* 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

Friday, May 30, 2014

Isaiah 23: The Lenses through Which We Look

Should one decide that there is little in Isaiah's "oracles against the nations" to be translated into a twenty-first century life, that conclusion would be understandable. Aside from placing these writings in a historical context, some biblical scholars don't seem to know what to do with them either, and they don't all agree on the historical context. Isaiah 23 is the last specific pronouncement against a foreign power, however, before the book of Isaiah turns to focus more on the nation of Judah. After this passage, Yahweh's destruction is reported as being global, and his devotion to humanity is focused specifically on Jerusalem (which is profoundly problematic, but we'll wait to delve into that).

Isaiah 23 contains commentary on the cities of Tyre and Sidon, both situated in present-day Lebanon, about 40 miles apart. These cities were located in a coastal area along the Mediterranean that was important for commerce, so every major empire that came along found value in claiming them. Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Ottoman Turks, Crusaders -- whoever was in power at the time controlled Tyre and Sidon. Now, the cities are more Muslim than the United States is Christian, so one might draw some interesting conclusions if one puts stock in the prophecy, "Her merchandise and her wages will be dedicated to the Lord; ...her merchandise will supply abundant food and fine clothing for those who live in the presence of the Lord."

It's interesting to note that people throughout history have read the words of their scriptures and interpreted them however they saw fit, and people frequently criticize interpretations and perspectives that differ from their own, even when there is not necessarily greater support for one view over the other. We often hold our own perspectives in rather high esteem. Authors can only write from their own perspective, though, and the authors of Isaiah reveal some things about their perspective. Historically, it would have been unsurprising for a growing empire to take control of Tyre and Sidon, and Assyria controlled not only Tyre and Sidon, but also Babylon for a time (which could have been the land of the Chaldeans referred to in verse 13). 

The coastal cities were too useful to simply be destroyed, however. Isaiah 23 suggests that the cities will be like prostitutes, which is an interesting pre-Capitalist view toward international trade. An honest look at "free" economy in the twenty-first century might warrant the same criticism, that people are made to prostitute themselves to those who hold the power. For the authors of this passage, Yahweh is eventually going to make use of and benefit from the prostitute Tyre. Try convincing your preacher to speak about that on Sunday morning. Interestingly, the authors throw in a reference to a folk song in verse 16, which might make one wonder how many other poetic turns of phrase in scripture are taken from unacknowledged vernacular entertainment of the day. Perhaps even more interesting is that Sanchuniathon, a Phoenecian historian, seems to have cast Sidon as a daughter of gods and the originator of melodic singing. Could this mythology have influenced the authors of this oracle?

We can't know the complete cultural or historical perspective that influenced the writing of Isaiah 23 (or any other bit of scripture). What we can see clearly is that the authors began with a particular understanding of the world and interpreted events through that lens. For the writers of Isaiah, the clear assumption is that Yahweh is in control, that their god is powerful enough to orchestrate events on a global scale, and that human actions prompt divine response. If a nation or a city is besieged, Yahweh is interpreted as the commander of the attacking forces if they win, and he is interpreted as the protector of the defending community if the attackers withdraw. In order to preserve their view of the divine, they cast a vision of the future in which all people understand the power and righteousness of their god -- in which everyone sees the world as they do.

Human beings have adopted a strange stance with regard to our beliefs. We think that other people agreeing with us somehow legitimizes our beliefs. If others see the world as we do, then our perspective must be accurate, right? Not necessarily. Yet, when our beliefs are challenged by people who disagree with us, we don't reconsider our beliefs; we don't think, "Hmmm, maybe I was wrong about this. Let me consider this other perspective carefully." Instead, we often become belligerent, insisting that other people see things as we do. We are often just afraid of being wrong about what we believe; we won't allow our perspective of reality to grow into something new. 

So, we interpret everything through a particular lens, to the point that we are often willing to dismiss or ignore those things that do not fit cleanly with our perspective. The argument of Isaiah seems to go something like: Yahweh is in control of everything. Thus, every military action is approved by him, and he uses military forces to jealously punish people who worship other gods. Thus, when our own communities are overrun by foreign powers, Yahweh is ultimately behind it. Thus, rather than looking at political or military weaknesses, we should figure out why Yahweh would want this to happen to us and fix that problem. Then, we will have success against foreign military forces, because Yahweh will protect us.

Some people today look through a similar lens, making some assumptions before considering any facts. Just as the authors of Isaiah made some assumptions about their god before interpreting events around them, many people today assume first of all that their beliefs about the world are accurate, then they look at the world and fit what they see into their assumptions. We could go into the multitude of problems that arise from the assumption that God is in control, but it might be more constructive to consider starting from a different set of assumptions. We will always have beliefs that create a lens through which we see the world, but we could embrace the possibility that our lens grows and develops as we encounter the world. In other words, we could start with the assumption that we don't know everything. When we claim that God is in control, we pretend to know something that we can't know. There is no way to grow from that perspective. The only option is to force our experience into a particular box -- and to discard or ignore whatever doesn't fit in that box. A bit of honesty about the limits of human knowledge would suggest that we can grow in our perspective. That's one really useful assumption to make: We don't yet know all that we could know.

Here's another assumption we might make, another lens through which we might choose to see the world: Human hands can solve human problems. When we recognize that our current reality doesn't match our hopes for the world, we have an opportunity to create a better world. We aren't necessarily in charge of military decisions or international politics, but when we acknowledge that human beings make those decisions, and not an omniscient supernatural, we look through a lens of human responsibility. Once we are able to acknowledge that human beings are responsible for their decisions, we can be empowered in our own lives to be personally responsible for the things we do get to decide. If a supernatural is in control of everything that will happen in the world, there isn't much for human beings to do except sit back and watch. When we accept our own role in creating a better world, we might catch a glimpse of the kind of world we most want to live in.

Through what lens are you looking? Is there room for that perspective to grow? Does your lens empower and inspire you to live toward a best possible version of yourself? To contribute somehow to a better world? How you look at the world determines how you are in the world, and you have some choice in the lens you look through.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Isaiah 21-22: When Judgment Hits Close to Home

I had begun to write about the historical relevance of some of the statements in the oracles in Isaiah 21-22, but it struck me that none of that really matters in our lives today. Ancient history is interesting, and it's worth noting that predictions like, "Within a year, according to the years of a hired worker, all the glory of Kedar will come to an end," simply didn't happen. Kedar isn't around anymore as a nation, but it didn't happen within the span of a year, and this prophecy is very clear that what's intended is a literal one-year-in-the-life-of-a-laborer period of time. If nothing else, a glimpse at history helps to explain what the author(s) may have meant, but it doesn't necessarily prompt us to change anything about our lives.

The gist of the whole series of oracles against the nations is that the people of Judah looked with judgment on all the other nations who were worshiping the wrong gods, engaging in unclean cultural practices, and -- most of all -- posing a military threat to Judah and Jerusalem. Words of condemnation against those nations were comfort to the Israelites, and prophecy against people who were living differently offered hope to those Israelites who were suffering while living faithfully. We all need words of comfort sometimes, and one easy way to provide an illusion of comfort is to degrade someone else. That isn't real empowerment, even though it might make us feel better in the moment.

Here's the real kicker, though: When you get to Isaiah 22, the pronouncements are no longer about other nations. Suddenly, the prophet is condemning Jerusalem and some specific leaders who were not living exemplary lives. It's all well and good to criticize the people who aren't behaving the way you want them to, but it stings a bit sometimes to be honest about how much our own actions line up with our beliefs.

We get distracted sometimes by minor things, by pettiness, by things just not going the way we want them to. Particularly, we get distracted by our fears and by the false beliefs we've developed about ourselves, other people, and the world we all share. Pronouncing judgment on others is not going to get us very far toward the kind of world we most want to create. Even pronouncing judgment on ourselves isn't going to create the lives we want. Shame is not a solid foundation for anything.

What matters is that we recognize one another as human beings capable of doing amazing things. We are capable of taking personal responsibility in our own lives and recognizing the limits of our control over other people. We are capable of setting healthy boundaries that define what we stand for and still allow for connection with other people who think or believe differently from us. It feels powerful to stand against other people, but the real power is in standing for other people. This is not always easy to do. We have to understand our own guiding principles, and we have to be willing to allow those principles to actually guide us. In our own lives, we can model what it is to live courageous lives of integrity and intentionality, not to shame or condemn anyone else, but to provide empowerment and hope. As a wise person has said, "Be the change you want to see in the world."

So when we write our own oracles, let's not compose oracles against others or against ourselves. Let's cast vision for a best possible version of ourselves and live into that vision to the best of our ability. Let's look at other people as potential partners in creating a better world, even though sometimes fear presents an obstacle. People have inherent worth, and we can build some pretty incredible things on that foundation. The more we are able to stand in the face of other people's fear (and our own fear) and have a calm sense of integrity to our guiding principles, the more we are able to transform our own lives and the lives of people around us.

It may take a bit of practice, but we can nurture our lives and the places in which we work and play toward well-being in every dimension. This is what we get to practice, then: (1) Know what you stand for. (2) Stand for it. Take care not to stand for something based on fear, and be sharp about the temptation to phrase things so that your hostile stance against something or someone looks like a committed stand for something. Maybe talk through things with someone else who is committed to living intentionally and purposefully. Then, keep standing.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Mark 16: The Persistence of Belief

This is how the gospel of Mark ends in the oldest manuscripts:
When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
Someone didn't think that was a very good ending, however, so at some later point, this was added: "And all that had been commanded them they told briefly to those around Peter. And afterward Jesus himself sent out through them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation."

The last chapter of Mark was eventually extended to include more spectacular reports, alluding to an exorcism story about Mary Magdalene that doesn't otherwise make an appearance in the Bible, snake handling, faith healing, and the ability of believers to consume poison without being harmed. As frustrating as I find some Christians to be on occasion, I cannot advocate drinking poison or playing with cottonmouths. The absence of any credibly documented cases of faith healing and the continued deaths of pastors who dance with rattlesnakes (the most recent case being February of this year in Kentucky) should be enough to suggest that the "longer ending" of Mark may not be a helpful prescription of religious practice.

Of course, the authors who continued to add to the gospel of Mark were doing what we all tend to do. When the report seemed unsatisfactory, they "improved" it so that it matched what they wanted to believe. When reality doesn't match what we want it to be, we often attempt to explain things -- or even manipulate things -- so that what we want to believe still seems plausible. If I really want to believe that aliens visit me every night and implant cosmic secrets in my kidneys, it doesn't matter if you videotape night after night of me sleeping undisturbed. I'll embellish my belief to grant that the aliens must be invisible, or at least undetectable by video technology. When we really want to believe in something, we are often undeterred by reality.

This can be amusing if we keep to reading horoscopes, tossing salt over our shoulders, and wearing our lucky socks when we play softball. Our beliefs that ignore evidence sometimes lead us to harm ourselves and other people however. Relying on a supernatural to heal illnesses instead of relying on competent medical professionals is one way that beliefs cause harm every day in the United States. Another type of evidence-resistance belief is the prejudice that we hold toward people of different religions, ethnicities, or sexualities. Once we are committed to the belief that Muslims all hate America, no amount of evidence to the contrary (which exists in abundance, by the way) will convince us otherwise. We have to be willing for our beliefs to evolve in order for our view of the world to be brought into greater alignment with what is actually so. We have to be willing for legitimate evidence to weigh more heavily than what we imagine might well be the case. Moreover, we have to be sharp enough to be willing to distinguish legitimate evidence from propaganda.

Throughout this spring, I participated in a course on Christian ethics. What I concluded was that there is no such thing as explicitly "Christian" ethics. We know how people should be treated, and whether we are Atheist, Humanist, Jewish, Wiccan, Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, Sikh, or otherwise, our basic understanding of what constitutes ethical behavior is more or less consistent. We can and do invent plenty of reasons to justify unethical behavior, but we generally know what we ought to do even when we defiantly choose to do something else. Christians may have a special reason for choosing to be ethical, but other groups of people have equally compelling different reasons. No one has cornered the market on ethical behavior.

There is another important reason I've concluded that there is no such thing as "Christian" ethics, at least as the concept was portrayed in the course I took. Christians are not universally consistently ethical. If Christianity in and of itself was enough to make a person more ethical, the past two thousand years would be filled with evidence that Christian people were more ethical than non-Christian people. It simply isn't so. Christian people are as prone to be ethical (or unethical) as people of any other belief system. Christianity isn't the determining factor; it doesn't really impact one's ability to be ethical. From a Christian perspective, however, it would seem to be very easy to dismiss all evidence that contradicts a special claim to ethical or moral identity. Theologians invent terms like "anonymous Christian" for those people who do not accept the premises of Christianity, yet still behave in a way that is seen to be congruent with the example of Jesus. Yet, it isn't that they are "anonymous Christians;" they are simply human beings choosing to live by an ethical standard that is actually congruent with every major religion (and some minor ones, too).

Nearly every theologian studied in this Christian ethics course expressed some version of the same fallacy: "One cannot be ethical unless one is Christian." "One cannot love others without recognizing Jesus as lord." "One cannot care about the well-being of one's community without believing in the sovereignty of the Christian God." "One cannot be moral without accepting the supernatural premises of Christianity." "One cannot be fully human and also be Atheist." When these are the premises that are hammered into a Christian's brain, it's no wonder so many people are scared for the future of their country and their world if there are more and more non-believers.

The fact of the matter is that believers behave as unethically as non-believers, and that non-believers behave as ethically as believers. When we embellish our beliefs in order to stay rooted in familiar assertions despite ample evidence that we need to shift our beliefs a bit, we live apart from reality. We try to engage the world from a false premise. That's a frustrating endeavor no matter who you are. Reality doesn't change just because you believe it ought to be different. All of this effort to make the stories we want to tell seem more true actually prevents us from doing the things that could create the kind of world we most want to live in. Willfully ignoring or misinterpreting reality is not going to get us any closer to a best possible version of ourselves.

Wanting people to believe what we believe is a plea for safety. We want to be right, because being wrong feels bad. We don't want to feel shame; we don't want to be humiliated. Being right -- insisting that we are right no matter what evidence suggests -- allows us to avoid shame and humiliation. The problem is that we are always going to be wrong about something. There is no shame in that. Being wrong means we get to learn and grow into someone better than the person we were when we woke up this morning. Listening to other people's beliefs and listening to their challenges to our beliefs helps us sharpen our perspectives and be more in line with what actually is. We can't create a better world if we are imagining the world to be a completely different place than what it actually is.

And we all want to contribute to a better world. Deep down inside, beneath whatever fears and lies we have cultivated over the course of our lives, we all want pretty much the same thing. We don't have to do dangerous and stupid things to prove that we are right. We can choose to acknowledge that all the people around us are potential co-creators rather than threats. What we believe about people matters, because it determines how we're going to treat them. What we believe about ourselves matters, because it determines how we're going to engage in life. Whether there was an actual resurrection doesn't matter. Whether seven demons inhabited Mary Magdalene doesn't matter. When we try to debate those sorts of things, no one gains any ground. If we are willing to recognize that our beliefs -- precious though they may be to us -- are just one way of looking at the world, we might be open to seeing the merits of other perspectives. This helps us see more clearly, and it helps us express our own perspectives more clearly, without demanding agreement. When we can do that, we can have genuine partnership with other human beings. Isn't that worth more than insisting on something that we have no way of proving or demonstrating?

I will say one more thing about the Christian ethics course. If everyone who claimed to believe that the example of Jesus was worth following actually lived by the example of Jesus, then there might be something the theologians could point to. It would be really something if every Humanist practiced seeing the humanity in everyone, if every Christian practiced seeing Christ in everyone, if every Jew, Hindu, Muslim, Wiccan, and on down the line practiced seeing the divine in everyone. If that were how we allowed our particular belief systems to define how we engage in human relationships, the world would be a different (better) place. And we'd all actually be seeing the same thing when we look at one another: Sacred human beings. People just like us in the ways that matter most.