* 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

Monday, December 16, 2013

Isaiah 11-12: Common Ideals (and the "law of attraction")

It's said that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. One reason for this is that sometimes when we know a little bit about something, we misconstrue that as expertise. We often think that we have a fuller picture than we actually have -- that our grasp of a concept is more complete than it actually is. This is one reason that some ancient passages like Isaiah 11-12 get interpreted to mean things they were never intended to mean. Of course, this stretch of Isaiah isn't unique in this regard; we are often contentedly ignorant of the larger context of our knowledge. We enjoy having a certain degree of ignorance, because then we can make things mean what we want them to mean. Although it can be a challenge, it benefits us to take a broader look before we draw conclusions.

In the midst of a discussion this week, a friend of mine made reference to using the scientific method to prove the "law of attraction." Essentially, the "law of attraction" suggests that positive or negative thinking can create positive or negative results, to the extent that what one finds in the day's mail can be determined by what one expects to find in the day's mail. The idea started in the early nineteenth century as part of the New Thought Movement and has been promoted by a mixture of well-intentioned believers who are adept at fooling themselves and outright charlatans who are adept at fooling others. Recently, the idea of the "law of attraction" was promoted in the film The Secret and a variety of books that promise to show people how to think themselves into health, wealth, and happiness. They claim that the concept is based on scientific principles, but unfortunately, it's nonsense.

Why do people believe such things? Why do we latch on to an appealing idea and then seek to make it true in our lives, when we know that it doesn't quite make sense? If we were to actually employ the scientific method, we would take this "attraction" hypothesis and develop genuine experiments to disprove it. We would consider other possibilities that would better explain the results we experienced. We would honestly recognize all of the times when our thinking had not produced the reality we most desired, as well as all of the times when our thinking had effectively formed reality. Of course, we would need a controlled way to determine whether our thinking had effectively formed reality. We would not be able to take any actions toward creating what we wanted if we were genuinely testing the theory. We would have to limit our engagement to the realm of thinking positive thoughts and honestly examining the results in our lives. This would possibly be a scientific evaluation of the theory. I encourage you to test it out if the "law of attraction" seems compelling to you, but test it honestly.

There are a number of things we should take into consideration when we draw conclusions. One is that we are susceptible to confirmation bias; we know what we want the answer to be, and we orchestrate our experiments or our results to "prove" what we already want to believe. Another is selection bias; we ignore evidence contrary to what we want to believe and concentrate our attention only on those pieces of evidence that support what we want to believe. We might also consider what our conclusions mean in a broader context. For instance, the "law of attraction" sounds great when it's about getting rich and being healthy, but what happens when you get a diagnosis of cancer or get into a traffic collision? If the "law of attraction" is taken seriously, you thought those realities into being; your negative thinking caused your cancer and your collision.

Our beliefs have consequences because our beliefs inform our actions. Most likely, positive thinking plays a role in success, but not because of any "law of attraction." Positive thinking may encourage people to exert more effort toward their goal, to keep pressing toward a desired result even when the path is difficult. Our belief in our ability to accomplish what we have set out to do fuels our actions, and our actions create results.

So, what does any of this have to do with Isaiah 11-12? For one thing, people often read the Bible or other scripture and assume that what they read there is unique, that their own sacred text is superior to every other source of truth. Our assertions about where truth can be found are often susceptible to confirmation bias, selection bias, and lack of thorough examination. We often choose to believe that we have access to some special knowledge, when honestly, what we see is just one thread of a much larger tapestry.

Nearly every Ancient Near East culture expressed an ideal ruler in language similar to Isaiah 11. Many cultures connected kings with divinity, often in terms very much like Isaiah 11:2, in which the divine grants authority and capability to the ruler. Every Ancient Near East culture praised their deities for victories and successes. Many cultures had a concept of a "peaceable kingdom" in which the threat of dangerous animals was removed, and thus fear had no place. Some of these cultures foresaw a removal of the animals themselves, but Egypt's version matches Isaiah very closely: The animals remain, but their ferocity is removed. The ideals expressed in Isaiah (with the exception of a reunited Israel and Judah) are common to all of the peoples living in that area at that time. Rather than assume that Isaiah is somehow superior, it may be more informative to consider why those ideals resonated with these different cultures.

Even for people who engaged in a lot of bloody warfare, the ideal was for there to be a ruler who was wise enough to value peace. The ideal ruler is less concerned with personal gain and pride and more concerned with doing what is just and right. Justice, equity, and compassion will be valued more than wealth, power, and prestige. Peace and partnership shall gain priority over conquest and claims of superiority. Isaiah envisions this future idealized partnership between Judah and Israel as crushing their enemy nations to the point that they are no longer a threat. None of these nations ever realized these ideals, however, perhaps in part because they only envisioned justice and righteousness for themselves. Just thinking those ideals had value didn't bring them into reality.

Isaiah sees this idealized ruler as emerging from "the stump of Jesse," Jesse being David's father. From Isaiah's perspective, things had really gone awry for Israel. Although there was a perceived agreement between Yahweh and David, Isaiah was hoping for something even more than the fulfillment of that agreement. Isaiah is suggesting that there will be a new David, even better than the first -- a divinely ordained ruler emerging from what seemed like a spiritually dead line. His interest in a restored and united Israel (meaning both Judah and Israel, which he distinguishes here euphemistically as Ephraim) distinguishes Isaiah from other Ancient Near East writers, but the ideals are not exclusive to Isaiah or Israel.

Some people still hold these same ideals, or at least claim to. Some of us still recognize that peace is better than violence, although we keep finding excuses to solve our problems with violence rather than through peaceful means. Some of us still hold justice, equity, and compassion as ideals in human relationships, although we keep finding reasons to be absorbed by our fears around wealth, power, and prestige. Here's the real secret: just thinking that peace is better will not make us more peaceful. Just thinking that we value justice, equity, and compassion will not create a more just, equitable, or compassionate reality. If we really value these ideals, we have to act in accord with them. If we recognize that violence is not the best solution to our problems, and that struggling to gain or preserve wealth and power cannot create the kind of world we really hold as an ideal, it is our responsibility to do something different.

We can't change the world by just thinking of a better world. We can't even change our lives by just thinking of better lives. We can take our ideals seriously, however, and we can act like we actually value the things we claim to value. If we want a more peaceful world, we start by living more peaceful lives. If we want a more just, equitable, and compassionate world, we start by living more just, equitable, and compassionate lives. Our beliefs and our values matter, because our beliefs inform our actions, and our actions contribute toward creating the reality we most want.

What do you really believe in? What do you really value?
Are you willing to act accordingly?

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