* 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

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

1 Kings 17-18: Seeing Beyond Caricatures to an End of Religious Arrogance

There were probably many Elijah stories floating around in ancient Israel, only a handful of which made it into canonical biblical texts. The character of Elijah makes frequent appearances in Jewish rabbinic literature and folklore as well. While the tales are blatantly legendary, many of these Elijah myths are instructive. The prophet's first appearance in the Old Testament is 1 Kings 17-18, where Elijah appears as a holy foil to the evil King Ahab and his foreign, Jew-hating wife Jezebel. These chapters relate the tale of a fallen Jewish people who have abandoned their religion and adopted the worship of foreign deities, for which they suffer a devastating drought. Elijah humiliates and kills the prophets of the other faith and convinces the Israelites to return to the worship of their own deity. Most likely written in the years following the Babylonian Exile, this story offered hope that there could be restoration after a period of perceived punishment.

Several interesting characteristics about the prophet are present in this story. First, Elijah claims power over the drought (although he does express fealty to the god of Israel). His time with the widow at Zarephath seems strikingly similar to (and thus was possibly a model for) a miracle story attributed to Jesus regarding making a little bit of food go a long way. Elijah has the power to effectively restore life to people who have died, and he has no problem killing people who promote a different religion from his own. Stories about Elijah fit typical patterns of hero myths from the ancient world, and the basic theme of "our god is better than your god" is an effective message of hope for a people who have been immersed in a foreign culture for decades.

The story is also a striking commentary about the Israelite people (or perhaps all ancient peoples). They are perfectly happy to go along with the most impressive magician of the moment and call it faith, and they are willing to slaughter 850 people at the word of one charismatic fellow with a convincing stage act. They don't seem to mind the implication that Yahweh will do what Elijah tells him to do, while their other faithful Jewish prophets have been holed up in a cave for three years, presumably unable to make any spectacular requests of the god they serve. Either God is only willing to work through one special person, or none of the hundred other prophets were tuned into God's plan. Whichever the case, it paints a tenuous and unsettling picture of a nation's relationship with the divine. What would they do if Elijah didn't happen to be around? How could they trust any of their priests and prophets to effectively guide them once they return to their ancestral religion?  

Hero myths never presume to answer such questions, though. People necessarily become caricatures in folktales, and after all, the story isn't intended as an actual report of historical events; it's about the Israelites rebuilding their sense of religious connection after a time of exile, which they interpreted as divine discipline. There was a message of hope and redemption imbedded in this story featuring a well-known folk hero. What then shall we derive from this tale, we who do not thirst for a sense of post-Exilic restoration?

It isn't that we should expect miracles. There are no recent reputable reports of miraculous occurrences like the dead being raised by a fervent prayer or a water-logged altar being consumed by divine fire. In other words, we have no counterpart for these miracles in contemporary society, and thus we must consider the miracles to be symbolic elements in a story and not replicable historical events. We should not even expect that God will do what we want if we pray fervently enough. Certainly, if we pray for rain long enough (such as the three years that Elijah waits in the story), it will eventually rain. That doesn't mean that our prayer was actively, intelligently answered. It simply means that what we desired eventually lined up with reality.

There is also no real value in turning this story or others like it into a popularity contest between religions. There were no real good guys and bad guys here; Baal and Asherah are as fictional as Yahweh. The hero of this sort of tale is determined by who is telling the story. If anything, we might recognize the disconnect between our present age of scientific knowledge and the time of our ancestors, who believed that unseen supernatural forces were in control of the weather and used it to reward or punish human beings. The idea seems preposterous to most people today, although even in the twenty-first century there are those who hold prayer rallies to pray for rain (ineffectual though such rallies turn out to be). We know more about the world than people once did, and we should live our lives based on that very real, testable knowledge.

Here is something worth noting: If we want to light a fire, we should get matches. Or a butane lighter of some kind perhaps. If we want to arrive someplace safely, we should be cautious and patient drivers. There are other factors, of course, but we have a great deal of control over creating what we want. If we take time for introspection, we will learn that we have the answers to a great many dilemmas in life; we are simply not accustomed to listening to ourselves. We are so unaccustomed to paying attention to our deepest and most noble selves, in fact, that it can seem like the action of some supernatural force outside of ourselves when we perceive a clear and direct sense of who we most want to be and what we most want to be doing. Even decisions like what subject to choose as a major in college, which job to accept, which route to take across town -- these decisions ultimately come from within ourselves, and we are often quite insightful when we give ourselves a chance. Prayer puts the focus on an imaginary force outside of ourselves; time for quiet, focused introspection can yield the same exact result without the unnecessary baggage of religious dogma.

The only reason the Israelites were willing participants in the worship of Jezebel's gods is that religion made sense to them as a way to address the issues of their lives. It doesn't actually matter what Jezebel thought about the Phoenician gods, we know enough to say that people of the ancient world imagined a supernatural underpinning to their perceivable reality. If something doesn't make sense to us today, we are capable of considering we simply don't understand without resorting to supernatural explanations. Moreover, if we are less hasty to attribute the things we don't understand to the supernatural, our curiosity can drive us to discoveries about ourselves and the world around us we might never have made otherwise. We can realistically create meaningful and connected societies on the basis of actual data and honest exploration rather than on what we imagine a supernatural being might want of us or accomplish for us.

Religion teaches us to undervalue ourselves on the one hand, by robbing us of our personal capability and responsibility and pinning it to an imaginary supernatural entity. On the other hand, religion imbues us with a sense of superiority, assuming our version of an imaginary supernatural entity is better than anyone else's. Religion gives us compelling parameters by which we can effectively judge other people who disagree with our confabulation and draw lines of separation between ourselves and people who look, behave, or think differently from us. Some may say that human beings will do this with or without religion, but removing the unfounded and irrational justification of religious dogma from the mix takes the teeth out of a great many lines of division in our world. Without religious justification, we are forced to admit that by and large, most of our assertions about other people are only opinions, however strong those opinions may be.    

There is still suffering in the world in the twenty-first century, and the answer is not to round up and execute a bunch of heretics. We have to learn to see other people not as caricatures and stereotypes, but as human beings with inherent worth. We share this planet, this reality, with an awful lot of people who think and live differently from us, and the answer is not to eradicate or dehumanize everyone that is "Other." By growing ourselves to allow the whole of humanity within our sphere of acceptability, we build what is called the "kingdom of God" by the writer of the gospel of Matthew. Our world has outgrown the prescriptions of religion that separate people into worthy and worthless, if such delineations were ever truly needed. No supernatural entity is going to do the work for us, but we are capable of phenomenal acts of creation when we are willing. The value and dignity of every person is where that creative act begins.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Mark 1:9-14: Trials and Temptations, and Recognizing the Challenges that Matter Most

All mythological heroes, from Sumerian tales through modern movies, face what Joseph Campbell has termed the "Road of Trials." In the prototypical ordering of hero myths, this time of testing begins after the hero has crossed the threshold of normal life and experienced a "rebirth" into a heroic identity. In the Jesus story, baptism by John the Baptist serves as this crossing of the threshold. Jesus' heroic identity is announced, and he immediately goes into the wilderness to be tested.

The Gospel of Mark is the earliest written Jesus myth that made it into the canon of the Bible. In just a couple of verses, we learn that the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness, where he was tested by an adversary, and that angels tended him during this time when he lived with wild animals. Mark indicates that Jesus was in the wilderness for forty days, which in terms of Jewish storytelling was a shorthand for "a very long time." It is also thought that the number 40 referred to a period of testing or punishment, which makes it perfect in the context of the Jesus story.

In the Gospel of Matthew, the story becomes fleshed out a bit, with three specific temptations indicated, and the author of the Gospel of Luke borrowed heavily from the Gospel of Matthew for his version. (Incidentally, the writers of the Gospel of John had little use for the temptation story.) Many people have extracted lessons from this story about Jesus' character and how to follow his example. For instance, some people observe that Jesus used scriptural references to resist the temptations, and thus assume that knowing the Bible inside and out will lead to a more "holy," temptation-free life. In the Gospel of Matthew, however, there is a constant effort to prove the identity of Jesus by referring back to Jewish scripture, often taking the original scripture completely out of context in order to legitimize Jesus as the Jewish "messiah" of legend. Perhaps more significant is the implication that Jesus understood the temptations of wealth (bread is frequently symbolic of money in Jewish literature), fame, and power, and realized that these things frequently distract people from true wisdom and happiness. More on these things in a moment.

Some people are fond of the idea of being tested. After all, overcoming challenges makes us stronger and more capable people. When we prove ourselves to other people, we might get a promotion or a closer relationship or some other desirable privilege. Some of these challenges are very clear, with distinct rewards for success, and we choose to take them on because we want the reward. Of course, some individuals focus on how to get the rewards with a minimum of effort, overlooking that the designated trials are often intended to reflect inward character. We can go through our lives as if our only goal is to pass the next test in a long series of trials, neglecting our responsibility to infuse our lives with meaning. It might be said that part of the test is knowing how unimportant some tests are.

Of course, if we interpret tests as being spiritually significant, we can perceive a great deal of importance -- even eternal importance. There are those who believe that if they pass the trials of this life, they will be rewarded with greater joy and pleasure in an afterlife. Obviously, failing the trials of this life will yield a different result, but most folks believe that Hell is reserved for other people. Reward or punishment in an eternal afterlife certainly seems to be more motivating than anything that could happen in our temporally restricted physical life on Earth. Here's the thing though: there is a lot of good that can be done in this life, and there is a lot of joy and gratitude and satisfaction to be felt in this life. We don't really need to use belief in an afterlife as motivation. If we are doing the things that align with our deepest selves and honor our connection to the people around us, we will be creating what the gospel writers called the "kingdom of God." Since this term was often put in Jesus' mouth, we'll have more time to explore it in later entries. For now, the appropriate point is that there is no great trial-giver in the sky sending tests into our lives and scoring us on our successes to determine any sort of eternal destination.
We can absolutely test ourselves, setting goals and action plans that challenge us. There may be a great deal of personal satisfaction in overcoming challenges, even when the tangible rewards are slight. Sometimes building our sense of our own capability is an effective reward. When we start looking at our lives as a series of tests from something beyond ourselves, however, we risk losing that sense of our own capability. Not everything in life is a test. Illness is not a test, for instance. We cannot overcome most actual illnesses simply by our own efforts -- we rely on doctors to prescribe medicines and treatments so our bodies can heal. Illnesses may occur for any number of reasons, but there is no intentionality behind an illness -- no one decided to give us an illness to test us.

Likewise, things that happen because of someone's irresponsibility are not necessarily tests either. Being injured in a traffic collision because someone ran a red light is a result of human carelessness, and while we may face challenges as a result, our circumstances are not designed by anyone just to test us. We may find it challenging to pay our bills on time, and we may justifiably consider it an accomplishment when we pay off our last credit card and become debt free. However, there is no one orchestrating those financial challenges as some sort of Herculean trial. There are many things in life that are simply facets of living. We exist in a complex society with a lot of other people, and there are very real challenges that emerge in that system. That in no way implies an intelligence on the other end of these challenges waiting to reward or punish us. We ultimately decide which challenges in life we will tackle, and what our success will mean to us.

Which is why the story of Jesus' trials in the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke are potentially more spiritually valuable for us than the earlier version in the Gospel of Mark. The spiritual truth in the tale has nothing to do with an intelligent spiritual adversary who is out to trick us -- we do well enough at tying our own spiritual shoelaces together in knots. The spiritual truth in the tale has nothing to do with how well we must memorize the scriptures of a particular religion. There are plenty of spiritual leaders who know their scriptures very well and still wind up in scandalous or violent headlines. Being able to recite words does not necessarily guarantee that we understand their meaning. The interesting spiritual piece in the temptation story is about the temptations themselves.

We are still living in a society that glorifies wealth, fame, and power over other people. It has apparently been a reality of human community for a very long time if these three things were considered the primary distractions from spirituality two thousand years ago. As many people have said, none of these three can provide happiness or satisfaction in life. Money is only as valuable as what one does with it, and the same goes for fame and power. The more time we spend worrying about our popularity or our bank accounts or our titles, the less time we have for the things that are truly meaningful. Money and popularity and power are not bad things, though, despite what one may infer from the gospel writers. These three temptations simply have incredible distraction potential. When we give them too much importance in our lives, we run the risk of missing the things that have true value: our integrity, our relationships, our connection to the world around us.

In the hero-myth of the gospels, Jesus knew what was important to him. He had a level of self-awareness that comes from intentional, honest introspection. While wealth, fame, and power hold some allure, there are more important things in life. At a very deep level, we know that, but we often forget it. We might try to fool ourselves with the justification that we can do more good in the world if we have more resources, but the truth is that we already have enough. The challenge of knowing what has value in life is not a test from on high, nor is it trial we can bluff our way past. It is a challenge issued from deep within ourselves, and if we answer that challenge with a life that focuses on what matters most, our rewards will be immeasurable, not in some distant afterlife, but here and now.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

1 Kings 14-16: Using God as an Explanation Rarely Leads to Wisdom

John the Baptist was certainly not the first prophetic individual to operate outside the organized Jewish church. The Jewish scriptures reflect an evolution of people (mostly men) who boldly proclaimed truth as they saw it, under the auspices of being chosen by God as special messengers. Often, these men were spiritual advisers to kings, as was the case with Nathan, who served as David's voice of conscience. In the historical interpretations of Kings and Chronicles, other prophets begin to appear, speaking for God. For whatever reason, Yahweh seems only to select certain people as his messengers, and this special honor is rarely bestowed upon people who have positions of power and authority. The historians themselves were acting as self-appointed prophets, speaking for and defending God in a way, since they interpreted the events they recorded through the lens of God's presumed intentions. Eventually, many of the prophets who figured into Jewish history would have books dedicated to them, perhaps even written by these holy spokesmen, and these writings are best understood in light of the historical context within which they were conceived.

Some of the stories recorded as historical accounts are clearly folklore, such as the tale in 1 Kings 14 in which the prophet Ahijah predicts the death of everyone in Jeroboam's family because of God's anger. Obviously, transitions of rulership of Israel were more conflict-ridden than the passing on of the hereditary crown in Judah, but to claim that God decided certain people had to die is to miss the very human motivations for events. In fact, Baasha (whose ascension to Israel's throne is mentioned in 1 Kings 15:25-31) had all of Jeroboam's family murdered when he usurped the throne after killing Jeroboam's son, Nadab. It was an understandable decision, since it eliminated any people who could be perceived as legitimate heirs and it drastically reduced the likelihood of someone seeking vengeance for the death of a family member. Murdering Jeroboam's family was a very human act that didn't require God's involvement at all, but looking back at historical events, the writers of Kings apparently felt the need to elaborate above and beyond actual data and create a prophecy to foreshadow the murders.

This literary technique accomplishes a few things, not all of them desirable. It places accountability for all events on an untouchable deity. People are not ultimately responsible for who lives and who dies if God is the one who decides such things. Even if a man murders his next door neighbor, who can really fault him if God had already decided that his neighbor needed to die? If a general loses a battle, it is because God determined that course of events. If a foreign king invades a land, it is because God prompted him to do so. Except that the Israelites are constantly doing the very things that God does not want them to do, not in the rampant violence and warmongering, but rather in the worship of other spiritual forces. The spiritual lives of his chosen people are apparently outside of God's purview, but a large number of military and political decisions are squarely under his control.

Except when things turn out badly, as they did for Asa, king of Judah. The writer(s) of Kings look a bit more favorably upon Asa, because he was a descendant of David, and there is an obvious favoritism toward Judah in the book of Kings. The writer(s) of Chronicles also favor Judah, since the kingdom of Israel is barely mentioned, but Asa is described much less favorably. After a promising beginning, Asa is chastised for relying on a foreign government for aid rather than relying solely on God (even though God is said to be able to influence the decisions of foreign governments and the actions of their armies). At the end of his life, it is implied that Asa died from a foot condition because he sought the aid of doctors rather than the aid of God. Incidentally, his obituary in Kings is less judgmental.

It is certainly understandable that the ancient Israelites understood very little about the fallacy of false cause. When something happened in their lives, they looked for an explanation, and if an explanation was not readily apparent, the easy answer was God. Their God could be manipulated into doing good things for them if the general populace worshiped him properly, but this was historically a tough row to hoe for the Israelite people. Thus, bad things were always happening because enough people just would not fall in step with the whole monotheistic organized religion policy. In reality, religion most likely had very little to do with the things that happened to the Israelite people. It is far more probable that poor decisions, greed, and fear on the part of the Israelite leaders were largely to blame for the challenges they faced. On top of that, there were some serious empire builders emerging at the time. While the Israelites never seemed interested in widespread military conquest, the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, and eventually the Greeks and the Romans all took an interest in adding the Israelites and their lands to a larger imperial body. That wasn't any sort of god at work; it was people.

The Israelites wrote their histories from their own limited perspectives, just as we interpret the events of our lives in our own very limited ways. Two things which have been said before bear repeating: First, we are responsible for who we are in the circumstances of our lives. Second, we are prone to inventing supernatural causes when logical, rational causes escape us. While there may be very straightforward causes for the events and circumstances of our lives, nothing is ever as it is because a supernatural entity decided that it should be so. We cannot control everything around us, but we can have some measure of control over our responses to everything around us. When we are willing to dismiss the easy dismissive answers like, "God must want things to be this way," we can look deeper for real, meaningful answers. While those answers are not always easy to discern, we can safely start from the assumption that rational answers exist. Nothing is magic, even the things we don't understand. Our lack of knowledge or understanding does not constitute evidence of the supernatural. Said another way, our not knowing does not make something unknowable.

When we look back at history, we can invent some hidden conspiracy theory tying events together if we like. We can assume a hidden supernatural agenda at work and connect imaginary dots to form a picture we invent. Human beings are by nature creative creatures, and our propensity for creativity can sometimes lead us to some strange and irrational conclusions. When we embrace the notion that there is no supernatural hand guiding decisions and events, but rather very real, natural, logical causes for the effects we observe, we will not be disappointed. There are no events in history that cannot be explained through rational means, and there are no events in our lives that require a supernatural explanation. The challenge is one of proximity. Sometimes we are too close to the events in our lives to engage in detached inquiry. We need a starting premise that can guide us toward realistic meaningful assessment of the decisions and events of our lives without being tempted toward the easy and unprovable supernatural. One possible starting point is our own personal responsibility for who we are in the midst of our circumstances.   

Very few of us will ever be in a position to murder people and take their positions of authority, just like we do not have the occasion or need to personally send a nation's supply of gold and silver to foreign powers for protection. Still, we know the kind of people we most want to be, if we take a little time and really think about it. We know when our actions are out of sync with that vision we have of our potential. Inventing a supernatural justification or excuse will not get us any closer to being the people we most want to be. At a certain level, we have to get real about our personal responsibility in our lives. By claiming our personal responsibility, we gain the power to change the things we most want to change -- in ourselves and in the world around us.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

John the Baptist: Developing Eyes Willing to See Human Worth and Voices Willing to Speak Truth

The Gospel of Mark is the earliest collection of Jesus stories that made it into the Bible. In fact, other gospel writers quote directly from Mark. The Gospel of Mark doesn't begin the stories about Jesus with a census and a manger and a band of shepherds shirking their duties at the behest of a supernatural choir. Mary and Joseph are not even mentioned. Instead, this short collection of Jesus tales begins with the character of John the Baptist, herald of the messiah figure. Instead of legitimizing Jesus as divine by a special birth story, the Gospel of Mark illustrates the divine nature of Jesus by a holy proclamation when Jesus is baptized, an event which initiates the public ministry of Jesus in all of the gospels. This was quite possibly an earlier origin story about the Christ figure than the familiar Christmas tale, which may have developed as the Jesus mythology matured in the first century.

John the Baptist sets an interesting stage for Jesus. In the Gospel of Mark, he serves as a prophetic herald, baptizing people for "repentance" and the "forgiveness of sins." In other words, when people felt shame about some way that they had not lived up to their expectations of themselves, and they wished to refocus and strive to come closer to their ideal of themselves, John ceremonially gave them permission to set aside their feelings of shame and boldly move forward in their lives. He foretells the coming of a messiah figure, and when Jesus is baptized, God identifies Jesus as that messiah figure. Later gospel writers expanded on the character of John the Baptist.

The Gospel of Matthew includes a rebuke of the prominent religious authorities of the day, and John recognizes the special nature of Jesus when he approaches for baptism. Jesus tells John that his baptism is a matter of propriety, since presumably he had never missed the mark in his first three decades, being the son of God and all.

The Gospel of Luke begins with a legendary birth story for John the Baptist, and when the time comes for Jesus and John to meet as adults, John has already been preaching the same kinds of messages that Jesus will carry on after John's death: lessons like people who have more should share with people who have less, and extortion and lying are bad. Luke also includes a little more information about John's arrest by Herod, since John spoke up about some of the dictator's illegal and unsavory behavior.

The Gospel of John (named pseudonymously for a different John) is a bit more blatantly metaphysical than the "synoptic" gospels, but John the Baptist still figures prominently early in the story. In this telling of the story, John recognizes Jesus because of divine revelation, and Jesus is once again legitimized as a uniquely qualified spiritual leader.

None of these stories is particularly useful as mere historical data; there is nothing more verifiable in these tales than there is about any other mythological origin story. What is important, however, is the message behind John the Baptist's character. The Christ figure did not choose to begin his teaching within the organized Jewish religion, but rather began his public ministry outside the organized political and religious systems of the day. John the Baptist was apparently ministering primarily to people disenfranchised from established power structures. When the religious authority figures came to investigate, he chastised them for their pride and their "viperous" natures. The character of Jesus was not spiritually astute because of intense religious study or the ability to follow or understand Jewish dogma and rules; his credentials came from a deeper authority.

When the gospel writers use the character of John the Baptist to say something about Jesus, they have an obvious message to convey. Jesus serves as an idealized persona, fully in touch with his divine nature while walking around in a human body in a human world. Perhaps what John the Baptist saw was only partially correct however. Perhaps if he had been willing to look for it, John would have seen a deeper spiritual self within every person, ignored or undeveloped maybe, or covered over with lies and beliefs that were initially very well-intentioned. Perhaps if we look around intentionally, we will see something more than John saw in the multitude of people around him.

John the Baptist didn't really need to tell people not to take more money than they ought from people, or to share what they had with people who had less. We already know right from wrong. We know when we are acting out of selfishness (fear of losing what we have) or greed (fear of not having enough). And yet John got thrown in prison for saying out loud things that everyone already knew. This is, in part, because we get rather defensive when we do things out of fear. Sometimes we would rather be defiantly out of alignment with our truest, most noble selves than be told that we are wrong. We would rather lie to ourselves than honestly face our fears, even when we know at our core that we are way off base. This is one of the reasons we need one another.

We need other people to honestly remind us of the things we don't want to hear. We need other people who care when we go off the rails, who are willing to speak up when they see us careening out of control because of our irrational fears or our false beliefs. Even when we are just slightly out of alignment with the people we most want to be, an honest and loving word from someone can remind us of the things that matter most in our lives. Speaking the truth to someone is not always easy, especially when we have such a tendency to get mad when someone tells us something we don't particularly like. The character of John the Baptist gives us a model in this regard.

Without getting caught up in the intent of the gospel writers to legitimize the hero of their story as uniquely divine, there are a few things that we might glean from John the Baptist. First and foremost, we might strive to more gracefully correct our course when we recognize that we are out of alignment with the selves we most want to be. This requires being honest about our deepest selves as well as being honest about where we are potentially falling short. We might also strive to appreciate the people in our lives who are honest and caring enough to remind us who we are, to see our most noble selves in spite of our fearfulness. We can be those honest and caring people as well, willing to speak out in truth and love so that another individual might recognize that they are not entirely living as the person they want to be.

In one sense, we are all John the Baptists, surrounded by John the Baptists: people capable of seeing the intrinsic value of every person, and people capable of speaking the truth without judgment, so that together we might sharpen one another, strengthen one another, and create the kind of world we most want to live in. In our own ways, we can give people opportunities to set aside shame and irrational fear and move forward in their lives with hope and dignity. We don't need to herald a superhuman messiah who will come to save us from ourselves, we can simply proclaim one another as capable, worthy, beautiful.

This is the good news: Truth, beauty, and creativity are within you and always have been. You have value and worth because you are, and you need no further credential than that.