* 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, January 27, 2015

Interlude: Good People and Bad People

Our perusal of the gospel of John has brought us to a story in which Jesus heals a blind person. Before we get into the specifics of the story, it occurs to me that some people still wrestle with questions like, "Why do bad things happen to good people?" Some people might wrestle with the complementary question, "Why do good things happen to bad people?" especially in a time that once again finds wealth and power concentrated among a very small percentage of people.

In the first century, when a person was blind or otherwise impaired, it was often interpreted as a sign that that person or the parents of the impaired individual had done something wrong. Blindness was a punishment. So was leprosy, infertility, headaches, mobility issues, dementia, and just about anything else that seemed undesirable. Some people still think like this. If something is "wrong" in a person's life, that person did something to deserve it. The Bible (and the religious writings of other faith traditions) even suggests that a good person receives rewards in life and a bad person receives punishments.

This causes a quandary, however, when such thinking is challenged by reality. Sometimes bad people seem to be rewarded, and sometimes good people seem to be punished. This was even a problem for people in ancient Israel. The Wisdom books of Hebrew scripture highlight the struggle. Even as it is asserted that wise, good, faithful, honorable people will be rewarded and foolish, wicked, malicious, people will suffer, there are books that point out that this isn't always so. Job and Ecclesiastes, for example, are writings that directly wrestle with the realization that reality doesn't line up with simple expectations. Good people don't always have an easy life; bad people don't always suffer. The conclusion of Job is that Yahweh is in charge and shouldn't be questioned. The conclusion of Ecclesiastes is that we should enjoy life while we have it and trust that all will be balanced out as Yahweh sees fit.

Over time, people started to think that maybe things wouldn't be judged and balanced in this life, but that people would receive their reward or punishment after this life was over. An eternity in heaven or an eternity in hell would be the ultimate consequence of life. Good people will be rewarded, and bad people will suffer.

The New Testament expresses that we can see who the good people and bad people are by their actions. As a typical example, Matthew 7:16-20: "You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits." Another example is 1 John, in which the author proclaims that the distinguishing characteristic of "children of light" is that they live out the commandment to love. By contrast, "children of darkness" can be clearly distinguished by their expressions of hatred.

Lots of people still believe that there are good people and bad people, and they might even agree with the idea that you can tell the difference between good people and bad people by their actions. Some people are convinced that the eternal souls of good people will go to heaven and the eternal souls of bad people will go to hell. (Incidentally, this is not the message of most Christianities, but that's another matter.) We look around us and it makes perfect sense to say, "That murderer/extortionist/ rapist/thief was just a bad apple," or to be equally impressed by what a "good person" someone is when we see them being generous or helpful. This either/or mindset makes a lot of sense to our brains, and we can often make it fit with our experience if we don't look at people too closely. And it's wrong.

There are no good people. There are no bad people. The allegory doesn't hold that "good trees" only bear "good fruit" and "bad trees" only bear "bad fruit." People make choices. People are capable of making choices that contribute to the well-being of themselves and others. People are also capable of making choices that seem to benefit themselves at the expense of others. The specific actions of people might be reasonably labeled as good or bad, but then you have to define what that means. Maybe good actions are those actions that increase well-being and bad actions are those that cause harm. Some actions would seem to be neutral. The point is that every person is capable of choosing from a whole array of potential actions.

Thus, there are no good people, and there are no bad people. There are just people. People make choices. We like some of the choices that people make. We don't like other choices. We feel badly about some choices we make, and we feel happy about other choices we make. We are people. We make choices. We are not good trees or bad trees, and the fruit of our lives is a whole array of flavors.

As we are able, may we have the confidence and courage to make choices that contribute to the genuine well-being of ourselves and the people with whom we share this planet. And when we choose otherwise, may we have the humility and perseverance to try again. You are not a good person. You are not a bad person. You are a person, and you have the capacity to choose what you will do.

Monday, January 12, 2015

John 8:31-59 Truth and Freedom

Sometimes it seems like some people just want to be argumentative, that some people interpret words in a way that intentionally fails to grasp their meaning. Maybe some people are just set in their ways, or maybe some people are just a little more dense than I'd hoped. We get a sense of the frustration we all probably feel when someone seems to intentionally misunderstand us toward the end of John 8. It is as if the crowd has never heard of metaphor. Of course, the whole conversation may be contrived by the authors of John to demonstrate a particular point. Remember, the book was written at least 60 years after this conversation would have taken place, if it even took place outside of the authors' minds. So, let's assume that the back-and-forth arguing here is didactic and not a debate between two equally strong perspectives.

What does that leave us with? First of all, it leaves us with some terminology that may need a bit of interpretation. Sin, for instance, is not a terribly useful word, especially since it has been so connected to shame. Shame doesn't create anything worthwhile. Personally, when I see the word sin, I interpret it as fear or reactions prompted by fear.

Likewise, I have previously interpreted God and its synonyms as a deepest, most noble self -- a natural part of what it means to be human rather than an external supernatural. Your deepest, most noble self is the seat of your values and guiding principles, and the fountainhead of your vision of a best possible version of yourself. Scandalous though this still is to some people, I began this entire endeavor locating the idea of divinity within people, so this is just an extension of that basic principle.

With these interpretations in place, then, we see a few ideas put forth. Truth leads to freedom. Everyone is potentially enslaved by their fear and reactivity. Following the example of Jesus (as he is depicted in John) places truth over fear. At the same time, fear is habitual, and the habit of personal fear is reinforced by societal fear.

Sometimes we reject the truth because we don't like it -- which is to say that we are afraid of its implications. We are afraid of the consequences of accepting the truth. We are afraid of the changes we may have to make or the work we may have to do if we are honest. In other words, we are sometimes afraid of being uncomfortable and unsettled. The reason we have these fears is that we are not connected to our deepest values and guiding principles. We are operating on autopilot instead of living intentionally.

Now, the authors of John have the crowd respond with an unrelated ad hominem attack, the clumsy tactics of an amateur debater. "Isn't it true that you're a crazy immigrant!?" We still hear such "clever" attacks by people who don't want to engage with challenging ideas. As human beings, it's often very important to us that we are right. We have a lot riding on being right, especially about how we live our lives. It's easier to undermine the character of someone with challenging ideas than it is to honestly engage in those ideas. The response of the Jesus character to the attack is clear and direct: "You're insulting me, but you're not hearing me." If we're assuming that the Jesus character is in the story as an exemplar, we might do well to envision him as remaining calm in the midst of the desperate accusations. We can see this response as an example of emotional maturity.

Time and again, the crowd refuses to consider the possible truth of what they hear. They interpret literally what could be taken as metaphor. They actively refuse to listen or consider the merit of a message they don't expect. Eventually, the crowd in the story responds with violence, a reaction even less mature than name-calling. They are so desperate to cling to their perspective, so unwilling to consider the possibility that they have some learning and growing to do, that they lash out at the messenger of truth.

We are sometimes the crowd. We are sometimes so set in our perspective that we are hostile toward anything that doesn't seem to agree with our view of the world. Even when we could easily find common ground, we listen to our fear instead and choose some pretty clumsy and desperate tactics to defend and preserve our way of thinking. When we do this, we are being willfully dishonest. We make ourselves liars. Our fear does not lead us to behave according to our deepest values. Our fear suggests that those values can't have priority when there is a more serious threat -- a clear and present danger. The problem is that truth is not a legitimate threat. Truth is what sets us free from our fear.

This is not to say that every idea is worthy of merit, or even that our perspectives are completely wrong or misguided. When we consider another perspective calmly and honestly weigh it against our own perspective, we might walk away from that engagement with unaltered views. We don't have to attack people's character or get violent. Truth will win out. If we are afraid of the truth, especially if we are afraid of the truth to the point that we are considering doing something harmful to another human being, we need to examine that. If we are already being honest, then we don't have to worry about it. We can express our views honestly and calmly without needing anyone to agree with us, and we can listen deeply to the views of others without feeling offended that someone believes something different from us.

Fear is powerful, though. And it's understandable that we are scared of truth that prompts us to grow or change from what has become comfortable. It takes personal discipline to value honesty over fear, and we may need to practice that for awhile before it becomes our habit. Here is what this passage suggests as a possible way to get better at valuing honesty over fear:

Be clear about your guiding principles -- the values that you most want to govern your life -- and live with integrity to those principles. A wise person would consider love first and foremost among those values. If you do this, you'll be able to live more honestly, and truth will free you from fear.

Everyone who experiences fear or anxiety knows that it can take control if you aren't careful. You become a slave to your fear when your fear governs your decisions. There's no way to live out your values with integrity when you're controlled by fear. At least, not with any consistency. If you are free from your fear because you know your deep values -- because you know what you want to stand for in your life -- then you'll have power over your fear. You'll have an actual skill that you can use to live into a best possible version of yourself.

This isn't easy. We want to see ourselves as good people who aren't governed by fear. Yet, we often don't want to hear the truth. We are often afraid of challenges to our way of seeing things. We know our values and we have a sense of the kind of people we want to be, but we don't always live up to that vision of ourselves. That's something we often don't want to admit. We are of two minds. We want to live by our values, and we are afraid of all manner of things.

If we had strong connection with our deepest, most noble selves, we would embrace the truth with love and calmness. The truth resonates with our deepest, most noble selves. We know deep down inside that we are capable of adapting and changing as we learn more. If we are honest about things, we would have to admit that letting our fear control us is a choice that we make. It seems easier perhaps, or it seems necessary in order to preserve our sense of comfort. Yet, so much of our fear is based on lies. We wind up believing things that aren't true about ourselves and other people. How can we embrace truth if we are defending the lies that prop up our fear?

It may sound crazy, but we have to let go of the death grip that we have on our perspective if we want to live into our values. Our values have to be sharpened by truth, not by lies. Our deepest values lead us toward contributing to the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Fear can't do that. Lies can't do that. We have the opportunity to experience life fully, and to have a lasting influence on the world. If we want to do that -- if we want to really live -- we have to focus on truth more than we do on fear. The path to living fully is to trust the vision we have of a best possible version of ourselves, and to continually temper that vision with honesty.

A Little Experiment: Ad hominem. Notice this week when someone (maybe even you) attacks a person's character rather than addressing their message. What about the message makes it seem unsafe? Is there some truth in the message that is avoided by attacking the messenger?

Another Little Experiment: Honesty. We are in the habit of telling "little white lies" all the time. Whether we realize it or not, this is an attempt to protect ourselves from what we think will be painful consequences of telling the truth. When you are tempted to be dishonest this week, challenge yourself to be honest. You can still be tactful and sensitive to other people. Just don't lie. Are the consequences as bad as you thought they would be?

One More Little Experiment: Sharpening. By now, you've had a lot of encouragement to clarify your guiding principles and values. Go over them carefully this week. Are any of those values or principles based on a subtle fear about yourself or other people? Is there a way that you can reframe or reword those principles so that they don't reinforce those fears?

(This is one reason that living into a best possible version of ourselves is a journey: We constantly have opportunities to refine what we are doing and who we are being.)