* 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, August 28, 2013

Mark 9: Faith

After the scene of the mystical transfiguration, Mark 9 continues with another exorcism scene. This same scene is duplicated in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, but there are some striking differences. For one things, the authors of Matthew and Luke do not include the father's famous quip, "I believe; help my unbelief." Perhaps an even more obvious omission is the apparent disagreement between authors about why Jesus was able to do something that his disciples were unable to do. The author of Mark has Jesus say that the kind of demon he exorcised from the boy can only be cast out by prayer (even though the story doesn't say anything about Jesus praying in this scene). The scene is truncated a bit in the gospel of Matthew, but when it comes to this question of why the disciples were unable to help the boy, the author takes the opportunity to have Jesus criticize the disciples' lack of faith. It is such an obviously different answer than the original version of the story recorded in the gospel of Mark that some scribe(s) at some point inserted the bit about prayer and fasting into the Matthew version. (In most translations, this inserted verse is omitted and relegated to a footnote). The author of Luke leaves out the question altogether, choosing not to include anything about the disciples' inability to help the epileptic boy, which makes it a bit awkward when the Jesus character bemoans putting up with the "faithless and perverse generation."

Some "perverse" people in the twenty-first century still consider demonic possession to be an actual thing. Considering the vast amount of research and evidence on the subject, as well as our previous critique on the abusive and manipulative practice of exorcism, we can leave that aside. It is reasonable for us to forgive people living so many centuries ago for thinking that some neurological disorders were caused by supernatural forces. Instead, there is a theme that emerges from the versions of this story in the gospels of Mark and Matthew that seems worthy of a bit of attention, namely the father's plea, "I believe; help my unbelief," and the line about a mustard seed of faith being enough to make a mountain move (which is also duplicated in Luke 17:5-6, just not in connection to this exorcism scene).

Faith is a tricky subject. It essentially means believing something that cannot be proven by available data. Faith isn't intelligent, but that doesn't mean it isn't useful. It's important to realize that a statement of faith is necessarily a claim without any empirical foundation. This trips some people up. They want to believe that their statement of faith is absolutely true, that they can prove it to other people, that they can make other people agree with them, even though there is no actual evidence for the claim. If there were ample evidence to demonstrate the validity of a claim, it wouldn't need to be taken on faith.

Faith can work for us or against us. Some people flatly reject cold, hard data in order to maintain a faith-based perspective; other people manage to incorporate the available facts into a fluid faith that grows and changes as their knowledge grows and changes. There are people in the Creationist (or Intelligent Design) camp that fall into the first category, blatantly disagreeing with scientific evidence in favor of the text of an ancient religious document. Others revise their version of faith in a creator so that it remains compatible with scientific conclusions.

It isn't so dangerous when people are just engaging in fruitless arguments about the age of the planet (although it is dangerous to teach children that they can ignore actual facts in order to keep believing what they want to believe). Thoughtless faith can put people in serious danger, though. Some people have faith that their supernatural will protect them from the venom of poisonous snakes, even if they antagonize said snakes. Some people have faith that their supernatural will heal their child, provided they don't give in and seek competent medical assistance. A recent outbreak of measles within a religious community in Texas that opposes vaccination in favor of "faith healing" is just one more senseless piece of evidence that it's dangerous to rely on a supernatural to do the work of a doctor. Faith that refuses to incorporate verifiable evidence is, frankly, abusive and evil.

Blaming faith isn't really helpful. Intelligent faith helps us create meaningful lives. Insightful faith helps us connect with people and build incredible communities. Faith isn't the problem. Human egoism is. Why in the world would a spiritual leader advise his flock not to get vaccinations or professional medical attention? My guess would be either hubris or stupidity. What do you say to the parents of a 4-month-old infant who contracts measles because a spiritual community refused to take appropriate health precautions? Was the faith of the parents faulty? Or perhaps the 4-month-old had faith that was too weak? I try not to be critical of other people's beliefs, but I get angry about children suffering needlessly because of adults with nonsensical religious convictions.

Still, it's the people who are responsible for the consequences of their actions, not whatever they had faith in. The father who brought his son to Jesus' disciples in the story was looking for a solution. He wasn't committed to pursuing some tenacious assertion about the supernatural, he was trying to get help for his son wherever it might be found. By the time Jesus questioned the father's faith, the poor man was probably exasperated from trying to find someone who could do some genuine good for his boy. And yet, he couldn't just confess blind faith. Even Jesus' disciples had failed him. He had hope, but he wasn't an idiot. His son was seriously afflicted. He believed in the possibility of his son's healing enough to get him to a healer. Whatever he lacked in faith, he certainly expressed a willingness to be persuaded.

We can approach faith like that. We can stake our claim and say, "based on available evidence right now, I believe this." When further evidence presents itself, we have the freedom to adapt our statements of faith. By "evidence," I mean falsifiable data, information that can be verified by outside sources, not just another person's opinion or a slippery thread of logic. For instance, believe in God if you like, but don't ignore scientific data about vaccinations or geology in order to cling to a primitive version of that belief in God. We can allow our God to be as vast or impressive or intelligent or insightful or loving as s/he needs to be in order to accommodate the actual knowledge we have about our natural world. We cannot restrict verifiable data based on our personal beliefs. If we try to do so, we wind up with things like measles outbreaks that could easily have been prevented.

So, since our beliefs don't have the power to modify actual scientific evidence, it only makes sense to allow actual scientific evidence to modify our beliefs. This doesn't diminish our faith in any way; it makes our faith more credible. This doesn't weaken our faith; it strengthens our connection to reality, and thus increases the value of our faith. Digging in our heels and refusing to reconcile our beliefs with cold, hard facts is just another way of refusing to grow. When we refuse to grow, we stagnate. Life is not stagnant. If we are going to have faith, doesn't it make sense to have faith that is alive and able to grow?

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

2 Kings 17: Creating Our Reality

The kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrians in 722 BCE, and the Israelites were removed from the land and resettled elsewhere in the Assyrian Empire. 2 Kings 17 suggests a political reason and a spiritual reason for the event. Politically, King Hoshea thought he could extract himself from his role as vassal to the Assyrian emperor if he pledged loyalty to a king of Egypt. There's no way of knowing why he thought that would be better. Ultimately, it didn't matter, because Shalmaneser found out about the betrayal and responded with military action. He removed the Israelites from their land and moved in exiles from other places within the empire. This separation of people from their attachment to geographic sites was intended to preserve peace and limit the potential for uprisings within the empire.

Shalmaneser's actions make considerable sense. People today often behave the same way, whether it is people in certain positions of political power or people in positions of economic power. From a certain angle, multinational corporations bear some striking similarities to the empires of the Ancient Near East. The logic of the emperor's attempt to preserve power and docile compliance within his domain is enough to explain the circumstances without adding any supernatural reasons into the mix.

The Bible being a document of a superstitious time and people, however, places more emphasis on why the Israelites themselves were to blame, namely because of their spiritual infidelity. It is striking to look back at the development of their theology, from a mythology around a deity who made repeated unconditional promises to Abram about the land his descendants would occupy, to a religious construct that included unfulfilled (albeit vague) blessings for good behavior and death penalty curses for bad behavior, to a social commentary about why bad things happen to a people who are supposedly chosen and beloved by an omnipotent deity. Anything bad that happens can thus be blamed on human behavior, which as it turns out is pretty close to the truth when it's put in such general terms. There may be some disagreement about exactly which bad behavior brought about the undesirable consequences, but at least there is a bit of honesty in recognizing that the results people experience in their lives are largely consequences of their own actions.

Yet, much of what happened to the people of Israel was not so much a consequence of their actions as it was a consequence of their leader's actions. Their king did something that caused the entire country to be overthrown and displaced. It doesn't seem fair that one person's poor decision making skills wind up costing so many people so much, but that's what happens in systems of government, whether they are democracies or monarchies. We cannot control a lot of things about our circumstances, but we can control who we are in the midst of those circumstances.

What can we draw from this spiritual justification of a nation's failure, then? How can we translate this idea that we face a decision between serving a benevolent and righteous supernatural or committing destructive acts of spiritual infidelity or idolatry? With a bit of translation, it actually makes for some very useful observations. The historians of Kings are partially right when they suggest that the people of Israel created their own reality of destruction and exile. That's a truth worth exploring.

Even for the authors of this biased history, it was obvious that the people who resettled the lands of the exiled Israelites were creating their own gods. It just wasn't as easy for them to look at their own god as a human invention. We create idols, too, and more often than not those idols originate from our fears, our insecurities, the lies we believe about ourselves, other people, and reality. We look outside of ourselves for a sense of purpose and well-being, idolizing money or titles or power or significance. We create destructive habits because we fail to recognize that so many of the things we think we value are actually valueless. We spend so much time seeking after some external means of alleviating our irrational fears that forget to examine our own selves, our own deep and abiding values, our own ideals and principles that got buried beneath piles of vows about what we must and must not do, assumptions about what is possible or impossible, and lies about how we are either not enough or better than.

If we want to encounter divinity, we might want to spend some honest moments looking within ourselves. Chances are, we already know what we want our lives to be about. We already know what we actually value. Those things are sometimes challenging; they might take a lot of work and we might have to dismantle a lot of fears and false beliefs to really engage them. But when we dig into real meaningful values that engage our sense of connection with people, that tap into our true capabilities and passions, that inspire us to envision a better life and a better world characterized by justice and compassion, we are tapping into something more powerful than any idols we can set up in our lives.

We cannot honestly improve our lives, the lives of other people, or the world around us by being preoccupied with judgments about ourselves or other people, fears about scarcity or insignificance, or lies about our own brokenness or weakness. Human beings may be well practiced at escalating anxiety and reactivity, but there are other options for how we connect with our deepest, most noble, visionary selves. We have the opportunity to bring forth something inspiring by the way we live and the choices we make. We can honor a deeper truth than where our fears and assumptions lead us. We are creative by nature, and thus we are creators by nature. We choose what we create.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Mark 9: Being Transfigured

The transfiguration narrative found in Mark 9:1-13 is quoted or adapted by the authors of Matthew and Luke, and it is referred to by the author of 2 Peter. While this seems to be impressive evidence for the event, we have already seen that the authors of Matthew and Luke used the Gospel of Mark as a source when composing their own Jesus narratives. Also, many biblical scholars believe that the Second Epistle of Peter was written several decades after Peter's death, making it a piece of  pseudepigrapha (meaning that the actual author of the work attributed it to a famous person of the past for purposes of symbolism or, less ethically, legitimacy). Since the author of 2 Peter also refers to other New Testament texts as scripture, it is quite likely that the author had access to the Gospel of Mark and/or other gospels. So, what we have is essentially a story recorded by the author of Mark and repeated by other authors.

This idea of a person shining with divine light or being otherwise transfigured is also not unique to Christianity. In the Hebrew scriptures, Moses shone with divine radiance after his meetings with Yahweh (which would certainly be a conscious connection within the context of a first century Jewish sect), and there are clear parallels in Hinduism and Buddhism, not to mention numerous tales in Greek mythology of gods turning mortals into other things and, on occasion, elevating them to divine status. There is something about the connection between our mortal reality and the divine ideal that has found its way into the stories of many cultures, so perhaps we too can find something useful in this imagery.

Some believers are content to look at this account, conclude that Jesus was divine, and smirk or shake their head with a bit of superiority at Peter's misguided suggestion to build shelters on the mountain for Moses, Elijah, and Jesus. We miss something, though, if we interpret from the story that "normal" people are somehow unworthy or incapable of tapping into what we call the divine. We all want someone to say of us, "This is my beloved, with whom I am well-pleased." Some people have such a hard time hearing that from anyone in their lives that they can only hope to hear it after they die and arrive into an eternal, sacred, supernatural existence. Sometimes, we spend our time around people who don't support and encourage us. Sometimes, we fail to listen to the voices of acceptance and encouragement that actually speak into our lives. Sometimes, we make it challenging for people to acknowledge us because we fear the vulnerability of self-disclosure. Sometimes, we decide that the acknowledgment we receive doesn't count because it doesn't come from the "right" people.

Approval from people we respect and trust is important. If we base our identity on approval from other people, though, we abdicate power that is actually our own responsibility to wield. When we are children, we are understandably emotionally immature; we rely on the adults around us to understand that we are acceptable or to understand what we need to do to become acceptable. When we grow into adults, though, some of those lessons need to change if we are to become more emotionally mature. As more emotionally mature people, our understanding of ourselves as acceptable or worthy is not based on what other people think of us; it is based on what we think of ourselves. We must be able to say to ourselves, "You are my beloved, with whom I am well pleased," if we are to hear it effectively from other people in our lives.

This means a couple of things. If we don't see ourselves as acceptable, it's important for us to figure out why. Is there something we want to do differently in our lives? Something for which we need to take personal responsibility? Or have we bought into a lie -- a false belief about who we are that isn't actually based in reality? What do we think it means to be worthy or acceptable? What would it take for us to be well-pleased with ourselves? If we can address these questions honestly, then we can take some steps toward being who we want to be in the world. Other people can serve as valuable sources of feedback as we identify the many ways in which we are acceptable, as mirrors to point out positive things that we might miss about ourselves.

On the other hand, people can also be mirrors to show us how we miss some opportunities for growth, too. Once we reach a point of determining that we are acceptable, we sometimes get the impression that we have to stalwartly defend that position. We don't. We are acceptable not because we are flawless, but because all people are, at their core, acceptable. Our behavior may not always be acceptable, but that's different. Behavior is not identity. Once we understand that we are -- by virtue of our humanity -- acceptable and worthy, we can address the criticisms of other people with honesty and care. So, our willingness to pronounce ourselves as beloved paves the way for us to hear both acknowledgment and criticism in a meaningful way, because we are not allowing ourselves to be defined by what other people see, but we are allowing what other people see to speak into our own sense of identity.

The other thing that the voice from the cloud said was, "Listen." We must learn to listen to ourselves, not the self-critical thoughts or the predictions of doom and failure that often go on inside our heads, but our deepest, most noble selves -- the self that lives in a deeper part of us than our accumulated lies and fears about ourselves. The transfiguration story is about the communion of the earthly with the divine. For many Christians, Jesus represents that intersection. Even throughout the history of the Christian church, however, there have been theologians who have suggested that the divinity within Jesus (as he is represented in the gospels) is no different from the divinity within every person. The difference, as proposed by some of these thinkers, is that Jesus knew it and accepted it.

Whatever we believe about an authentic historical Jesus, the Jesus presented to us in this transfiguration story is a model of self-acceptance, a person who understood who he was at his core and embraced that identity. He was not surprised to hear a voice from the cloud call him beloved, because he knew this about himself already. We might imagine that it was still encouraging and moving for him to hear, but the impression we are given is that Jesus knew himself and didn't spend much time on lies or fears about himself, other people, and the world.

If we accept that we likewise have some inner quality of fearless truth, undeniable beauty, and inspiring creativity, we too can embrace that identity and bring our most noble selves forward in the world. We can pay a little less attention to the false beliefs and fears we have developed over time and pay a little more attention to our deep guiding principles, our values, our visions of what the world can be and who we can be in it. We can become different people from the versions of ourselves that are wrapped up in whether other people approve of us or not. We can engage in different behaviors than the versions of ourselves that place artificial limitations on who we can be and what we can accomplish. Although we may not glow or sparkle, we can be, in a word, transfigured.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

2 Chronicles 28: One Voice (a portrait of the prophet Oded)

As we've seen, 2 Kings 15 doesn't paint a flattering picture of the rulers of Israel and Judah in the 8th century BCE. They were self-absorbed, indulgent, murderous lot whose deeds were barely worthy of a paragraph from the historian. Already, there were signs during the reigns of Menahem and Pekah that the nations of Judah and Israel would be troubled by Assyria's ruler Tiglath-Pileser III (who is also called by the name Pul or Pulu). Tiglath-Pileser III claimed rulership of Assyria during a civil war, and in an effort to seem more authentic, he took his throne name from two previous Assyrian rulers who had come by the throne legitimately. His military reforms and expansionist ideals created an empire that included most of the nations known to the Assyrians at the time. One of his most successful policies in preventing further internal conflict was to force thousands of citizens to relocate to diverse parts of the empire, breaking up subcultural identities based on connections with a particular land.

Into this climate, King Ahaz ascended to the throne of Judah when his father Jotham died. 2 Kings 16 tells one version of his reign, which apparently began early on with participation in the various foreign religious practices that had become popular in Judah. High places, hills, and green trees were chosen as sites for worship and sacrifices because these places were thought to be favored by various gods. Ahaz is also said to have made his son "pass through fire," which is often interpreted as an act of child sacrifice. Based on current archeological evidence, the sacrifice of children was not nearly as prevalent as some biblical passages suggest, although some ancient writers did use the accusation of child sacrifice as propaganda to demonize enemy civilizations during times of war. It is known, however, that some societies committed child sacrifices in times of great duress, as an extraordinary means of appealing to their supernaturals for aid, and Ahaz certainly reigned during a time of great duress in Judah. It's important to understand a little something of Ahaz in order to understand some of the writings of the prophet Isaiah.

During the reign of Ahaz, Judah was attacked by Aram and Israel. The nation of Aram was really a collection of city-states, one of which was Damascus. King Rezin was obviously connected to Damascus, based on 2 Kings. Rezin joined forces with Pekah, the king of Israel to attack Judah; there is no indication as to their motivations, but in the end (according to 2 Kings) Rezin drove the Judeans out of Elath and reclaimed it. (Edom and Aram are probably synonymous in this passage.) In light of this offensive action, Ahaz sought military aid from Tiglath-Pileser III, bribing him with valuables from his own holdings as well as the temple treasury. The Assyrian emperor, seeing the potential for expanding the Assyrian empire, attacked Damascus, killed Rezin, and annexed a portion of Aram.

After seeing the altar in Damascus, Ahaz made some radical changes to the temple in Jerusalem, with the assistance of the priest Uriah. Perhaps he wanted to be more like Tiglath-Pileser III, even though he could not possibly match the Assyrian emperor's military and social ingenuity. The prophet Isaiah was an adviser to Ahaz during this entire crisis, so there will be more to unpack about this ruler. The Chronicler, however, interprets the relationship between Ahaz and Tiglath-Pileser somewhat differently in 2 Chronicles 28. Beginning with the quote from 2 Kings criticizing Ahaz for idolatry and child sacrifice, the Chronicler then goes on to describe just how severely the armies of Aram and Israel defeated Judah. Of course, the Chronicler interprets this defeat as a consequence of the king's idolatry, but we can be confident that there were political motivations for the action against Judah.

According to the Chronicler, there were multiple incursions into Judah by foreign armies who reclaimed and settled cities, whittling away at Judah's borders. When Ahaz turned to Tiglath-Pileser III for assistance in this interpretation of history, the Assyrian leader saw Judah's weakened position and took advantage of the situation, demanding tribute but providing no meaningful aid. Ahaz made what was a logical decision for a person in his time and culture; he started worshiping gods that had seemingly brought success to his enemies. It is a constant danger in cultures where the supernatural is legitimized that people will look ever more frantically for something outside of themselves to make life easier, better, and safer. The answer to making positive changes lies within a person's own behavior, however, and not with some invented god or supernatural force. Change comes when people are willing to take an honest look within themselves and act in a way that leads toward a desirable future.

Which brings us to Oded. This prophet is never mentioned again in the Bible, and perhaps his name (which means "Restorer") is more of a symbolic moniker than anything else. When the Israel army had soundly defeated Judah (with the aid of Rezin's forces), they claimed 200,000 Judeans as spoils of war. They intended to take these people as slaves, even though they shared a common heritage; of all the people in the world, these captives were most like the people of Israel. Oded spoke out in protest. He could not stand by and watch people taking their own kindred as prisoners of war; he understood the immorality of subjugating people who shared a deep bond of culture and history. Once Oded stood up, other leaders began to speak out in agreement. Who knows whether they would have said anything if Oded had remained silent, but once the truth was spoken, their own integrity won out over greed-fear and the thoughtless fervor of military victory. They clothed the captives, fed them, escorted them to a safe place, even using their own pack animals as necessary, and they set them free. 

It didn't matter that the Judeans had committed idolatry. It didn't matter that they had been militarily inferior. It didn't matter that they had been on the wrong side of the division of Israelite culture. They were human beings who were more similar to the people of Israel than they were different. They deserved to be treated with respect and dignity, even as conquered people. Oded saw this, and he spoke the truth boldly. The Israelite soldiers could have cut him down and silenced him; it would only have taken one man who didn't like what Oded had to say. This has happened on more than one occasion throughout human history. In this instance, though, for whatever reason, Oded's words had the power to invoke true justice.

Our world has captives. Our world has slaves, figurative and literal. Some people suffer because of war. Some people suffer because of oppressive systems. Some people suffer because of other people's fear. Some people are just stuck in a cycle of poverty or prejudice that they cannot break on their own. There is nothing that makes these people less worthy of respect and dignity than any other person. If we are honest, we must acknowledge that human beings are more alike than different. We like to be tribal; it's comfortable to draw lines of distinction. But we are not that different from one another. People -- all people -- have inherent worth and dignity, Israelite and Judean, male and female, slave and free, rich and poor, conservative and liberal, Muslim and Christian and Buddhist and Hindu and Wiccan and Atheist and ...

There was nothing that credentialed Oded to speak out except that he saw the truth and was willing to speak out on the side of justice, equity, and compassion. His words had nothing to do with what was legally permissible. His words had to do with integrity and human value. Oded would perhaps not have spoken out against claiming other peoples as prisoners of war. He was, after all, a product of his place and time. We have some advantage of perspective over Oded. We can aim higher in our own lives. We, too, can speak out with bold honesty against injustice, oppression, and fear. If we speak so that others can hear, perhaps our words will inspire others to take a stand as well. Moreover, we can take action in our lives to demonstrate what it means to have integrity, to be ethically astute in our treatment of other human beings. There is no reason that a modern day portrait of Oded should not look exactly like us.