* 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

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. 

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