* 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, December 31, 2012

Christmas Inspiration: Leaping Forward to the Tales of Jesus (a sort of prologue)

A few conversations over the recent holidays have inspired a shift in my organizational thinking about these writings. I began with considering the Old Testament primarily because so many loud voices seem to refer to these ancient Israelite writings as prototypes for how twenty-first century Westerners should see the world. It is the poetic mythology of the Old Testament that leads some to conclude that creationism is rational. It is the brutal tribal justice depicted in the Old Testament that encourages some modern day Christians to justify violence in the name of religious superiority. In many cases, it is the pseudo-historical accounts of the Old Testament that some people attempt to prove in order to demonstrate the the Bible is inspired and infallible.

While it is understandably great fun to use the Bible as a weapon of judgment against other people, few who claim to revere its words seem to apply Old Testament prophetic judgment personally in their own lives. They seem instead to live by the principle, "Judgment for others; grace for me." However, there are many people in Christian churches who disagree wholeheartedly with the obnoxiously loud and violently unyielding extremists that can be heard constantly on the radio or seen on the television or online. Perhaps out of a quiet wisdom, they don't buy as much airtime, but in their lives, they intend to purposefully live out the love and grace practiced and taught by Jesus in the New Testament stories. Some people take seriously the revolutionary teachings and admonishments attributed to Jesus, without taking upon themselves the mantle of judge over the rest of humanity. One such person encouraged me to bring the figure of Jesus more fully into what I write here, finding the deconstruction of the Old Testament somewhat tedious. Fair enough.

In a separate holiday conversation, a believer told me, "Jesus was born to die on the cross." My question in response was, "Why are there so many stories about his ministry if the only thing that matters is that he was crucified?" With gentle and utter conviction, this person replied, "so we'd know he was the real deal."

While I realize that this viewpoint is not in any way representative of the whole of American Christianity, I also think that it is lacking in depth. Maintaining a faith of single-minded simplicity may be quite sufficient for some people, and if an individual chooses to stop thinking at a certain point and just do the best they can to make the world a better place, I have no real complaints. My concern is that there are those who would use simple single-minded faith to manipulate others or to justify actions that don't even come close to making the world a better place. It's worth examining closely the actions and teachings of the namesake of the Christian church.

Of course, it was always the intention to arrive at the New Testament after examining the Old Testament. The plan is simply shifting slightly to accommodate a bit of back-and-forth. Thus, over the next several entries, teachings from the gospel writers will be introduced in alternation with a continued exploration of the Old Testament. In light of that, a disclaimer is in order regarding my approach to the Christ figure.

While I do not begrudge anyone the freedom to hold as divine any person or thing they may choose, my personal beliefs do not find any justification for belief in a god, Christian or otherwise. Thus, my personal beliefs do not find cause to view Jesus as any more divine than anyone else. In fact, I find no compelling evidence that the man written about in the gospel stories ever actually existed in the form portrayed in the Bible. We could just as easily find lessons in the tales of Odysseus, King Arthur, or the Norse pantheon, and we could no doubt draw some valuable truths from such a study. Culturally speaking, however, there is a valid reason to look more closely at Jesus than other mythological figures, since so many diverse claims continue to be made about what he said or what he intended for twenty-first century American culture.

Although I do not believe in a historical Jesus as depicted by the biblical writers, I do believe that the gospel authors had a purpose in writing what they did. They were establishing new ways of expressing spirituality and community at a time when the old system was failing. Through the believable figure of a humble god-man, the biblical writers offered new interpretations of ideas that were already ancient two thousand years ago, encouraging people away from rigid legalism and tribalism and toward something different -- something more feasible in the new reality of the Roman Empire. Other Jewish scholars wrestled with the old traditions differently, producing volumes of commentaries to clarify and expound upon the Jewish scriptures. Some ideas held in common between these Jewish commentaries and the early Christian sect are also reflected in the inspirational writings from other faith traditions as well, hinting at the revelation of some universal truths that may hold value for all people regardless of geography or culture, as opposed to the ethnocentric and xenophobic tradition reflected in the Old Testament. Those who wrote what would eventually become the New Testament contributed to a sect that ultimately gained the support of a Roman emperor and established a cultural foothold that has lasted almost two millennia.

In order to legitimize the figure of Jesus as someone worthy of attention with greater authority than other spiritual leaders of the day, the gospel writers wove a unique biography for the Christ figure. On the one hand, they used thematic elements common to many hero tales across every culture; for more reading on the universal hero archetype, one can do no better than Joseph Campbell. The gospels also draw upon Jewish prophetic writings (many of which were not actually intended to predict a future messiah figure) to credential Jesus. This is reflected in the birth story heard throughout the Christian world last week, from Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-3.

Obviously, there are discrepancies between the two accounts, in the two genealogies as well as the actual events related. The bottom line is that readers are supposed to conclude that Jesus was special and supremely qualified in spiritual matters. Symbolic and fantastical accounts aside, there is no real value in dismantling the birth story of Jesus here. If one chooses to believe in the unique divinity of a historical Jesus, perhaps that belief will lead to authentic expression of Christian teachings in one's daily life. I believe we will find greater spiritual value in the deeper truths and teachings recorded by the biblical authors through the character of Jesus.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

1 Kings 12-13: Reading History through Smudged Lenses (or How Beliefs Cloud Our Vision)

A simple search on the phrase, "God told me to do it," will yield all sorts of news stories (most of them rather disturbing) about people breaking into homes, kidnapping people, killing people, and even committing acts of cannibalism, claiming that they only did what they did because of a directive from on high. While we have no way of knowing what is going on inside the heads of other people, it seems fairly safe to assume that there was something psychologically amiss, and not a deity directing their actions. Of course, one strong alternative is that some of these folks knew exactly what they were doing when they pointed the finger of blame at an invisible all-powerful being with whom one cannot argue or debate. And it's worth pointing out that just as many disturbing stories include the claim that the devil is to blame.

We don't like being at fault. We don't like being blamed for something. Even when we haven't decapitated anyone or committed acts far outside the cultural norms, we frequently look for a way to justify or defend our behavior when it feels like we're being accused. This is not new behavior for human beings. Recall how Solomon had allegedly used fellow Israelites for slave labor when the temple was being constructed, and imagine the situation his successor would have to manage.

According to the biblical narrative, when Solomon died and his son Rehoboam took the throne, the people who had been subjected to forced labor under Solomon sent a representative to humbly request Rehoboam treat them with a bit more respect. Rehoboam was too dim to see the correct path on his own, so he asked for guidance from his trusted wise advisers. He didn't like what they had to say, so he sought advice from his young friends. Taking their advice (or perhaps doing what he wanted to do all along), he rashly insulted the representative and ended up losing a significant portion of his kingdom when ten tribes (out of twelve) revolted against his leadership. This is the story of 1 Kings 12, which is duplicated almost word for word in 2 Chronicles 10.

Is there a not-so-hidden moral to the story about age and youth and wisdom and folly? The older men who wrote down the story may have had an axe to grind. On top of that, they were looking back at a failed kingdom and trying to explain it in a way that made sense to them. Rehoboam's failure makes sense when you read their version of the story. Of course, we will never know the objective reality of the situation. (Readers who believe that the Bible does, in fact, provide a narrative of irrefutable historical data are humbly encouraged to read previous entries on the topic.) Something very interesting happens next, however, scribed by the same religious-minded hands who were trying to make sense of why their society was faltering.

Jeroboam (the leader of the revolt against Rehoboam) set up some idols in a couple of northern temples so his people wouldn't have to go to the temple in Jerusalem, which Rehoboam still controlled. This was a no-no, of course, since it implied the worship of a god other than Yahweh, or at the very least, honoring a graven image instead of honoring their actual cultural deity. In 1 Kings 13, a unnamed prophet appears on the scene.  He claims to have a message from God condemning the religious practices Jeroboam had instituted, and he produces a few miraculous signs to back up his claim. Then another unnamed prophet invites this traveler for a meal, but the traveling prophet has been told by God to return home by a different route without eating or drinking any of the food near the heretical temples. The insistent prophet with a penchant for hospitality responds that God told him that the traveling prophet should stick around for a meal, so they share a meal, at which time God pronounces judgment for the traveling prophet's disobedience and a lion kills him on the road.

Now, looking at history, the northern kingdom of Israel was conquered by a foreign empire before the southern kingdom of Judah. In looking back at why the northern kingdom failed, the Israelite historians concluded that it must have been because God was displeased with the kingdom. Why would God have been displeased? Well, among other things, their worship was all wrong. That's why they fell to a foreign army. It had nothing to do with military or political leadership; it was entirely the result of religious ineptitude. Thus, the story needs to reflect that the traveling prophet who pronounced God's judgment was the true mouthpiece of God, and the man who insisted that God wanted the traveling prophet to stay for dinner was a false prophet, claiming that God said something he didn't really say.

If we look at all of history, all of the kingdoms and nations and empires that have risen and fallen, perhaps we would see consistency in this idea that a kingdom's success is based on the propriety of its worship. But then, we see that the southern kingdom of Judah, which had instituted religious reforms to be as precisely in line with what Yahweh required as they could, also fell to a foreign power. The temple was destroyed and the people were taken into exile. The Roman Empire, which established Christianity as the state religion, fell to hostile invading forces. The Byzantine Empire fell as well. Obviously orthodox Christianity can't keep a political body safe either. When the Muslim Empire conquered much of the world, it was eventually driven back, and yet it still holds power in many countries. Japanese culture has existed since before the Common Era and survived even the devastating bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Perhaps, by the standards of the ancient Israelite historians, we should look to Islamic practices or the syncretic Shinto-Buddhism practiced by the Japanese to understand how best to worship God, since they characterize resilient political entities where the nation of Israel fell time and time again.

But the point is not to determine the ideal religious practice to provide political resilience. That is merely the smudged and tinted lens through which Israelite historians gazed at their history. Likely, we can point to specific decisions and practices that had a measurable and verifiable impact on the survival of any culture or nation, without resorting to supernatural phenomena and schemes. Anyone who looks back at history and discerns the will of a supernatural entity is creating an explanation that isn't needed or warranted. The actual facts of history create a feasible enough explanation without inventing an overarching plan from on high. Such inventions inevitably run into problems when scrutinized, but the inventors are not likely to acknowledge those challenges, since they often believe that they have discerned what God wants, which brings us back to our unnamed prophets.

It is possible that prophets in the story are just literary constructs, used to comment on the state of affairs as the writer saw things. Assuming we can analyze the characters at all, we still don't know whether either of them actually believed that they were mouthpieces of the divine. From personal experience, it would seem that people who think they know what God wants are not likely to be swayed by someone else's idea of what God wants, even if a delicious meal is involved. Once a person becomes convinced that the will of an almighty supreme being is known to them, it's tough for them to keep an open mind. It's safer to blame God if something bad happens. If I say, "It was God's will," then no one should hold me personally accountable. I can't get blamed for something that God wanted to happen.

If only everyone agreed on what God wanted, it might be easier to take such assertions seriously. Instead, there is a whole array of claims about what God wants, and although most of them do not involve decapitations or cannibalism, some of them do involve some rather hateful and violent positions. On the other side of the spectrum are those who claim that God wants peace and unity. It seems impossible that an almighty, omniscient deity could want so many different and contradictory things as is suggested by a survey of those who claim to know God's will.

What seems more possible is that everyone who makes such a claim is wrong. Not necessarily intentionally misleading, just wrong about where their information originates. Some people may believe fervently that God wants all war to cease, and others may believe wholeheartedly that God wants all infidels slaughtered. There is amply evidence in various religious scriptures to justify either stance. There is actually evidence for nearly any claim anyone may make about what God wants. Some people are just lying, as the biblical writers suggest of our hospitable prophet. Maybe he thought that he would get some sort of blessing or benefit from his act of hospitality, so he said that God wanted it -- a claim that could not be refuted. Who knows? In any case, it doesn't matter whether or not someone who claims to know what God wants is intentionally lying; the premise in and of itself is faulty.

Within us all, there is a way that we think the world should be. We have created an idealized impression of how people should behave and how events should turn out, and if our idealized impression is challenged by circumstances or by other people's behavior, we get rather put out. Our ideal can't be wrong, so we assume that other people are wrong. The problem is that our idealized impressions of how things should be is not based on any sort of objective analysis. It's based on beliefs into which we have been indoctrinated or that we have gradually accepted over time. And beliefs are often not much better than opinions. We all have beliefs that are not based on any sort of verifiable facts, they are just the things that we believe.

When we determine how the world should work through the smeared, biased lenses of our beliefs, we do not see the world as it is. We try to fix things and people that do not need to be fixed, only because they do not fit with the way we want the world to be. We see trajectories of purpose and intention in coincidences because we want our perception of cause-and-effect to apply to all that we survey. Yet, it's obvious when reality doesn't line up with what we want that something is off kilter. Instead of trying to fix everything else, perhaps our attention should be drawn to our own lenses -- our beliefs. It really is alright to be wrong about something and to adjust beliefs as necessary to accommodate new information. We are not obligated to cling to what we have believed in the past beyond the point at which the beliefs no longer make sense in light of reality. We are free to align our beliefs with the reality of the world around us, to wipe a little bit of the smudge off our lenses, so to speak.

We cannot ethically and morally blame God or the devil for our behavior. We are each personally accountable for our words and actions. This is not always pretty, but it is honest. We don't always know all that we would like to know, and we don't always listen to the wisest counsel. Ultimately, though, our lives and choices are up to us. Even if you believe that there is a God, you do not know what he wants better than anyone else does. You might know what you want better than anyone else, but that's the extent of it. Clarity comes from exercising a bit of honesty about the source of our problems, our beliefs, and what we want the world to be like. Hint: It comes from inside us.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

1 Kings 3-11: Wisdom, Slavery, and Human Dignity

Solomon was reputed to be the wisest man in the world; he was certainly legendary among the Israelites for his wisdom. Of course, some of the tales of his wisdom seem remarkably similar to other tales about other people in other cultures, but such is the way of folklore: why tell a good story about some other people when you can tell it about your own people? Solomon's record doesn't hold up well in the long run, however. As the last king over a united Israelite kingdom, he set the stage for a division that would not be resolved before foreign powers conquered the whole of Israel and Judah. Solomon's deeds are recorded in 1 Kings, and also in 2 Chronicles, the latter author often lifting passages directly from the earlier account.

Building the temple in Jerusalem was Solomon's real claim to fame in Israelite culture. The extravagant worship and sacrifice center was intended to be a unifying feature of religion and community, cementing the culture and the people. As it is described in biblical passages, it does indeed seem like an impressive structure, and Solomon, as he is portrayed in the text, says all of the appropriate pious things. We even know that Yahweh approves, because the ark of the covenant makes it to the temple without anyone dying, a spooky cloud inhabits the temple when it's finished, and Yahweh blatantly tells Solomon that he's put his stamp of approval on the place. He also issues an eerily predictive warning about what will happen if the Israelites are unfaithful. 

One of Solomon's problems is how much he likes the ladies. Seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines worth of ladies, if the author of Kings is to be believed. (The author of Chronicles leaves this embarrassingly indulgent menagerie out of Solomon's biography.) These women, many of them foreigners with their own cultures and their own gods, influenced Solomon to such an extent that he built other places of worship in his kingdom, where people could go and worship other gods other than the Israelite's Yahweh. This undermined his pious image at the very least, and it also triggered the warning Yahweh had pronounced (partially explaining for the Israelites who were taken into exile why their temple was destroyed from a theological perspective).

The real misstep, however, was Solomon's labor force for building the extravagant temple. First, the account in Kings reveals that Solomon "conscripted laborers from all over Israel" and it explicitly refers to "forced labor" (1 Ki. 5:13-14). Later on (1 Ki. 9:20-23) there is an attempt to clarify that only non-Israelite people were made into slaves; this is the passage that 2 Chronicles chooses to include, incidentally. When Solomon's son Rehoboam gains the throne, the hard labor endured under Solomon's reign is enough of an issue for people that the kingdom undergoes a division that would only be reconciled through destruction and exile. Even if the Israelites were not technically slaves, their labor was unbearable enough to spark a revolution against Rehoboam. Allegedly the wisest of men, Solomon was somehow blind to the fact that people will only tolerate oppressive subjugation for so long, even though the story of his own culture is based on this reality.

According to their cultural origin story, the Israelites themselves were once slaves in Egypt, and even though their conditions were not reported to be extraordinarily harsh, they rose up and fled en masse, looting the Egyptians as they went. Somehow, despite this powerful folk history, Solomon concludes that slavery is appropriate when the Israelites are in charge. According to the reports of his wealth, he had abundant resources to pay for the labor that went into building his temples and palaces; he simply chose not to. Slave labor is certainly better from a purely financial standpoint. But Israel's success as a united nation ended with Solomon; his crowning achievement was reduced to rubble. One can blame Rehoboam for being pigheaded, but the unrest stemmed directly from Solomon's policies. Perhaps Solomon didn't really care what happened to his people once he was dead. He certainly lived an insulated life of luxury, along with his thousand-woman harem.

If there was a real historical Solomon, he may have been a wise leader. The Solomon of the Bible was short-sighted, self-indulgent, and tyrannical. People intrinsically know that slavery is morally and ethically wrong; even people who oppress others know that it's wrong. Otherwise, their actions would be completely out in the open and matter-of-fact. People would not revolt against slavery or try to escape their oppressive circumstances if it was natural and just. But human beings will naturally reject the conditions of oppressions and slavery, sometimes even when that oppression is only a perception. Those who would oppress or enslave have to go to great lengths to keep people from revolting or finding a way to freedom. This is a big clue that there is something out of balance.

The problem is that we can fail to hold ourselves as equal to the people we would control. When we concentrate on how the Other is different, it is a short step in our minds to deciding that the Other is inferior--and that we are superior. It somehow seems justifiable to subject an Inferior Other to what we would violently reject in our own lives. It seems justifiable, but it never actually seems right or moral.

It creates dissonance within us at some level when we fail to honor basic human dignity, and we may go to great lengths to overpower that dissonance with extravagant behavior. Some people become extravagantly angry; some people become extravagant in their drunkenness; some are extravagant in their isolationism; some are extravagant in the size of their harems. We distract ourselves from addressing the behaviors that do not make sense to us at a very deep level. Perhaps a part of us fears what our actions reflect about our true character. What can be said about a person who is willing to abuse and oppress other human beings? And if we peel back our empty justifications and recognize the sameness of all people, what does it say about us? What does it mean that we have the same human dignity as the people we would abuse, oppress, or control?

Truthfully, we cannot rob people of their worth. We cannot even rob ourselves of our own worth. We can ignore and deny all we want, but just being human grants us a measure of value. When we enslave or oppress other people, it is always an indication of our own fears. "I can't afford to pay other people for their work and still be as wealthy as I want. I'm afraid of being poor, so I'll force them to work for free." Or "I'm afraid that no one will ever sincerely love me, so I'll force someone to simulate the kind of relationship I want." Or "We're afraid that our beliefs and mores are fading away, so we'll force other people to behave the way we think they should." Or any number of other manifestations. Our fears make it seem alright for us to hold other people as inferior and treat them in a way that we know to be morally and ethically wrong. In all honesty, we are capable of accomplishing the things we want or creating the relationships we want without resorting to controlling other people. It just may take a bit of effort and dedication on our part. Recognizing the irrationality of our fear, admitting our own capability and abundance, and acknowledging that we are not intrinsically superior to other human beings, dismantles the justification for oppression.

We want to have our way. This is understandable. It's even understandable that we want to have our way with a minimum of sacrifice on our part. When we determine that it's alright to take advantage of another human being in order to have our way, however, we entertain the idea that we are superior to, better than, more valuable than. We might even find reasons to justify that lie, but in our heart of hearts we know that it is a lie. People have inherent worth and dignity. We each have inherent worth and dignity. When we find reasons to oppress or enslave others to our own wants, we deny that inherent worth and dignity--for them and for ourselves. That denial lacks wisdom, integrity, and honesty, and it will most likely prompt a reaction we won't enjoy. Better to begin from the assertion of human value and find a way to what we want from that starting point. It is not only possible, but in the grand scheme of things, it is necessary.