* 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.

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