* 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 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.

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