving differently.  Life is good again.

Of course, the Israelites are externalizing all of the good and the bad things that happen.  When good things happen, it’s because Yahweh is happy with them.  When bad things happen, it’s because Yahweh is angry with them.  They don’t recognize Yahweh as an internal manifestation of their deepest, most noble selves.  They think of Yahweh as an external, all-powerful deity.  Thus, they get the causes and effects backward.  In reality, our divine selves rejoice when we are living in alignment with our true natures.  Likewise, we are frustrated at our deepest core when we act contrary to the truth, beauty, and creativity within us. 

In the Israelites’ eyes, they were powerless.  They believed that the external deity Yahweh was all-powerful.  They believed that Yahweh was in control of whether their experience of life was positive or negative.  If they realized how much control they actually had over whether their experience of life was positive or negative, would the Israelites have behaved any differently?  I don’t know.  Do we?


  1. So to borrow some psychology terms, you are suggesting that people's internal wiring provided positive feedback for doing the right thing (life is good), while the Isrealite religious leaders provided, externally, negative feedback for doing the wrong thing (punishment for sin).
    The story isn't as simple as that though. A small number of people fell to the urges of anger and fear and ruined it for everyone else. What feedback did those deviators from the Plan receive? What made them move from "life is good" to "wickedness"? Are there short term personal benefits for following the path of anger and fear? Is the response to fear as hardwired in us as behavioral psychologists would have us believe: fight or flight is a very well defined response that leaves very little to the imagination.
    It may seem I am taking things a little too literally but I think my comments are just as applicable in a broader sense.

  2. I'm intending to suggest that the Israelite spiritual leaders were articulating the experience of the community the best way they knew how, by referring to an external deity. The feedback -- both positive and negative -- came from the reality of the Israelites' circumstances. When they were in alignment with their deepest, most noble selves, the feedback was positive in terms of their experience. When they were out of alignment as a culture, the feedback became more negative. The spiritual leaders of the community put this experience into religious terms as a way of explaining the circumstances and instructing the people.

    In the book of Judges, it isn't the case that a small number of people ruin it for everyone. It's a cultural thing. The whole culture becomes out of alignment. In fact, one of the interesting things about the biblical narrative up to this point is that the people who suffer are identified as wicked. The wicked people are punished and the righteous people are rewarded.

    But that's kind of beside the point, because at some point in time, everybody is going to do something "wicked" or out of alignment with our truest, deepest selves. We will at some point give in to fear and we will do something that we know to be destructive to ourselves or to someone else. It's part of being human.

    There are absolutely situations in which our physical well-being is threatened, and "fight or flight" is an appropriate cue. We mistranslate that instinct into a lot of inappropriate situations, though, when the only thing really threatened is our ego. The short-term, superficial benefits are that we feel superior or powerful, we don't have to question our beliefs or actions, we potentially get other people to do what we want... there are lots of reasons to abuse fear. Ultimately, though, none of those outcomes is completely satisfying to us on a deep level.

    You're right that our "fight or flight" wiring leaves little to the imagination. And yet, we are capable of imagining. We have an opportunity not available to most other creatures -- we are creators. Our imagination and creativity give us options apart from instinctual protective responses. This is the role of spirituality in human life: to help us recognize our ability to love and respect and value ourselves and other people, even when our instincts might be screaming at us to fight back or run away. Spiritual maturity helps us realize that we get more out of life when we actively create it rather than just react to it.