* 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, 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.

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