* 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, November 12, 2012

2 Samuel 6-10: Beliefs Are Worth Examining

The story of Yahweh's promise that David's throne would be established forever was nearly as important to the ancient Israelites as the legendary agreement made between Moses and Yahweh. After the kingdom of Israel split, the promise to David was understandably more important to Judah, the Israelite kingdom that kept the temple and the throne. Although David wanted to build a great temple to the Yahweh, it is his son Solomon who gets credit for that achievement in the book of Samuel. By the time the book of Chronicles was written, however, David was seen as having a much greater role in the temple planning. David's legendary status for the culture led the author(s) to leave out his human mistakes and failings that were recorded in Samuel. Incidentally, 1 Chronicles records the promise of Davidic rule in chapter 17 more or less identically to the version in 2 Samuel.

The challenge for the Israelites was the same as it is for many people today: Once you take a stand on a particular belief, you look at the world through that lens. If the belief and the world seem to be in conflict, we try to figure out why. Typically, we don't want to give up our belief (because then we would have to admit that we were wrong about something), and we can't change the world. So, we invent some reason that the conflict might exist. The ancient Israelites eventually had to invent reasons why their kingdom was overthrown and they were taken into exile. Some people decided that the promise to David was not unconditional, and that the nation's unfaithfulness toward their cultural religion had landed them in hot water. Others decided that the promise to David meant that restoration was imminent. Later, some people in the Christian sect would trace the lineage of Jesus back to David, thus establishing Jesus as the fulfillment of that promise of eternal rule.

History is a strange and liquid creature. We do not report every detail when we recount history; we concentrate on those events that seem to form a pattern. We look at events that seem significant, either because of their impact on the world or because of their place in a sequence of events. We learn about the inventors of significant machines or processes, but we do not learn about the inventor of the spring or specialized wing nut that allowed the larger machine to function. We remember the names of assassins or generals, the dates of battles and victories, and when we delve into the systems and subcultures to gain a clear understanding of what led up to significant events, we know what we're looking for. We seek to understand the cause-and-effect relationships that make sense of history. Some people recording the history of the ancient Israelites saw certain cause-and-effect chains, while other people had a different perspective. In the biblical narrative, both are preserved to a certain extent, but they are every bit a product of their culture.

Israelite historians -- at least the ones that wrote anything that wound up in the Bible -- always traced their cause-and-effect chains back to God. When God was pleased, he allowed their country to prosper. When God was angry, he allowed foreign powers to destroy their cities. We have the same kind of thinkers in our world today. "I'm wealthy, and therefore God must want me to be prosperous while others struggle." "I'm sick or injured, so God must want me to suffer for some reason." Hurricanes become messages from God rather than natural events. Elections are interpreted as punishment or blessing rather than democratic process. Our personal lives become mysterious chains of cause-and-effect that are beyond our control if God is seen as the one moving the pieces on the board, while we are left to figure out why. When we look back at history, whether it is our own personal history or the history of a larger community, are we honestly seeing rational chains of events? Or are we crediting supernatural forces with some intelligent purpose in the course of history that we can only observe?

In the biblical narrative, when David hears the promise from Yahweh for the first time, it is delivered by the prophet Nathan. There haven't been a lot of prophets in the narrative before this point, but they become more important in the generations that follow David. Prophets in the Bible speak for God. They call people to accountability, and they make predictions based on the signs of the times. Sometimes their prognostications are intended to tell people to shape up, and sometimes they offer messages of hope. Ancient peoples relied upon prophets because they didn't believe that just anyone could have direct access to the divine. Of course, people didn't always listen to the prophets' messages. It all depended on how much the prophet was challenging something the people believed.

Many people today have very adamant beliefs. Some of these are religious beliefs, but most people wind up with a whole catalog of beliefs about themselves, other people, life in general, the government, the economy, and on and on. Most people are not well practiced at examining those beliefs when something in reality doesn't line up with their beliefs, however. It's easier on some level to concoct another auxiliary belief to explain any discrepancies between our beliefs and reality. We might wind up with an enormous pile of beliefs all designed to support one thing about which we've decided to dig in our heels, never examining how reasonable or beneficial those beliefs are. Our entire view of reality -- including our view of ourselves -- may be clouded by a mass of beliefs we've never really examined.

The divine is somewhere underneath that pile of beliefs. If there is any guidance to be had from the divine, we have to clear away some of the irrationalities to which we've grown accustomed and make sure that our beliefs make sense. No prophet can come along and tell you what the divine wants from you. No one knows what the divine is doing in someone else's life. When anyone claims to know what God wants for somebody else's life, that person is lying, whether they realize it or not. The prophets in our lives might point us toward the divine within us. Our prophets can hold us accountable to the agreements we have made. But people can not know what the divine intends for anyone but themselves. Whenever someone claims to speak for God, all they are expressing is their own personal values and desires. They are speaking from within their own big pile of unexamined and unquestioned beliefs, describing their own clouded view of reality as if their perspective is the only possible way to see the world. It is an understandable perspective. After all, their view is honestly the only possible way for them to see the world in that moment.

Here is a view of reality for you to test against your own beliefs:
People matter.
What we do has an impact on other people, and since people matter, what we do matters.
And if what we do matters, then it's worth being conscious of what we are doing.
It's worth being conscious of what we are doing because the people we touch matter.

And if people matter, then we matter.
If we matter, then we are worth our own care and attention.
What we do is informed by what we believe,
so our beliefs are worth some care and attention as well.
If we take the time to examine what we believe and consider the impact of what we do,
we stand a better chance of living the kinds of lives we want to live,
because if people matter -- if we matter -- then it only makes sense to live like people matter.

If we insist on believing and doing things that devalue ourselves or other people,
What purpose does it serve in our lives to believe that people don't matter?
What purpose does it serve in our lives to believe that we don't matter?
Are we alright with that?
I believe that there is no intelligent supernatural being orchestrating events in history or making promises for the future. I believe that our stories as individuals and as a people are accounts of human success and failure, of intentional and unintentional human actions that have consequences. Our histories and our futures are stories about us, not merely stories that we witness from the sidelines. And since all of our stories are human stories about people, I must conclude that people matter. I cannot do otherwise. For me, this is truth. Against this truth, all of my beliefs can be weighed, all of my actions evaluated.

What is your truth? Really? Do your beliefs and actions reflect that truth? Are you happy with that? Does it lead you to the life you most want to live? To the world you most want to create?

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