* 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

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.

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