* 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, June 16, 2014

Isaiah 25-26: Being Special

As with many biblical prophecies, there are significant aspects of Isaiah 25-26 that are obviously based on cultural bias, and there are other assertions that are simply not true. In Isaiah 25, for instance, the authors claim that Yahweh was "a refuge to the poor, a refuge to the needy in their distress, a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat." By the end of the chapter, there is the snide claim, "The Moabites shall be trodden down in their place as straw is trodden down in a dung-pit," which is rather interesting considering the status of the Moabites as poor, distressed refugees who needed shelter (Is 15:1-16:4). It is somewhat ironic to call the Moabites proud while remaining blind to the inherent pride of considering one's own people to be specially chosen as worthy by the only real deity among a sea of tribal gods.

Beyond that, it is a rather frustrating empty promise to suggest that God will make life easier or smoother for the "righteous" person. Everyone faces difficulties in life, but some of the people who face the most insurmountable problems are also people who go to church every Sunday and do their best to live by what they are taught there. Some "righteous" people have very challenging lives, and some "unrighteous" people would seem to have very easy lives. It is one of the great problems of capitalism that many people who gain wealth via the suffering of others have rather enviable lives. And what does it really mean to be righteous? Contrary to what many Christians have been led to believe, morality is not exclusive to religious people. Atheists and Humanists have abundant reason to behave ethically and morally, and many do. Should we assume that their way is made smooth by God because they are righteous? More likely, the accurate interpretation of "righteousness" as it is used here should be: "people who sincerely believe what we believe."

Some believers will claim that the important symbolic predictions of these chapters have been proven true, not that nations have literally streamed to the "holy city," Jerusalem, to learn from God's wisdom, but that Christianity has spread throughout the world. The same narcissism that characterizes the ancient Israelites' self-identity as a chosen people has now become a self-characterization of many Christians. That Christianity has spread throughout the world is undeniable. However, it is also true that Islam and Buddhism have spread throughout the world. There are Atheists in every nation, too, whether they organize publicly in groups or not. The ethnocentrism of this passage conveniently ignores that those things which are true about its claims regarding Yahweh are true of a great many belief systems.

For instance, it is suggested that, although Yahweh is busy destroying cities in wrath, punishing them for calling on different gods (never mind that only the Israelites were his chosen people, and they weren't exactly creating a righteous society), those who patiently trust Yahweh to come through will be rewarded because Yahweh will eventually act on his will. Whatever might be commended in this assertion might be commended of patiently trusting in anything. If one prays for rain, it doesn't matter to whom one prays; eventually it will rain. When it rains, one is likely to attribute that to whatever god was the focus of one's prayers, but rain happens because of natural processes, not because of supernatural causes. One's perception of why or whence the rain comes does not change the fact that rain is a natural phenomenon that will happen whether anyone prays for it or not. Anyone who survived the warfare to which Isaiah's authors were responding could attribute that survival to their gods, but the more likely explanation would have been luck, or possibly some kind of privileged circumstances.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of these passages that lingers in the minds of believers today is the assumption that God works through human warfare. Armies were the practical means through which Yahweh was supposedly laying waste to cities, after all. There was no supernatural event or even extreme global weather patterns; when the authors of Isaiah say that Yahweh leveled a city, they mean that a foreign army leveled a city. Yahweh gets the credit for military successes. What this also means, however, is that military victors get credit for being Yahweh's instruments. When people go to war, the outcome is not based on the moral standing of the peoples involved in the eyes of a supernatural. When people bomb cities, the death and destruction is not ordained by God. Violence is a human decision, the consequences of which rest squarely on the shoulders of the human beings who made that decision. And violence always has consequences. There is no possibility that all the "evil cities" in the world can be destroyed and everyone left will go streaming to the "righteous cities" that remain, but even if that were a possibility, it wouldn't be because human beings raised armies and went to war.

Biblical prophecies are fraught with hazardous assumptions, and many of those assumptions still infect the minds of some believers. It is one of the problems of believing in supernaturals that people do not stop with mere belief in a supernatural, but must also believe that they have a special relationship with the supernatural -- that they are somehow special, superior to the people around them. Human value is not quantifiable. One person or group of people is not worth more than another. Human beings have value because they are human beings, not because of their special circumstances with regard to wealth, skin color, sexuality, or belief in a supernatural. Human beings are capable of making ethical and moral choices, regardless of their religious affiliation or lack thereof. Human beings are also capable of making unethical and immoral choices, regardless of their religious affiliation or lack thereof. No one is special in that regard, or if you prefer, everyone is equally special in that regard.

That is really the thrust of these chapters of Isaiah, after all. People want reassurance that they will be alright. People want some kind of hope to which they might cling. People want confirmation that they are special and beloved. People want to believe that their city is strong and impervious, because their supernatural protects it. The problem is that the sort of hope and reassurance Isaiah offers is inevitably short-lived, or else it requires a great deal of cognitive dissonance. The promises made did not come to pass, and the interpretation of events does not stand up to scrutiny. If we wish to be honest and we wish to have sane and responsible beliefs, we need something else on which to place our hope. We need a different source of reassurance. While we could simply believe that we have a special elevated status above other human beings because a supernatural said so, this sort of belief does not really serve us if we want to participate in building a better world (or, as some believers might phrase it, if we want to participate in building the kingdom of God).

On what can we hope? Where can we find reassurance in the midst of personal or societal trials? Next week, we'll take a look at one possibility.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Isaiah 24: Understanding Appropriate Responsibility

The topic seems to come up over and over again, but if the authors and assemblers of Isaiah kept beating this drum, perhaps there is a little more to learn from it. Isaiah 24 extends predictions of divine wrath (presented as "justice," but we'll examine that word) to the entire world. Everyone will be treated with equal harshness, regardless of their place in society or their role in creating justice or well-being. Some people will even be praising Yahweh, but they should be mourning. The entire landscape will be a wasteland, and the few people that are left after this punishment will have no reason to celebrate.

There are a few things to address here. First, there is a problem with considering this universal punishment as "justice." Second, there are natural consequences to human actions that do not need to be explained by supernatural will or action. Finally, there are differing degrees of human responsibility that should be taken into consideration; everyone on the planet does not have equal power.

Looking first at the term "justice," it is easy from this passage to see why some people observe that the Old Testament depicts an unjust god. The powerless and the powerful will be treated equally harshly by Yahweh. According to this passage, the earth will be uninhabitable, not because of the natural consequence of human behavior, but because a supernatural will make it so. Surely, there are some who would point out that no individual is completely innocent. At the same time, is the level of wrongdoing that could be committed by a typical slave worthy of the same consequence as the wrongdoing that could be committed by a typical master? Should the misdeed of naive or gullible worshipers be treated with the same harshness as the misdirection of the priest who led them astray? One could make the case that actions have consequences, but when an intelligent deity is orchestrating the consequences, that argument is insufficient. A deity cannot be just and also punish indiscriminately. So, either there is something off about the picture of Yahweh painted by Isaiah, or there is something wrong with the idea that Yahweh is just.

There's no reason to have a supernatural in the picture at all, however. This actually makes things easier for the believer and the non-believer alike. Human actions have consequences. If one country goes to war with its neighbors, a lot of people will suffer, and they will suffer without regard to their role in society or their role in the war. If human actions result in an uninhabitable landscape, then one's personal responsibility for that result doesn't determine one's experience. Everyone suffers equally because circumstances do not have any intelligent power to discriminate between people of different levels of power or responsibility. If an intelligent deity is not behind the consequences, we have no reason to expect "justice."

Thus, when human beings clear-cut a forest and the ecosystem is disrupted, this is not indication that God loves trees and hates those who cut them down. It is an indication that irresponsible behavior will have a negative impact on our world. When an individual commits a crime and is subsequently arrested, it is not an indication that God will enforce some kind of punishment for bad behavior or that he has some kind of plan for each person's life. There are human consequences to breaking a society's laws. When a natural disaster strikes a community, it isn't necessarily anyone's fault. Although scientists are exploring how human behavior influences typhoons, tsunamis, hurricanes and earthquakes, these things are part of the natural world, and they have been for a long, long time. There is no divine agency behind where a storm hits or how high flood waters rise.

In fact, if one wishes to suggest (as some Christians have) that storms are God's way of punishing a population of people, one must explain the repeated tornado "attacks" on Oklahoma City, a community that is more religious (more Christian, actually) than the national average. I'm sure you could make something up. After all, 156 tornadoes since 1890 certainly seems like a message that isn't getting received. Oklahoma City has been struck 26 times by multiple tornadoes in the same day. Certainly seems like a divine message, right? For more than a century, there hasn't been a period of more than six years in which Oklahoma City was not struck by a tornado. Does someone up there just hate Oklahoma City? No. It's weather. There is no will or intelligence behind it. It's just weather. When people move from Oklahoma City to Florence, Italy, and are still plagued by tornadoes, then we'll have something to talk about.

Weather is potentially influenced by human action, but it's hard to be very specific apart from, "Widespread destruction of the ecosystem has negative results." Some consequences are much easier to discern. If you commit an act of violence, people will typically want to react with violence toward you. If you drive irresponsibly, you are more likely to hurt yourself and others. If you are caught in a lie, people will probably trust you less. And if you habitually lie, you will eventually get caught in a lie. Thoughtful consideration can provide us with some likely outcomes to our behaviors, even if we sometimes want to think of ourselves as exceptions. We shouldn't be surprised that our actions have consequences. It would be more surprising if our actions had no effect on our relationships or the world around us.

There are different degrees of responsibility, however, because everyone does not have equal power. In Isaiah's day, the leaders of nations -- the kings and emperors -- were the ones who determined the fate of their countries. The decisions of a few powerful individuals had consequences for entire populations of people. We like to think that we are no longer in a feudal society, but capitalism has its own kind of feudalism. There are still a handful of individuals who are capable of making decisions that affect entire populations of people. We have just replaced territorial/political power with financial/political power, and we have figured out ways to make powerlessness more palatable. When the board of a multinational corporation makes a decision, there are consequences. Lots of people potentially benefit from wise decisions, and lots of people potentially suffer as a result of poor decisions. The responsibility for those consequences rests with the people who have the power to make the decisions. Just like the kings of Judah were responsible for the political decisions that got their people taken into exile, there are powerful people today who have a greater burden of responsibility because their decisions affect many people who don't have much choice in those decisions.

In our personal lives, however, there are also consequences for our decisions. This is the case no matter how much influence we wield in the larger society. In our own relationships, in our own communities, our actions have consequences. We have some responsibility over the things which we have power to influence. Even though our individual actions will probably not result in "the earth being utterly laid waste and despoiled," our world -- our personal lives -- blossom or wither in large part because of our personal decisions. When we act in ways that harm others, or attempt to gain something at someone else's expense, we are more likely to suffer in some way as a result. When we act in alignment to our deeper values, our lives and our relationships reflect those values. This is not divine punishment and reward. This is just how life works. Actions have consequences.

We may not see those consequences clearly. We may think that other people are to blame for our unhappiness. We may believe that we are too weak to do anything about our situations. The reality is that, while there are limits to what we control, we do have control over our decisions and our beliefs. We can assess the accuracy of what we believe about ourselves, other people, and the world we share. We might benefit from exploring that with other people -- someone who isn't as invested in our way of seeing the world perhaps. Our journey toward emotional maturity requires us to break the habit of blaming other people or our circumstances and embrace our own personal responsibility for our actions.

Isaiah 24 suggests that every person is equally responsible for the state of the world. This simply isn't so. One person recycling does not save the ecosystem. One person treating people with respect without regard for their skin color does not end racism. One person paying employees equally does not end gender bias. What these things do, however, is set an example for others to follow. One person living with integrity can inspire other people to do the same. One person acting in alignment with deep guiding principles experiences the positive consequences of living intentionally. One person doesn't have responsibility for the whole world, but just taking responsibility for our own lives can have an incredible influence.