* 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, July 28, 2014

Isaiah 33: Selective Well-Being Is Not Genuine Well-Being

People make enemies. Usually, people make enemies by their reactivity, when fear drives the bus and prompts people to act in ways that don't align with their deepest values. The leaders of Judah made enemies through political decisions intended to preserve power and protect resources. Unfortunately, their adversaries were operating under an equally false impression of power and well-being. The tyranny of emperors has never been sustainable in human culture, but that still doesn't stop tyrannical people from thinking that they will be the exception to the rule. Tyranny is based on fear, just as Judah's defiance of the Assyrian Empire was based on fear. Of course, when we talk about "Judah's defiance," it isn't as if an entire country rebelled with a common sense of purpose. The entire country suffered, but it was the decision of a single leader (informed by his counselors) that determined the fate of the people he governed. It would be a mistake to assume that everyone in Judah was in agreement about international relations, primarily because most people didn't know that much about the specifics of politics.

Many people are satisfied with not suffering. They don't necessarily care what is going on politically, and especially in other parts of the world, as long as they are not personally suffering. We concoct excuses why other people are suffering while we are not, and we practice behaviors designed to protect what we have and preserve the power we have over our lives and possessions. If we get too attached to having more power than some other people, more wealth than some other people, or (bluntly) more well-being than some other people, we run the risk of making enemies. Being comfortable with a status quo in which some people have greater well-being than other people is not far from being comfortable with the idea that some people are worth more than other people. This is not a path to mutual respect or peace.

Isaiah 33 issues a promise of deliverance from enemies. As many of the promises in the prophetic books, this one is empty. It is an empty promise because it relies on an external supernatural to take care of human problems. This is rather like a child expecting that a parent will clean up any messes and whisk away any consequences that result from the child's behavior. In other words, it is devoid of personal responsibility. The problems that human beings create must be addressed by human beings, and they must be addressed more responsibly than just waiting for a supernatural to decide that it's time to fix things. A supernatural is not going to be your salvation in time of trouble. If we have any salvation, it is in human beings and our capacity to make better decisions than what we have made in the past.

If we take the definition of divinity as something that is within every person -- an inherently human characteristic -- then we might create a workable interpretation of Isaiah 33. Without any attempt to retain the poetic nature of the original text,
People who seek to destroy or betray others in order to preserve an imbalance of power create only the illusion of well-being for themselves. They have to live in perpetual fear of reprisals and spend so much time protecting what they have that they never learn to use it wisely.
Our deepest, most noble selves influence us in a different direction and reveal the values that will lead to more authentic well-being. We cannot lose the voice of our deepest, most noble self; there is no way for us to blot out our truest selves completely. This voice of truth, beauty, and creativity within us shows us the path to mutual well-being, equity, and justice. The counsel of our deepest, most noble selves offers stability in our lives and in our relationships, boundless integrity with ourselves and reconciliation with others, and sustainable insights toward lives free of irrational fear.
People will lose all of the things they try to hold on to out of fearful self-interest. There is no strategy born of anxiety that will pay meaningful dividends. Peace, justice, and genuine well-being come from other sources.
If we heed the voice of our deepest, most noble self, it will be impossible for others not to notice. Our lives will look so different from the lives of those who live by fear that it cannot leave the world unchanged. 
Here are some specifics: our actions would have obvious integrity with our values and our words would be impeccably honest, we would find ways to have what we need without supporting the oppression of other people, we would seek what creates the greatest good for the greatest number of people rather than what provides immediate gratification in our own lives, we would not accept violence as an acceptable solution to human problems, and we would not justify abusive behavior by the ends it is intended to achieve. When we do what we know to be right, by the testimony of our deepest, most noble selves, we will create well-being in every dimension of our lives, and we will promote multi-dimensional well-being in the lives of the people around us. 
The world cannot be sustained by fear. There is no hope in the priority of preserving power and control of resources among an elite few. We don't have to learn what justice and well-being would look like. We already know these things. Yet, there is no point in resentment against those who have lived out of fear. The way forward creates a better world for everybody, where everyone has enough and no one has reason to be afraid.
None of this is to say that it is easy to live with integrity, or even to know what our deepest values are if we have never really thought about it. It takes time and practice to allow our deepest, most noble selves to have greater influence in our lives than the irrational fear and anxiety by which we are accustomed to living. Our greatest strength is that we already know what justice and well-being would look like. We just operate under the impression that it would be impossible to have true justice and well-being for everyone. Maybe we have to start small -- in our own lives and in our own neighborhoods -- so that we can develop greater hope for more people. We know what justice and well-being look like. We just have to commit ourselves to creating that to whatever extent we can.

Thus, it is not the case that power and wealth and well-being are bad things. When our goal becomes preserving our own power and protecting what we have, then we go off the rails and cease to have integrity with our guiding principles. However, it is possible for us to recognize the resources at our disposal and allow our deepest values to determine what we do with those resources. The reality is that some people have more power than other people. Some people have more money than other people. Some people have more intelligence than other people. Some people have advantages in some facet of well-being that others do not have. The point is not to reject what we have haphazardly, but to use the resources at our disposal to create something better than current reality. Rather than trying to preserve and protect what we have (or gain more to hoard for ourselves -- another fear-based reaction), we could be using what we have in ways that align with our deepest values.

Nor is this an entirely selfless position. The underlying message of Isaiah 33 is that what some people think of as security and well-being is just an illusion. Piling up wealth and power for oneself isn't going to create lasting meaningful benefits. True well-being for ourselves requires the well-being of the people around us. When we share our resources with our own neighborhoods, we create better environments for our own lives. When we share our resources with other parts of the world, we create a better future to live into. Our deepest, most noble selves do not encourage us to sacrifice our own well-being for the benefit of others, but to sacrifice our false sense of scarcity and our irrational fears about other people and ourselves, so that we might have genuine well-being in our own lives.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Isaiah 31-32: A Vision of Justice and Righteousness

Isaiah 31 is more of the same, and while we could cover the same ground again, it's most likely sufficient to say that no supernatural has ever protected, delivered, spared, or rescued anyone, just as no supernatural has ever caused anyone to perish. If any people have ever fallen by the sword, it was most certainly the sword of a mortal. If any people have ever been oppressed or put to forced labor, it was most certainly other human beings who were the oppressors. If any people have ever found peace, it was most certainly because of human conscience and will that they did so.

Thus we arrive at Isaiah 32, in which we find some words of substance. It seems that human beings in every time have promoted the idea that violence could be justified if one's heart was pure or one's motivations were righteous. It seems that there have always been human beings who propagated the belief that some people are more deserving of well-being than others. Even now, there are those who countenance bringing harm to some people so that the status quo of others can be preserved, and it is typically those who have wealth and power who find it easy to advocate for things to stay just as they are. Such people exist in religious and non-religious circles alike, and as we have seen, those who consider the Bible to be authoritative have plenty of evidence in their corner to defend the idea that those who have wealth and power were granted their status by an almighty supernatural.

What shall we do with Isaiah 32, then? Obviously, the authors are predicting a future time in which a competent and righteous ruler appointed by Yahweh will govern impeccably. That isn't likely to happen. Rather than dismiss the words entirely, however, we can attend to what the outcome will supposedly be of this ruler's righteousness. What fruit will righteousness bear? What will the practical result be?

Justice is a tricky word now. We have accepted too many varied definitions of that word for it to be of much use. We call it "justice" when a person is sent to prison as the result of a guilty verdict. We call it "poetic justice" when someone who has brought harm to another experiences similar harm. We call it "social justice" when we politically defend the legal rights of people who have been marginalized. Sometimes, we call something "justice" if it works out in our favor, or at least if someone we don't like suffers. We have to read further into the passage if we want to put valid meaning to the word.

Aside from the symbolic rhetoric the authors use to demonstrate what righteousness and justice look like, there are a few specific things that stand out. By contrasting noble ideals with foolish ideals, the authors suggest that the results of righteousness and justice are that people have plenty of food and water (Is 32:6), and the poor are uplifted (Is 32:7). In other words, the practical results of righteousness and justice are that people have sustenance -- that everyone has enough of what is needed for their physical and economic well-being.  

The authors interrupt with a warning to complacent women, which we could extrapolate as a general warning against complacency, understanding that whatever consequences result from complacency are natural consequences and not supernatural punishments. After that, though, there is a little more clarity about the practical results of what the authors are calling righteousness and justice. People will experience peace, trust, and safety as the consequences of righteous and just decisions. So, in short, the vision cast here is a world in which everyone has enough and no one has reason to fear.

We know a few things from our personal experience and the testimony of history. Violence begets violence. It is not possible to bring harm to some people for the well-being of other people without provoking greater violence, preventing trust, and/or thwarting a sense of safety. Violence cannot lead to well-being, and violence cannot be a tool of righteousness and justice, at least not in the sense that the authors of Isaiah 32 are using those terms. This isn't to say that the authors of Isaiah realized that. They promote violence left and right. Perhaps this is one reason they never saw the realization of the vision they cast. If we have learned nothing else from history, we have at least learned this.

We also know that "righteousness" and "justice" for only some people is not really righteous or just. The specific people mentioned as the beneficiaries of righteousness and justice in Isaiah 32 are the poor, the hungry, and the thirsty. If there are any who are made poor, hungry, or thirsty as a result of our decisions, or who remain poor, hungry, or thirsty as a result of our decisions, we cannot consider our decisions to be righteous or just, not by the standards put forth in Isaiah 32 at least. If we envision a world characterized by justice, we must build that on a foundation that meets the needs of the most needy people -- that provides a way for every person to have enough.

This is, admittedly, a tall order. It's no wonder the authors of Isaiah (and many people in the twenty-first century) see this as a super-human task -- something they expect God to be able to accomplish, but that they see as way beyond human capability. We may be tempted to think this because we recognize that the vision is too great for one person, or even a small group of people, to achieve. We also may be tempted to reject a vision of the world in which everyone has enough and no one has reason to fear because we think that this will mean that we personally will have less. We might be so accustomed to a way of life with conveniences and luxuries that come at other people's expense that we find it hard to imagine what our lives might be like if we were to take such a vision of the world seriously. I admit that when I think about the oppression I support by some of the purchases I make, I feel overwhelmed sometimes because I don't know what I can possibly do differently without upending my life and withdrawing from society. Even that wouldn't really do anything to end oppression, it would just alleviate my sense of culpability.

There is still hope for a world in which everyone has access to the food and water they need, and in which there are no disenfranchised or marginalized people. Such a world is not a short-term vision. It will take a long time and the commitment of a lot of people, but we can participate in creating such a vision. Some of what we can do might include our choices about what kinds of products we purchase, or it might include contributing to an organization that meets the real needs of people in nations where a few dollars goes a long way. I believe that some piece of what we can do involves contributing some of our resources to meeting the needs of the people right on our doorsteps, our own neighborhoods and communities. Whenever we contribute to greater well-being in the life of someone who might fall into those categories of marginalized, hungry, thirsty, or poor, we contribute a little bit toward creating a better world.

Honestly, I don't think that such a vision can be made manifest without some radical changes in global economics and the participation of the people who control the lion's share of resources. Whatever our own political and social influence might be, we have to be willing to use that influence to create the kind of world we envision. I suspect that using our influence responsibly feels most natural when we are living the kinds of lives that exemplify the kind of world we envision. As we assert definitions of what is "just" and "right" founded on the well-being of those people who are most often overlooked, we set the stage for a shift in awareness. As we commit ourselves to responsible consumption, and as we commit a portion of our resources toward a vision of well-being for all, we also contribute to the propagation of a new mental model for sustainable living. As we live intentionally in a spirit of abundance, we help to dismantle the fear of scarcity that fuels so much of the violence and oppression perpetuated by people in the world today. As we choose to live differently, we give other people permission to live differently too. And as we live our lives more intentionally, we more easily become aware of opportunities to live out the principles we value most.

There are enough visions of the world built on fear (entitlement, greed, scarcity, or whatever other names fear goes by), and they have not created anything approaching justice, peace, or sustainable well-being. One person cannot do everything, but one person living intentionally with a compelling vision for the world can inspire other people to do the same. This is how the world changes. Be inspiring.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Isaiah 30: The Hazardous Influence of Anxiety

One popular way to interpret some of the promises and threats attributed to Yahweh in the Hebrew scriptures is that Yahweh is a subtle and hidden god who artfully orchestrates circumstances and influences behavior so that his promises and threats are fulfilled in ways that allow his action to remain secret, behind the scenes. Rather than any blatant acts of supernatural power, people claim to see God at work in the actions of human beings and natural processes. The strange thing is that the flow of nature and the behavior of human beings don't need to be explained through some supernatural influence. Nature and people can be understood just fine without assuming that there is a deity behind the curtain, subtly ensuring that what he wants will come to pass.

When the authors of Isaiah were writing passages like the collection of disparate writings in Isaiah 30, their perspective of the world was that, whatever happened, Yahweh was in control. If something bad happened, then Yahweh was punishing people for something, and if something good happened, then Yahweh was rewarding people for something. The only real challenge in life was to figure out what Yahweh wanted, and then to do it. In this ancient and superstitious time, it was wholeheartedly believed that a people's supernatural would respond with clear answers when asked a sincere question. Since Yahweh never communicated directly with people except in folklore, Jewish priests even had their own version of casting bones or reading tea leaves in order to determine what Yahweh wanted. They called it "consulting the Urim and the Thummim," and it was a form of casting lots to get a Yes or No answer to a question, kind of like a sophisticated coin toss. If Yahweh reliably communicated clearly and directly with people, they would never have needed to devise such a method of "consultation."

Of course, we know more now about the psychological factors and ideomotor effects that influence supposed means of communicating with something beyond the natural world, and we know that human beings invent interpretations for events that often have little to do with the actual causes of the effects we perceive. We are, by nature, creative entities. If we want to understand the world around us, though, we have to be more honest than those who attribute things to a supernatural who is willing to bend reality to his will. Armies do not attack because a deity told them to, but because politically minded human beings decide to wage war. Human beings do not wage war because a supernatural has influenced their thinking, but because they believe that violent action is the best way to get what they want. When an ancient city was burned or besieged, it wasn't because a deity was lashing out or fighting alongside a military force. People are capable of causing destruction without any help from a god.

What shall we make of these rather disparaging words of precaution in Isaiah 30? A fearful people react to their anxiety by fleeing to a powerful neighbor, Egypt. Now, it is quite possible that negative consequences of this action were already known at the time this passage was written. When biblical prophecy reveals a particular outcome, often it was written after the fact, even though it was composed in a way that appears to be a prediction of the future. Still, the implication is that if the people had consulted Yahweh, they would have known better. The chapter goes on to suggest that Yahweh is taking the people's behavior rather personally; he seems to be feeling a bit rejected. According to the authors of these passages, the people were not interested in truth, but only wanted to hear affirmations. Comfort and positive promises were valued over honest and challenging admonitions. Then, in Isaiah 30:18-26, a promise is made that Yahweh will stop hiding and will communicate more clearly with people. Like a contrite abuser, he will "[bind] up the injuries of his people and [heal] the wounds inflicted by his blow" (Is 30:26b). There is no indication that this ever actually happened, of course.

In the absence of an external deity (or any supernatural) communicating with us, directly or indirectly, the lessons we might draw from this chapter seem to stem from the dangers of reacting in anxiety -- allowing our anxiety to control us rather than the other way around. When we put our anxiety in the driver's seat, we fail to pay attention to what we already know, we fail to assess our circumstances honestly, and we often create more trouble for ourselves. When we manage our anxiety well, we can better tune in to our guiding principles and our values, and we can more thoughtfully discern appropriate responses to the challenges we face. Anxiety has no integrity, and when we let our anxiety run rampant, our only real motivation is making the anxiety go away. Values and guiding principles often go out the window when we get to that point. If we want to be intentional people who act with integrity to our guiding principles, we have to learn how to manage our anxiety.

Some would suggest that the first step in managing anxiety is recognizing the times when we give control to our anxiety. Like the people of Judah reprimanded in Isaiah 30, one common reaction is to run away. Sometimes, we might make a choice to distance ourselves from a toxic situation or person. That sort of thoughtful response is not the same as fleeing from a perceived threat before we've given ourselves a chance to think. So, the goal isn't necessarily to always stand in the midst of our challenges and take whatever comes our way. Rather, the goal is to make choices with integrity to our deep guiding principles.

Standing and facing our challenges is another reasonable option. Sometimes, in the grip of our anxiety, we automatically fight back against perceived threats. This doesn't have to be physical (although it could be). Verbal arguments, and even trying to convince someone to admit that we're right are reactive ways of engaging in conflict. When our anxiety prompts the action, we can be pretty sure that it's not going to line up with our guiding principles. There are times when our guiding principles prompt us to take a stand for something. This looks and feels different from the conflict we create out of anxiety. When anxiety is in control, we are out of control. When we understand our values and act with integrity to those values, we can take a stand with a sense of purpose, groundedness, and calm.

In addition to fleeing or fighting, there are a couple of other ways that anxiety shows up in our behavior. Sometimes we shift into "overfunctioning" -- trying to fix situations that aren't ours to fix, trying to manage other people's problems for them, or taking on excessive responsibility. When we want our feelings of anxiety to go away, we can go overboard with our efforts to do something -- anything -- to take care of whatever we think is causing our anxiety. This is harmful behavior. It hurts us because it takes on more than what we can reasonably manage, and it hurts other people because it allows them to "underfunction," which is another way that people typically react to anxiety.

As you might imagine, underfunctioning is the opposite of overfunctioning. When we underfunction, we pretend that we are not responsible for our own feelings and behaviors. We let someone else try to fix our problems, while we pretend that we aren't capable of taking responsibility in our own lives. When we underfunction, we often think of ourselves as victims, blaming other people or our circumstances for preventing us from living the lives we want to live. The truth is that if we aren't living with integrity to our own values, that's on us. Anxiety can make it seem otherwise, but when we allow ourselves to be honest and thoughtful, it's easier to recognize our role in creating our lives.

Sometimes, we have a combination of reactions. In Isaiah 30, the people of Judah ran away from the hostile military forces without thinking, and then they slipped into underfunctioning by asking Egypt to solve their problems for them, assuming that they were too weak to do so for themselves. To be fair, their anxiety was in response to a very real threat. There are people today in many parts of the world who are running from extreme violence, and it makes perfect sense for their first priority to be to get to safety. Their anxiety about their own lives being in danger is very real. In such situations, automatic pilot reactions can help people survive.

Most of our anxiety is not in response to real threats, however. Most of our fear is concocted in our own minds, and we still react as if the threats are real. We aren't going to stop being anxious, but we can learn to recognize when we start feeling like fighting back, running away, hyperactively fixing everything, or divesting of our own responsibility for our lives. In those situations, we can't reliably seek the counsel of a supernatural, but we can look within ourselves and determine if what we are doing really matches our values. When we have a clear picture of the kind of people we want to be, we can check our anxious reactions against that vision of a best possible version of ourselves. If we are willing to be thoughtful, we can ask ourselves what would better represent our guiding principles. Maybe getting out of a particular situation or taking a stand are the kinds of things we need to do in order to have integrity with our guiding principles. If so, we can choose to do so thoughtfully and intentionally rather than anxiety-fueled reactivity.

One last thing to keep in mind. Reacting is easy. Letting our anxiety run the show takes almost no effort at all. Lots of people live from reaction to reaction, and they don't know any other way to manage their anxiety. They just do all that they can to make the anxiety go away. Having a clear sense of our guiding principles and our deep values is a little more challenging. Living with integrity and intentionality requires a little more of us than reacting to anxiety requires. The payoff is that we get to create the lives we most want, that we get to be the kind of people we most want to be. We may never hit 100% of our vision of a best possible version of ourselves, but we can only journey toward that vision by recognizing when we are shifting into auto-pilot, checking in with our guiding principles and our values, and adjusting our responses to life accordingly. We already know what kind of people we most want to be. We just need to be willing to pay attention to our own reactions and adjust our course when our anxiety causes us to swerve out of alignment with the things we care about most.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Isaiah 29: Creating the Future

Human creativity (and our fear of being wrong about anything) make prophetic passages like Isaiah 29 potentially dangerous. Not all prophecy is prediction about the future, but this chapter clearly is intended as such. Whether the authors are predicting a literal future or are figuratively depicting a hopeful future is up for debate, but it is clear that the chapter is intended to predict a future that is different from current reality. 

We have some funny tendencies when we hear or read prophecies. Whether the predictions are coming from a financial "expert," a passage of ancient text, or the horoscope, we have a tendency to want to apply those words as directly as we can to our own lives, so that we can draw conclusions and make decisions that are in line with what is "supposed" to happen -- or even "destined" to happen. Even many people who would never put stock in a fortune teller or Tarot card reader look into the Bible and believe that they read "promises from God" about their personal lives. Entire religious communities take verses out of their original context and misapply them as personal promises relevant today. Jeremiah 29:11 is a prime example. It reads,  "For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope." This is not a personal promise to all believers, as a casual reading of Jeremiah reveals, and yet many people seem greatly comforted by this "personal promise from God," misappropriated though it may be.

Our creativity may become doubly engaged when we place confidence in prophecies. We begin to interpret exactly what is meant by the words, and we may begin seeking out ways to cause the prophecy to be true. If a horoscope tells us, "You will receive a gift today," we might be sure to check the mail and keep all of our appointments. If we don't actually receive a physical gift, we might start thinking through the day to discover what the intangible gift was. Perhaps it was the moment when someone sat and deeply listened to us, or perhaps it was the kind person with a full cart of groceries who let us go ahead of them with our three items. Most likely, we can figure out something that we would consider a kindness if we have been engaging with people all day expecting to receive something. 

Some predictions are more vague, however, and place things a bit more in our control. What if, instead of passively receiving a gift, I told you that you would find a treasure? Now, the responsibility is even more on your shoulders to make the prediction true. Even if you find a quarter on the ground, you can prove the prediction correct. The question is whether you are more likely than usual to find a quarter on the ground if you are expecting to find a treasure. It may be that once you hear such a prediction, your subconscious is more attuned to finding something even if you aren't consciously seeking it out. Prophecies are sometimes even more vague than that, though. Instead of telling you that you will a treasure, I might say, "A portion of your wealth will spring up from the ground." You could interpret that in such a way that finding a quarter makes it true, but your mind might also do a great many things with that statement. Maybe you will invest more in fossil fuels. Maybe you will plant a garden, so that you spend less on groceries. Maybe you will be entrepreneurial and leave your job to start a palm tree farm. 

Of course, you may be thinking, "I wouldn't do anything at all. I don't believe in your ability to make such predictions." Fair enough. The trustworthiness of the source certainly would seem to be an issue. This is why biblical prophecy is so problematic. The empirical trustworthiness of the Bible is fairly low when it comes to prophecies. The problem is that people have proclaimed that the source is infallible, and therefore every bit of biblical prophecy that seems not to be true is interpreted as symbolic or yet to come. Each of these has its own pitfalls.

Interpreting biblical prophecy as symbolic is a convenient way of not having to address inaccuracies and false predictions. Perhaps it is convenient that there is no way to verify the symbolic meaning. If a hundred people point to a hundred different events as the "fulfillment" of a particular passage of prophecy, there is no way to determine which of them, if any, is "correct." We have to rely on how much we trust the person making the claim, and we have to decide whether the claim makes sense to us. We are relying on our own emotions and intellect to draw these conclusions, not the source of the prediction. There is no way to take the event back to a biblical author and say, "Is this what you meant?" In reality, biblical authors making predictions were probably either (a) commenting on events relevant to their own people in their own time, or (b) forecasting vague hopes for the future in order to quiet the minds of powerless oppressed people with wavering faith. 

When we interpret biblical prophecy as "yet to come," we run into even more problems, however. Just like the person who would decide to start a palm tree farm if told, "A portion of your wealth will spring up from the ground," people can start looking for ways to make prophecies true. Or, at least, they can behave as if their interpretations of the prophecies are true -- as if all of their actions have foregone conclusions. Isaiah's prophecy that all peoples would stream to the "holy mountain" Jerusalem for wisdom and guidance from Yahweh was intended to offer comfort and hope to people, not to inform geopolitical decisions thousands of years into the future. Yet, there are some who continue to believe in the inevitability of this prophecy. If the interpretation is that this prophecy has not yet come to pass, this interpretation directly influences the way one views and deals with modern Israel and other nations in the Middle East. There is thus a dangerous potential for a misappropriated ancient text to inform military and political decisions, perhaps even overriding a clear sense of what would bring the greatest good to the greatest number of people. 

Thus it is that Isaiah 29 is a dangerous piece of writing, not because the authors were malicious, but because they were wrapped up in their own ethnocentricity, and twenty-first century readers misapplying the words to themselves find justification for closed-mindedness and self-aggrandizement. Consider, 
And the multitude of all the nations that fight against Ariel,
    all that fight against her and her stronghold, and who distress her,
    shall be like a dream, a vision of the night.
Just as when a hungry person dreams of eating
    and wakes up still hungry,
or a thirsty person dreams of drinking
    and wakes up faint, still thirsty,
so shall the multitude of all the nations be
    that fight against Mount Zion. (Is 29:7-8)
In verse 2, Isaiah identifies Ariel as Jerusalem, and for twenty-first century people, this might be interpreted as the city of Jerusalem (although probably only the Jewish and Christian portions of the city!), the nation of Israel, or the whole of Christianity. Enemy nations might be interpreted literally or figuratively, but the gist of the prophecy is that what seem to be powerful foes will disappear like a dream. This will happen because of something Yahweh does -- because of a supernatural will -- and thus can be beyond the explanation or understanding of human beings. What would you decide to do in your life if you believed that everyone who could possibly oppose you would eventually just disappear? This could be a very empowering idea. However, some opposing forces can help us maintain our integrity. We could become quite bull-headed, failing to see the long-term consequences of our actions, failing to see how what we decide affects other people, if we took this mandate to extreme.
The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord,
    and the neediest people shall exult in the Holy One of Israel.
For the tyrant shall be no more,
    and the scoffer shall cease to be;
    and those alert to do evil shall be cut off --
those who cause a person to lose a lawsuit,
    who set a trap for the arbiter in the gate,
    and without grounds deny justice to the one in the right. (Is 29:19-21)
Again, this seems quite nice. The neediest people shall have reason to celebrate, and there will be justice. The problem is that very few of us cast ourselves in the role of villain in our own story. We believe that we are the one in the right. We believe that we deserve to win our lawsuits. We are the meek and humble sufferers who will eventually be lifted up. And if that is how we cast ourselves, that means that the people who find fault with our way of thinking are the scoffers. Those who keep us from doing what we want (and from forcing others to do what we want) are the tyrants. If we have a promise that those scoffers and tyrants will be taken care of, then we have no reason to listen to their perspective now. If we have confidence that justice will eventually be done, then we can obviously (egotistically) trust that we will be exonerated.

Please bear in mind, I am not attempting to interpret the words of the authors of Isaiah as they intended them to be interpreted. I am not even attempting to provide an interpretation that is viable in light of the entirety of biblical scripture. I am simply demonstrating the way that prophecy can be twisted and manipulated into self-legitimizing "promises," based on what I have personally read and heard from believers. It is important to understand that there is no viable way to talk someone out of a belief or "debate someone into reasonableness" when they have confidence that their personal scoffers, enemies, and tyrants will one day vanish into nothing because of God.

One more short verse, the final one of the chapter: "And those who err in spirit will come to understanding, and those who grumble will accept instruction," (Is 29:24). This is, for some believers, a blatant promise that one day everyone else will understand things as they do. It is confirmation that they are right, and that everyone who has a different interpretation of reality is erring in spirit or grumbling, but only temporarily. Perseverance without questioning one's perception is thus made into a virtue.

I've alluded to a couple of problems with thinking that we know the future, but let me clearly state the three biggest ones that seem to emerge from trusting biblical prophecy as yet to come. Then, I want to propose a better option. The first big problem is that we can be thoughtless about our own actions and beliefs if we believe that we know the future. This even counts for thinking that we know about an afterlife. If we believe we know what's going to happen, we have less reason to be thoughtful about what we do and believe right now. When we are willing to examine our own beliefs and actions, we have the opportunity to grow. When we grow, we get better at being the kind of people we actually want to be. If we don't grow, we stagnate.

Second, we stop listening when we think we know what is going to happen. If we believe that we know the way to eternal life, we stop caring what anyone else thinks about it. If we believe we know the way to happiness, we stop listening to anyone else's ideas. Once we think we know what is going to happen, it seems like the only reason we have to listen to other people is to tell them that they are wrong if they disagree with us. We need other people. It isn't that case that other people are just useful tools for us to gain knowledge and can be discarded once we know all we need to know. First off, we never know all we could possibly learn from other people, but beside that, we need relationship one another as human beings. We need connection with one another. When we stop really listening, we stop connecting.

Finally, we might stop making a difference when we think we know what is going to happen. Belief in an afterlife is one of the greatest detractors to justice and equity in the world. If you believe that good people (whatever your definition of that is) will go to heaven for eternity, you have less reason to make sure that their life here on earth is worth living. "Those people may suffer now, but they'll be able to celebrate for eternity if they just believe as I believe." What drivel! Even the belief that God is going to take care of things here in this reality is a bit demotivating. If God's will will be done no matter what, then we have no reason to act. If we believe that God will take care of all our enemies and scoffers and tyrants, then we are probably under the impression that he will do that when he's good and ready, and we need not worry our little heads about it. Meanwhile, we can also just wait for God to take care of all the other problems we see around us. Hunger, violence, slavery, disease -- they seem like insurmountable challenges, and it's understandable why we would just want to believe that one day, they will supernaturally disappear. Human problems won't just go away. We have to act, to whatever degree we are capable, if we want to see a better world.

Since prophecies are so problematic (particularly since so few risky prophecies ever turn out to be true), and since we cannot know what's going to happen, we have to base our beliefs and our actions on something different. Believers and non-believers alike can do this. If there is an afterlife, you don't know anything about it. You might think or hope or believe some things about it, but you honestly only know about this reality. You don't know the future. You might be able to make some reasonable predictions, and you might hope for some less reasonable things, but you honestly do not know the future. Recognizing that is the first step.

One thing we can know is what we value. As I have repeated many times, we all have a deepest, most noble self that reflects our innate truth, beauty, and creativity. We also heap on a pile of lies and fears about ourselves, other people, and the world we share. We have to dismantle those fears and lies and recognize what we really value -- the principles that we most want to guide us. We can't know the future, because we haven't created it yet. And we can't create the future we most want unless we know what we value most.

This is the point at which our defensive mechanisms kick in and we get sarcastic. "What I value most is for all the idiots to just leave me alone." "What I really value is a warm day with a cool margarita when I can just kick back and relax." "I want to create a future where I keep my paycheck instead of paying more taxes than all those other people." When your mind starts in with those defensive routines, recognize them for what they are. You're trying to protect yourself from realizing what really matters most to you. If you recognize what really matters most to you, you might have to do something about it. You're trying to protect yourself from dreaming big. If you dream big, you might get disappointed or hurt.

Even though they had no control over how twenty-first century narcissistic believers would twist their words, the biblical prophets knew how to dream big, and they knew what they valued. They were products of their time -- more than 2500 years ago in the case of Isaiah's authors -- so their values may look a little different from ours. We can be just as bold, however, in casting vision for what could be. Casting vision isn't the same as claiming to know the future. Casting vision is saying, "This is what I wish the world were like, and this is what I'm willing to do to move it a little bit closer to that vision." Powerful vision isn't based on our fears or lies about ourselves and other people, and it isn't based on our defensive routines. Powerful vision is based on our deep guiding principles -- the things that we most want to guide our behavior and decisions, even though we often let other things get in the way.

Guiding principles aren't complicated. For me, the idea that all people have inherent worth is a guiding principle. I don't always carry that idea forward into my life as well as I would like, but my values are all tied back to that principle. As I cast vision for the future, that principle is at the heart of what I envision. Your guiding principles don't have to match mine, but whatever they are, your guiding principles and your values are what empower your vision for the kind of world you want to create. We cast vision and create a better world by starting in our own lives. If you envision a world with greater compassion, what needs to happen in your life to start making that a reality? If you envision a world where clean water is available to all, what do you need to do to move things in that direction?

What principles do you most want to guide your life?
What do you value most deeply?
What would a world built on those principles and values look like?
What can you do to allow your life to embody that vision?

We do not know the future. We create the future. We can choose to create a future based on our deeply held values, or we can continue forward on auto-pilot. I know which one seems most compelling to me.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Isaiah 27-28: Authentic Hope

We're going to push through to Isaiah 39, which recounts the illness and naivete of Hezekiah that we saw in 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles (about a year ago now). It seemed like a good idea to intersperse the books of prophets with the "historical" books that most clearly connect to them, but given the time it takes to get through a book like Isaiah, this may have been an ill-conceived plan. Still, we'll cover everything eventually, so we may as well continue through the break in Isaiah.

That being said, there's an awful lot that has already been said about the content of Isaiah, with the people of Judah seeing themselves and their religion as superior to all others, without much evidence on which to base that opinion. Isaiah 27 clearly expresses one of the main purposes of this book: to offer hope to people in a pretty hopeless situation. Isaiah 28 balances this with the assertion that hope has to be genuine and sincere in order to be meaningful. Clearly, the author(s) of these chapters believed their own words to be sincere and honest.

It's worth mentioning yet again that there is obvious figurative language going on here, particularly with regard to the sea dragon that Yahweh will kill with his "cruel" sword. Most folks will not look at this and assume an actual sword or an actual sea serpent. A great percentage of the Bible is written in this sort of figurative language, and yet for some reason, many people want to take as much of it as possible literally. Don't be over-simplistic when you read mythology or other ancient writing. Look for the meaning underneath the words and you'll learn a great deal more about the people who wrote the words.

In Isaiah 5, the imagery of a vineyard is used to suggest that the Israelites have fallen short of their calling to create a just and righteous society. This imagery is used again in Isaiah 27 to suggest that all is not lost. There is still hope. The authors forecast a time when Yahweh will guard Jerusalem and there will be no competitors to the city. Fortified cities will be ruins useful only for grazing cattle. If anyone opposes Yahweh in that time (produce something different than what he wants from his vineyard), he will destroy those people. Otherwise, everyone will have a splendid time.

What Yahweh apparently wants from people is a society built on justice, but the authors are also clear that Yahweh wants exclusive adoration as the people's supernatural. Everyone who goes against this monotheistic mandate will be destroyed. So, this idea of creating a just society is not because it will be better for everyone, but because direct assault from the deity will be the response to anything less. This hopeful vision has dark implications. This is not a vision of a time when everyone will get along peacefully because there is greater understanding, this is a vision of a time when people will have peace by force, when the supernatural will take direct action against those who act differently. This is fascism, pure and simple, with a supernatural in the role of supreme commander.

No wonder that the authors desired a different sort of flawless leadership. Isaiah 28 suggests that the religious and political leaders were of little use to the people. They spent their time in drunkenness and lies, and when they had any words of hope to offer, those words were hollow. The chapter indicates that suffering at the hands of enemies is punishment from Yahweh that has a fruitful purpose. However harsh the punishment, it would not last forever, and eventually the people of Judah would be of some use. They would be beaten into usefulness. Of course, this is not a message to individuals, but to the people as a collective. An individual life might not see any purpose behind the suffering, but hope lies in the story of one's people, not in one's personal story.

It is unfortunate that passages like this have been twisted and interpreted into a perverse exaltation of suffering. There are those who believe that suffering makes a person more holy or more honorable, that the experience of suffering is somehow useful in and of itself. Even worse, there are those who believe in a supernatural who desires that people suffer, because they are being purified for some greater work. This is complete rubbish. While it is true that some people come out of experiences of suffering strengthened and determined to do great things, there are many more people who simply suffer, reaping no benefit from the experience. Suffering happens, and some people are able to make sense of it and turn that experience into an asset. This should not be held up as an ideal, however. Needless suffering is not a blessing or a gift.

Moreover, suffering is never something that we should inflict on others, with the expectation that it will make them stronger. There is no supernatural glorification in human suffering, and there is no supernatural who desires human suffering. We experience suffering, and there are potentially some words of hope that can help us through that experience, even help us draw strength from the experience, but those words are not, "God wants you to suffer." Especially those words are not, "God wants you to suffer because he has something great in store for you." Not only is such a claim trite, it is dishonest. There is no god in control of our suffering or in control of what happens in the wake of our suffering.

Often natural processes cause suffering. Nature is unintelligent and has no emotional impulse toward people, so there is no greater meaning to natural suffering. Sometimes people get sick. Sometimes people are caught in an area of natural disaster. It is possible that people can make meaning from the suffering they experience, but the experience itself has only the meaning that we give it.

Other suffering is caused by human action. Some people inflict suffering on others. This is the sort of suffering that we might set our sights on ending. Most of the time, fear is the emotion behind suffering inflicted by human beings, not the tough love of a supernatural. Human beings do horrible things to one another, and it isn't part of a divine plan. People commit atrocities when they give their fear control. Again, we might learn to draw some personal strength from our experiences of suffering, but there is no greater meaning or message than what we give it.

Of course, some will claim that suffering through the pain of surgery is necessary for healing in some circumstances. Suffering the experience of childbirth is necessary for life to continue. Suffering through difficult classes is necessary for the process of learning to take place. Yes. Fine. Draw the definition of suffering as widely as you like. The authors of Isaiah were writing to people who were besieged by foreign armies to the point that many people starved to death or at least considered eating their own children. They had no place to put the bodies of those who died from lack of food or water, and there was no efficacious way to treat the diseases that erupted in a city when it swelled with all of the people who sought refuge in its walls. When the siege was finally broken, many survivors were enslaved by the conquering army, taken to a foreign land with a foreign language and a foreign culture to live out the rest of their days. Their entire lives were shattered. Isaiah says that this was because Yahweh had a plan. He caused this to happen because he was crushing them like grain for bread. This is not a palatable message of hope.

We do not have a supernatural who is going to take control one way or the other. No one will be exacting punishment or crushing us for greater usefulness, and no supernatural will be standing guard over us as we grow into just and compassionate people. There is no real hope in that myth. The real hope is with us. We are the hope of the human story, as individuals and as a collective. Our potential to act in a way that brings justice, equity, and compassion is hope for others. In our own lives hope lies in the understanding that things do not have to be as they are. Hope also springs from the recognition that no one deserves suffering. Our worth and identity are not based on the suffering we endure. Every person has inherent worth and dignity just by virtue of being human; the rest is a matter of experience.

Things do not have to be as they are. This is true in our personal lives as well as in larger systems of power. Whatever suffering that exists in the world because of human action, there is a way to address this suffering. When the government of Uganda recently passed a law against their LGBT citizens, the Quakers established a New Underground Railroad to get people out of immediate danger. This is one small example, but think about your own community. How many organizations exist to help alleviate systemic suffering? From solving the problem of homelessness to ending human trafficking, there are people collaborating right now to build a better world than what we see today.

This is perhaps the most important message of hope: We are stronger together. People are relational, and while we value our individuality, we can accomplish great things when we work together. No one deserves suffering, and yet we can only touch a small number of lives as individuals. When we join our voices and our strengths with others, however, we can become much more powerful forces for justice, equity, and compassion. Our ability to cooperate and collaborate offers profound hope.

Thus, in our own lives, we can be confident that we do not deserve suffering, that there is nothing about our worth or identity that makes it necessary for us to suffer. Our individual suffering does not have supernatural origins or purpose, but we can choose to give our experience meaning. In the lives of others, we can also be confident that suffering is not deserved. When we are able to have an influence in alleviating the suffering of another, we can be vessels of hope. When we stand and act together with others, we can embody hope on an even larger scale.