* 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, February 26, 2013

1 Kings 20-22: Bad People and the Prophets Who Harrass Them

Based on the stories we have about Ahab, this king was apparently not well-liked by the Israelites. These three Ahab stories reflect a common human desire to see bad things happen to bad people. First, Ahab forms a treaty with a foreign king after a victory (which had been proclaimed to him ahead of time by a prophet), but God had wanted Ahab to kill the enemy king (although the prophet never said as much). This unnamed prophet then enacts what is meant to be a clever message to Ahab, that God would claim Ahab's life because he set the enemy free. It isn't clear how prophets are once more running about freely, or why it is acceptable for a prophet to call up lions to kill people who refuse to strike them, but this is not the sort of story where such things are expected to be questioned. 

The second story is reminiscent of the tale of David and Bathsheba. Ahab lusts after Naboth's property. Jezebel reminds Ahab that he is king and can do more than pout about not getting what he wants. Ahab has Naboth killed and claims the vineyard. Suddenly, Elijah shows up in a melodramatic scene, proclaiming vivid and humiliating destruction on Ahab's family.

Finally, Ahab's final story depicts him requesting aid from Jehoshaphat, king of Judah, to go to war with Ramoth Gilead. Ahab consults all of his prophets, who are all Yes Men without any real power. Jehoshaphat insists that a prophet of Yahweh is consulted, and this prophet Micaiah (with whom Ahab apparently has had dealings in the past) predicts Ahab's death. Despite a clever ruse on Ahab's part to get the forces of Ramoth Gilead to target Jehoshaphat, by the end of the day, Ahab is dead. Because of Jehoshaphat's involvement, this tale also appears in 2 Chronicles with only slight differences. (Recall that the Chronicler is not really interested in Israel, but focuses instead on Judah.) 

These stories make a great deal of sense to us. Perhaps not every cultural detail is clearly understood, but the sentiments are certainly familiar. We still want bad things to happen to bad people, possibly more than we want good things to happen to good people. Even the ancient Israelites realized that there was a disconnection between this desire for harsh justice and the realities of life, however. Their wisdom literature reflects it, and even the later gospel writers address it through the character of Jesus when they write of the sun rising on evil and good alike and the rain falling equally on the righteous and the unrighteous. This is a challenge to our sense of how a fair and just world ought to look.

Categorizing people comes easily to us. We see a little bit of a person, and we might believe we are justified in making generalizations about whether they are a good person or an evil person. The more we know about a person, the more difficult this becomes. Most people are not two-dimensional caricatures. Aside from a small percentage of people who have a chemical imbalance, everyone is capable of love; everyone is capable of doing some good in the world. We don't necessarily want to look favorably upon those who have more power than we have, though. If we humanize them too much, we might not find it as easy to blame them for the things we don't like about our lives.

There is an alternative, if you're looking for one. We can decide to see people as capable, creative, and inherently good. This means that when a person does something that seems evil or unjust or "sinful," we have to look to something other than a person's inherent nature to explain such actions. If people cannot be inherently evil or broken, then why do people act the way they so often do? You probably already know what I think, but I hope you will consider it anew:

Fear. Unmanaged, irrational fear is the underlying cause of those actions we quickly judge as wicked or evil or unjust. You might prefer the term anxiety. We succumb to fear or anxiety ourselves. We know what that feels like, and we know that when we do, we often wind up apologizing for something later, once we have our anxiety or fear under control again. People are inherently worthy and powerfully capable and incredibly creative, but we are rarely adequately equipped to manage our fear gracefully. Fear catapults us out of the realms of authenticity and integrity. When we are in the midst of our anxiety, our actions fail to represent our deepest beliefs about ourselves, other people, and the world we share. Fear leads us to betray ourselves in a desperate attempt to protect ourselves -- usually from something for which we don't need protection.

What can we possibly do with this perspective? How can we confront the Ahabs of our day any more effectively? How does this better equip us to deal with the big injustices we see in the world? As admirable as such questions may be, I believe our impact must begin in our own lives. Even as I write this, I am mindful of how easily I slip from authentically expressing my beliefs into "defending myself" when I allow fear about a perceived (and unreal) threat to govern my actions. What we do in our own lives has an impact on the people around us. Managing our own irrational fear is where change begins, and this requires us to boldly tell the truth to ourselves. When we feel threatened, it behooves us to examine that feeling. Is there actually a threat, or are we letting our imaginations create something out of our anxiety? Brutal honesty in the face of our defensiveness is crucial. When we choose to manage our anxiety, we maintain a more honest perspective and we create a different environment for the people around us.

There will still be people who do not manage their fears, who hurt themselves and other people, who wallow in the role of victim. If we are willing to believe that people are inherently worthy and capable, our questions might be: What is this person afraid of? What is the perceived threat? What am I doing to feed that fear? When we take personal responsibility for our own irrational fear, we create new possibilities for how we interact with other people. This may not mean that we single-handedly transform large-scale injustices, but it certainly means that we have a better chance of making a meaningful impact where we are able. The reality is that we will never fully grasp the extent of our impact on the world. We influence people who influence people who influence other people we don't even know, and we can control none of that. What we can control is our own direct contribution to the world we inhabit. We can control whether we will offer fear or hope, anxiety or peace.

Ahab did some things that led the writer(s) of Kings to have a pretty dim view of him. We can relate to that in our own world. But regardless of our beliefs and actions, rain will fall on all of us, the sun will rise for everyone, and at the end of our lives we will all die. It makes no sense for us to spend our precious time and energy deciding who is deserving of a horrible fate and who is worthy of honor. Even if you believe in an afterlife, surely you do not get to determine eternity for anyone but yourself. Yet we are all prophets. We cannot call lions out of the brush to eat people when we are angry (thankfully!), but we are prophets none the less. Rather than pronouncing doom and destruction (which would say more about our own anxiety than anything else really), we truly do have the potential to spread a message of good news. The good news we can proclaim is that our lives need not be governed by anxiety and fear, and we proclaim it first and foremost to ourselves.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Response to a recent comment

In response to Casting Out Demons, Laura wrote:
You seem to be limiting your view to only what you can measure and scientifically verify. Those tools are limited to the natural world, yet you are applying them to the supernatural world. It's like that old adage about the flea that denies the existence of the dog because the dog is simply too big to see.

You're right, people are incredible, and the world is amazing. People are also awful, and the world is a very cruel and unfair place, as seen daily in nature. You seem to focus on just the good in people (i.e., the divine self) and not on the very real, completely inexplicable evil that also exists in the human heart.

Thankfully we live in a part of the world where we can easily choose a very sheltered life. Is it a coincidence that atheism correlates with wealth and relative comfort?

Such a worldview certainly makes for a satisfying journey, as you stated, but it only reflects a partial reality. As I said, it would be really nice if the world were that simple!
Laura, you make a few assertions in your comment: (1) the supernatural should be considered a meaningful part of our reality while remaining free from the constraints of scientific measurement and verification, (2) that the flavor of atheism to which I subscribe is a convenience of the sheltered and privileged that fails to fully acknowledge the cruelness and unfairness of the natural world, and (3) that inexplicable evil exists within human beings. Although a meaningful response will be lengthy, I believe it is important to take each of these in turn.

Belief in the supernatural is on the one hand harmless and endearing. If I choose to believe that fairies sprinkle diamond drops of dew along the spider webs in my yard each morning, or that the spirits of my dead ancestors give me comfort and guidance, what harm can that possibly do in the world? Yet, belief in the supernatural is powerful and easily abused precisely because its assertion requires no proof. The vast majority of human violence is the result of religious beliefs or beliefs that are bolstered by religious conviction. Believers maintain their beliefs in the face of contradictory evidence for any number of reasons, but the actual data suggests that religion does far more harm than good globally. The surprising thing is that human beings have more or less dismissed much of their ancestors’ mythologies. We no longer worship many of the gods people worshipped in ancient times because knowledge and reason eliminated the need for them. Once we realize the natural structure of the solar system, it becomes silly to believe that a flaming chariot is driven across the sky every day by a super-being. If we did not rely on scientific proofs, we could be justified in any belief, like the belief that black people don’t have souls – something white Americans believed not so long ago. Why did we stop believing this? It isn’t because the Bible suddenly appeared and taught us differently. In fact, religion was used to subjugate those deemed to be lesser, as it has consistently done throughout history.

So, how do I determine that my thoughts are not being beamed into my head by aliens? How do I assess whether I will be able to drive my car safely without gremlins taking control of it and causing me harm? How do I trust that the food I eat hasn’t been laced with nanites by a shadow government? There is no way to disprove any of these beliefs if I must also consider evidence that cannot be measured or evaluated by scientific means. Yet, I know that none of these things is true as much as I can know anything else. For one thing, there is no recorded instance of any of these things happening to anyone anywhere, although people may have invented stories about such things. I can certainly imagine what it might be like to try to drive a gremlin-infested car, but I know the difference between my imagination and reality. In my imagination, all sorts of things are possible, but when I restrict my perception of reality to only those things which are observable by some scientific means, the likelihood of certain events reduces to nil.

The natural world is certainly wondrous, and there are plenty of things we still haven’t figured out. But, as a famous thinker once said, “That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.” Until there is some way to observe, measure, and repeat instances of spiritual forces, such things must be dismissed in order for us to live in a sane world. Believing in demons or angels makes no more sense than believing that a chariot of fire is driven across the sky every day. The difference is that we have clear evidence about what the sun is, and the definition of spiritual forces has been so constructed as to evade scientific examination, which makes it highly suspicious when subjected to rational scrutiny.

While that in and of itself is enough for a thinking person to recognize how incredibly unlikely it is for angels and demons to exist, we fortunately have had some fantastic sports in the scientific community who have tried to verify things like faith healing. Presumably, the thinking was that if something is undetectable by scientific observation one might still be able to detect its impact on the world, so even if we can’t see demons or angels, perhaps we can see some trace evidence of their impact. As one might expect, the scientific examinations of faith healing, demonic possession, psychic ability, and hauntings have all wound up at the same place. Not only is there no evidence that any of these things exist, there is evidence that these things do not exist. And when we have evidence that something does not exist, we must consider that thing to be unreal. There is no other rational option.

Your second claim regarding the connection between atheism and privilege stands on its own, apart from one’s conclusion about the supernatural. This suggestion simply does not stand up in light of current research. While the United States has more and more people who are willing to claim the label of “convinced atheist,” this is actually congruous with the rest of the world. In fact, 24 countries rank above the United States in the percentage of their populations that are convinced atheists, and not all of them are wealthy, sheltered places. While it’s true that the poorest countries do tend to be highly religious, this says much more about education level and political oppression than it does about any validity to their beliefs. Generally speaking, the more wealthy a population is, the better educated it is, and the more educated a population is, the less religious it will be.

It is also worth questioning why some of the most violent places in the world also rank high in terms of religiosity. Religious assertions often promote intolerance, because highly religious people tend to feel threatened by opposing views. Intolerance easily becomes violence, especially when backed by the approval of a deity (or at least a representative of a deity). Without the religious incentive, much of the intolerance in the world would be declawed, more easily mitigated through rational means. Such efforts are impossible when one or both sides believe that their every effort is supported by a deity who will at the very least reward them in an afterlife for standing firm in their faith. Why does this continue to be acceptable to us?

You are absolutely right that there is unfairness in the world. Some animals are born the runt of the litter, and they just don’t have the same chances of survival their siblings have. Some animals wind up being food for other animals. Some plants wind up choking out other plants. Some people are born into wealthy families. Some people are born with birth defects. There is no sense of reward and punishment for anything that anyone has done, and thus there is no fairness about the natural world. We are all very fortunate even to be breathing, and that’s enough to generate a bit of gratitude.

But there is nothing cruel about any of this. Cruelty implies intelligence, or at least malicious intent, and the world is simply not malicious. It can’t be. The world doesn’t have any opinions about us or any other creature, malevolent or benevolent. We think of things as unfair and cruel because we want there to be a sense of justice. We want to make sense of things, and we get frustrated when we can’t. We can observe that dumb luck plays a big role in the universe without anthropomorphizing reality into something that is either for or against us.

Seeing the injustices in the world and recognizing it as human-created is powerful. Our worldview evolves profoundly when we recognize that people born in wealthy nations did nothing to deserve being born in wealthy nations, and people in poor nations did nothing to deserve being born in poor nations. While a religious person may look at the world and assume that everything is working according to a divine plan, an atheist more easily recognizes that if we want anything to improve for ourselves and anyone else, the ball is in our court. If there is no deity responsible for taking care of everything, then it is up to us to take a bit of responsibility for the world we inhabit. So, far from looking at the world through rose-colored glasses, I would say that my atheism better equips me to see the world as it is and recognize that what I do matters.

This is certainly complicated by people, which speaks to your argument that people hold within them inexplicable evil. People do some atrocious things to one another and to themselves. It is a challenge to see the inherent worth and dignity in some people, to be sure, and yet every time I look for it, it’s there. The world is beautiful in spite of its natural unfairness, and people are beautiful despite their atrocities. You might say that good and evil both exist in the human heart, but I would amend that. What you see as evil, I see as evidence of fear.

I believe that, at their core, people are “good.” Beautiful. Creative. Worthy. Capable. Honest. What we typically see of people, however, is the fear and anxiety we all carry around. From a very early age, we are taught to be afraid. Some of the lessons we learn are intentional: Hot stoves will burn your fingers. Bad people go to Hell. Strangers are going to hurt you. And some of the lessons we learn are not so intentional: If Daddy’s mad, it’s my fault. I have to try really hard to measure up. Bullies always get their way. The beliefs we carry around about ourselves, other people, and the world cover over our innate beauty, creativity, and capability. We stop trusting ourselves and other people at a certain point and put more faith in our anxiety.

Here’s the thing: we will always prove ourselves right. Whatever we believe, we will always find enough evidence to maintain our conviction. We must. We have invested so much time and energy into our beliefs that it is important for us to keep finding ways to validate those lies and fears, even in the face of profound contradictions. It requires courage and integrity to assess our beliefs honestly and determine whether they truly measure up to reality --  whether our beliefs lead us to behave in a way that reflects who we most want to be in the world. If you believe that there is evil in everyone’s heart, you will see evidence of that. I believe that most folks are running around fearful, and I find that I can be compassionate toward them. I don’t ignore the horrible things that people do to themselves and others, but I recognize that they are, after all, just people. They have inherent worth and dignity, and they are prone to acting on their fears in order to soothe irrational anxiety. That doesn’t seem inexplicable to me at all.

Thus, while it isn't always easy to live it out, I maintain that it really is as simple as this: People matter. When I start there, I am never disappointed with where I wind up, and I firmly believe that this simple truth can change the world.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Casting Out Demons

In the Gospel of Mark, after Jesus calls his first disciples, he begins his ministry of miraculous healing and exorcism. The authors of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke copy these stories from Mark, editing them a bit as suited their particular messages. Throughout the Gospel of Mark there runs a thematic element of Jesus telling demons and people to keep his identity a secret; this is known as Mark's "messianic secret" theme. The author of the Gospel of Luke preserves the formulaic silencing of demons in his retelling of the exorcisms, probably because these texts were used in actual exorcisms, and thus the specific words and actions were ritually important. For this collection of short passages, the Gospel of Luke closely follows the version in Mark with a few minor edits. The author of the Gospel of Matthew spaces out these passages in three separate places, interspersing other miracle stories and teachings that were important to the author's portrait of Jesus. The thrust of these passages is that Jesus performed effective acts of healing and exorcism as part of his ministry.
Of course, we have lots of stories of exorcisms and miraculous healing from both before and after the writing of the gospels. Some of these stories make spectacular claims about actual people while others feature fictional healers, like the abundant ancient stories of the Greek demigod Asclepius. Faith healing has been associated with a variety of belief systems, as has exorcism, and both are still practiced to some extent in the world today. The breadth of these claims across human history offers a few choices about how one may respond in terms of belief.

One could believe that all faith healing and exorcism is to some extent true, but that would be a difficult position to maintain. Apart from many of the stories being clearly fictitious, belief in faith healing is challenged by the exposure of many frauds like Jack Coe, Kathryn Kuhlman, and Peter Popoff, and abundant scientific research has shown the ineffectiveness of spiritual healing and intercessory prayer in a medical setting. Even the American Cancer Society and the American Medical Association have published statements against faith healing, because of numerous tragic reports of people with serious illnesses who died because they relied on faith rather than medical treatment. Choosing to believe in faith healing in light of the evidence equates with ignoring reality.

It is possible that some stories are true while many are false, however. Some might choose to believe in the veracity of ancient stories that predate modern medicine, or in just the stories that paint the heroes of their particular faith in a positive light. The challenge then becomes how to discern which stories are true and which are false with no evidence. A person will obviously approach a story already committed to a belief, and the story itself will be judged by presumption rather than on its own merits. Since we do not have any verifiable, scientifically documented cases of faith healing or demon possession, there is no real support for believing in any faith healing. Although it is impossible to disprove an assertion that Jesus (and his true disciples throughout the ages) performed actual miracles while all others were mere charlatans, the available evidence suggests that actual, effective faith healing is unlikely.

There is a reason that faith healing and exorcism are lumped together in the gospel stories. The ancient world believed that many cases of illness were manifestations of demonic activity. Their understanding of biological reality was not as advanced as ours, and they wanted explanations for the things they did not understand. Demons were an easy explanation for bad things like disease. For some reason, even though our understanding of the physical world increased exponentially, belief in demons still persists. In twenty-first century books on Christian spirituality, one can still find abundant assertions that demonic activity and spiritual warfare are legitimate concerns, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. What is so appealing about holding on to a primitive worldview?

First of all, the evidence refuting demonic activity and possession is easy to dismiss if one believes that demons are real. If demons actually exist, they would certainly be able to fool a few scientists and doctors, after all. The belief seems far too deeply convincing to be damaged by a little scientific report. In actuality, if demons were prevalent, it would be a miracle if any scientific studies were ever replicable. If the world is constantly influenced by the supernatural, there would be no way to obtain reliable evidence about disease, or any natural phenomenon for that matter. If demons caused disease, we would not be able to create medical cures and vaccinations, unless demons are susceptible to the laws of the natural, scientifically verifiable world. And if demons are susceptible to the laws of the scientifically verifiable world, science would be able to test for demonic activity and verify which instances of disease are the result of demons and which instances of disease are caused by something else. What we know about the natural world and about the increasing efficacy of medical treatment strongly suggests that there are no demons.

There are some cases, however, that seem to fly in the face of that evidence, however. Anecdotes about an exorcism in which some supernatural event transpired, or about how prayer healed someone, or about some personal encounter with spiritual forces entice us to leave the door open for the supernatural. The more we learn, the more we realize how creative we can be when we don't understand something. Human beings are creators. When something doesn't make sense to us, we invent a hypothesis. Sometimes we test that hypothesis -- we do a bit of research, we perform a few experiments, we determine if our hypothesis really holds water. Other times, we are so satisfied with our hypothesis that we simply run with it, even when our hypothesis leads us to do real harm to ourselves or other people (as is the case in many documented exorcisms). Our belief in the supernatural, thus, is evidence of human creativity and laziness. When we take the time to investigate the things we do not understand, and we persist until we have understanding, we learn that the natural world can be bizarre and astounding all on its own, without the need for supernatural influence.

The real attraction, though, is that belief in demonic activity gives us a scapegoat. If we are constantly being assaulted by dark spiritual forces, then we have something to blame when we act shamefully. We can still beat ourselves up for giving in to temptation, but it's much easier to be a helpless victim to demons than it is to be a personally responsible human being. When our children behave in a way that we don't understand, belief in demonic activity can allow us to preserve our impression of them as innocents who need to rely on us to survive. Out of our own insecurities and fears, we might fail to provide effective medical or psychiatric care for our loved ones. If we believe that it's possible for our actions, or the actions of other people, to be influenced by external, powerful, supernatural entities, we don't have to examine our own thoughts and actions as closely. We don't have to confront the real challenges in life because we have invented imaginary challenges. While demons are not necessarily more attractive than reality, our ways of confronting demons might be more appealing than the sometimes difficult emotional work of confronting reality and taking responsibility for our own growth. Belief in demons is a crutch that hinders people from being fully engaged in their own lives.

People become addicted to things -- substances, behaviors, routines. People get sick. People commit crimes. People break their promises. People do things that harm other people. People do things they later regret. Not demons. People. Not people under the influence of demons. Just every-day, ordinary people. If a person wants to change -- if a person wants to break an addiction, treat a medical condition, keep promises, respect other people, act in accordance with a nobler inner self -- the answer is not exorcism. The answer is personal responsibility. If we confront the things within ourselves that lead us away from our own deep sense of worth, then we can more effectively be our authentic selves in the world. We can figuratively call those things our "inner demons" if we want to, but it's all just us. The lies we tell and the false beliefs we cultivate come from within ourselves, and we have the power to dismantle those lies and false beliefs and tell the truth about ourselves and the people around us. Integrity comes from letting go of blame and embracing our own capability.

So there are no demons, although there are things in the world we do not yet understand. We don't always like what we do, particularly when our actions don't line up with what we claim to believe. Still, we are responsible for all of our actions, even the ones about which we aren't happy. We are responsible for our beliefs, too. We don't have to believe things that reinforce the idea that we are weaklings or victims. Such beliefs hinder us from being all that we can be in the world, and such beliefs keep us from seeing other people clearly. It makes sense to believe in what's real. People are incredible. The world is amazing. If we start there, our journey will be infinitely more satisfying.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

1 Kings 19: The Still, Small Voice of Your Self

Obvious folklore qualities aside, 1 Kings 19 expresses a captivating spiritual idea: that truth and guidance appear in stillness more easily than in bombastic activity. The surrounding material also has a few other worthwhile points to consider.

Elijah is on the run (after he committed, or at least oversaw, the mass murder of 850 people), and long-term survival seems unlikely to him. He wants to give up. He wants to just die, but he's not really out of options. Even when things seem desperate in the moment, Elijah has choices. We will rarely be on the run after killing hundreds of people for believing something different from us, and yet there are times when we want to give up. We aren't likely to have angels come to us and provide food and encouragement, though. If we are fortunate, we may have friends stand in for Elijah's angel, but the decision to keep going is always ours to make. Elijah accomplishes quite a bit after this episode of despair. In this sense, our lives are no different. On the other side of despair, more satisfying options always await us. Even amid our desperation, our presence can still do some good in the world, even if we aren't in a position to see it.

The portion of this chapter just after Elijah senses the gentle whisper obviously "foretells" historical events in a way that affirms for the Jewish audience Yahweh's control over all things, including leadership of other peoples. Elijah's detached attitude during the calling of his successor Elisha is also notable; his confidence that he doesn't need to exert control over Elisha reflects an admirable quality of leadership. Before expounding on the still, small voice, it also bears pointing out the similarities between the angel coming to feed Elijah and the temptation stories of Jesus. Likewise, Elisha's call is reflected in a brief gospel story of would-be disciples who want to return home before joining Jesus. Unlike Elijah's calm detachment, Jesus proclaims, "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God." Perhaps Elijah was able to tell that Elisha just needed to take care of a couple of things so he wouldn't be tempted to "look back." Or maybe it's just a story.

Regarding this business about stillness, though, there have been volumes written from an abundance of different perspectives. It is a very necessary and important topic that stands in stark contrast to the way many of us go about our lives. There are those who want to see God at work in every mudslide, hurricane, and tsunami, punishing humanity for one thing or another. There are also those who, even in the twenty-first century, expect divine guidance to come in some blatant, over-the-top, undeniable package like a lightning bolt or an earthquake. Some people alive today, misinterpreting Carl Jung, encourage looking for synchronicity at work around us -- "coincidences" that are linked meaningfully to reveal some deeper truth to us if we are willing to see it. This could presumably be somewhat quieter than an earthquake or a fire, but it still amounts to looking for signs outside of ourselves for guidance. 

While we might receive guidance from other people, and while some situations might offer opportunities for us to do something meaningful, there is nothing outside of ourselves guiding us into anything -- not God, not the Universe, not "Life," not our ancestors, not fairies, not aliens. The meaning that we find in circumstances comes from within ourselves. We read the meanings into the "synchronicities" of our lives. That isn't a bad thing at all; it helps us take notice of what's important to us in lives that are increasingly busy with surface-level activity. But it comes from within ourselves, not someone trying to send us secret messages. If it seems like our ideas are coming from outside of our own brains, it is  possibly because we spend so little time actually listening to ourselves -- considering what makes sense to us, what we really value, who we most want to be, what we yearn for in life. This is why stillness is so important.

There are many earthquake-sized voices in our society. Everywhere we turn, we can find someone screaming about what we must do in order to protect ourselves against all sorts of things. Everywhere we turn, it seems that someone is trying to convince us of something. It's a wonder we can ever think for ourselves with all the racket we have grown to tolerate. As loud and passionate as those voices may be, however, there is often very little meaning or value in all of the noise. It is very difficult to find truth in the throes of anxiety, and our culture does not inherently promote thoughtful response that comes from an inner stillness. Instead, we are told to act quickly, to fear being left out or left behind, to be impulsive, to defend our rights (which are always somehow under direct attack by something). If we are to be thoughtful individuals who know themselves and live with integrity, we must be responsible for our own stillness.

In stillness, we can find which threads to pull to unravel our anxieties -- the lies and assumptions that hold together our irrational fears about ourselves, other people, and the world around us. In stillness, we can dig beneath our surface level activities and recognize what matters most to us. In stillness, we can acknowledge what we are doing that we absolutely hate, just because we have convinced ourselves that we must. When we realize that there has been some perceived synchronicity or message from Life or God, we can look into ourselves and discern what our subconscious is trying to bring into focus. The meaning we place on coincidences has value -- profound value, since that meaning is coming from within our own psyches. If we are perceiving something as divine guidance, some part of ourselves is trying to make that "message" important. In stillness, we can ask ourselves why.

Without stillness, we ignore the things that matter most to us in order to do the things that seem most urgent. Without stillness, we act in ways that are incongruous with the people we claim to be, and we may not even notice it. Without stillness, we react impulsively to people and situations that challenge us, with no regard for the long-term consequences. In thoughtful stillness, we can tap into ourselves and discover who we are and what we believe apart from the anxiety around us. Through making time for a bit of stillness in our lives, we can be our own best representatives in the world. We can come closer to living like our authentic selves. Stillness brings us closer to integrity, if we allow it.

So, this snippet of Jewish folklore is revealing. If we want to search for something to call divine, we won't find it in the flashy, loud, anxiety-producing racket of the world; we will find it in stillness. It's not always easy to see in other people (or in ourselves) the beauty and creativity and value and dignity that defines us as human beings. It's not always easy to see that there are things in our lives more valuable than money, more important than convincing people to think like us, more compelling and awe-inspiring than our fears. Stillness helps us see ourselves more clearly, so that we can see other people and the world around us more clearly.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Discipleship and Responsibility

When John the Baptist is arrested for saying some unkind things about the king, Jesus takes over for him as local preacher and sect leader. Of course, some of John's disciples most likely keep his group, maintaining his ideas and ministry under new leadership. Jesus seems to use John's message as a springboard for his own ministry in the gospel stories, which may indicate that there was some rivalry between competing sects. In the gospel of Mark, we see just a couple of sentences about the thrust of Jesus' message, which the author of Matthew elaborates on in terms of geography. Luke and John both contain parallel statements about the beginning of Jesus' public ministry, although they do not tie it with an end to John the Baptist's sect. In all of these brief passages, however, it is easy to see subtle hints about why Jesus' message may have been a threat to people in positions of authority. Speaking of a new kingdom would have been a potential political threat against Roman authority, and baptizing a bunch of disciples would have been a threat to the religious status quo of Jewish culture. While all of that is fascinating, it is more a matter of history (or at least the background of the story) than of any present usefulness, aside from the truth that the conservation of power is inherently threatened by new ideas.

The ideas presented in the gospel stories would never have gained traction if one man went around spreading them without convincing anyone. In every narrative, disciples who agree with Jesus' ideas are called early and become active partners in creation. Mark presents a fairly straightforward depiction of Jesus telling a few guys to quit their jobs and follow him around for awhile, which they do without hesitation. To be fair, the idea of "fishing for men" is a clever play on words and probably seemed a bit intriguing, but most people would have required a bit more explanation about what they were signing up for. The author of Matthew copies the story verbatim, and Luke writes his own versions later on of how the disciples all met Jesus. In the gospel of John, however, there is a bit more of a story, in which John the Baptist seems to commend a couple of his disciples to Jesus. Beyond just giving people an excuse to shirk their fishing careers, Jesus says a few more impressive things in the John version of the story, suggesting that he has some superhuman knowledge.

It bears mentioning in relation to the John narrative that not all early Christian church documents consider Cephas and Peter to be the same person, and there is an Aramaic name "Petros" which means "first born" and has nothing to do with rocks. But we will return to the character of Peter in greater detail at a later time. For now, it is the concept of discipleship that holds incredible value for twenty-first century society.

We are disciples of various people in our lives as well, although most of them do not encourage us to leave our jobs and become vagabonds. Typically, we become disciples of people who seem to be more knowledgeable, wise, or experienced than we are, and we expect (or at least hope) that following these people will yield some benefit in our own lives --  that we will gain some measure of their knowledge and wisdom. For the sake of having a label for these people, let us borrow the term "guru." Some gurus tell us which books to read, some tell us how to invest our money, some tell us how to make money in the first place. We listen to people who give us insight about politics, how we should vote, and whom we should call to complain about this or that piece of legislation. We listen to child rearing gurus, health gurus, relationship gurus, and of course, religion gurus. Everywhere we turn, it seems that there are people who know more about everything in our lives than we could possibly know ourselves. And some of them do.

With a multitude of voices, however, if can be difficult to tell which guru has real valuable wisdom to offer us and which ones are loud-mouthed charlatans. Psychological research has shown that we are most inclined to follow the guru who agrees with us. Did you catch that? We are most inclined to listen to people who validate our own views. They may challenge us a little bit in one direction or another, but they get there by speaking to what we already believe about ourselves, other people, and the world. One question we must ask ourselves is whether our gurus are speaking to what we know or what we fear. The last thing we need is some purportedly wise person validating the lies and fears we have accumulated.

Sometimes, we will expect to see some modern day equivalents of signs and wonders, like Jesus telling Nathanael where he had been. A guru may have to jump through a few hoops before we commit ourselves as disciples. Multilevel marketing gurus have emotion-based presentations that demonstrate how easy it is to make money with their particular brand of snake oil. Political gurus will have the sound bites and supporting testimony from other experts to illustrate the accuracy and insight of  their righteous indignation. Churches have appealing music and a welcoming attitude to convince you that their brand of religion is better than the rest. But not all gurus are out to fool us. Some people are honestly more knowledgeable about particular matters. Many of us need to trust experts with some facets of our lives that we are ill-equipped to handle, but the concept of discipleship takes things a bit further than mere trust of a more experienced person. We sometimes become disciples of a particular person's ideas in a way that we would never devote ourselves to a mechanic or a drug store pharmacist. In becoming disciples of a concept or an individual, we run the risk of forgetting to think for ourselves; we are sometimes content to parrot what we have heard without even considering whether it makes any sense or is based on accurate data. And certain gurus will even tell us how wise we are for accepting what they say without putting too much thought into it. Discipleship is a dangerous proposition unless we continue to be responsible for our own beliefs and actions.

Given that we are so inclined to devote ourselves to people who validate our own opinions, it may seem unnecessary to question our personal gurus. After all, if we already know that they agree with us on basic principles, we can safely assume that all the details that follow are logically in line with what we already believe, right? Not necessarily. The Jesus of the gospels had a high-minded mission in which he sought collaboration. Many gurus of our day have a different sort of agenda, and in order for us to recognize that agenda, we must keep thinking. For this reason, it is valuable to listen to a multitude of perspectives, especially from people we don't revere. If we are willing to consider alternative ways of seeing the world and we still walk away with our original ideas intact, then our convictions will be the stronger for it. If we hear something that challenges our perspective however, we may have an opportunity to refine our beliefs, to sharpen what we believe so that we are better able to act in a meaningful way to create a more desirable reality in partnership with others.

Experts are not bad. We count on reliable experts in many areas of our lives. Being a disciple of an expert -- or several experts -- is not necessarily a bad thing either. The important piece is continue to weigh what our gurus tell us against reality and our own ability to think and reason. We know that people matter, and so we know that when some idea we believe or hear devalues people, there is something off target about that idea. In order for our actions to best represent us, our minds must be engaged in what we accept and reject. At our core, we know what we need to know about deep truths, and we can recognize irrational fear when we want to. If we find the concept of discipleship appealing, why not devote ourselves to those people who better equip us to dismantle our irrational fears, treat one another with respect, recognize the beauty and wonder in the real world around us, and tap into our ability to connect creatively with one another to build something meaningful in the world? We are already experts at feeding our lies and fears. We don't honestly need any help with that lesson.