Monday, August 31, 2009
9These are the generations of Noah: Noah was a just man and perfect in his generations, and Noah walked with God. 22Thus did Noah; according to all that God commanded him, so did he.
I have been rereading Genesis and it surprises me that while growing up as a Christian I never heard anyone challenge the morality of the patriarchs. We know they're human and fallible but since they followed the will of God we just assumed they were morally upright people. What really surprised me is that Jews have already challenged (and continue to challenge) the righteousness of the patriarchs. Noah, blameless in his generation, followed God's command and saved his family from the wrath of God. So what's so wrong with following the orders of a God who's about to destroy everything and everyone you know?
[The Drunkenness of Noah, Sistine Chapel ceiling (fresco), 1509, Michelangelo Buonarroti]
I pity Noah after rereading his story found in Genesis chapters 6-9. God picks and speaks to Noah out of the blue stating that He will destroy EVERYTHING. The knowledge of doomsday alone would be enough to drive a man to despair and even worse that only he and his family will be spared. But why Noah? Again, I don't know Hebrew but I thank God for Google. Noah is the only person in the Old Testament (if you know Hebrew please correct me if I'm wrong) that is described as צדיק (Tzadik), which means righteous or just, and bears this description twice in Gen. 7:1 and Gen 6:9 and once in Ezekiel 14:14. Yet when we read the text it states that Noah is perfect within his own generation. Does that mean that he was righteous relative only to his time? If Noah would have lived in another time would he have been less righteous? More importantly does this mean that God's definition of a righteous person change throughout history?
Noah follows God's instruction without questioning his instructions or intentions. In fact, the first time we see Noah speak is when he curses his innocent grandson, Canaan, because his son, Ham, saw him naked. He doesn't say a word, he just builds his ark, loads the animals and wait for the world to be washed clean of mankind. When I was a kid, I remember seeing pictures (and I believe a film) of Noah preaching away trying to convince people to join him on the ark. Repent and be saved. The medieval commentator Rashi held that the building of the ark took 120 years so that Noah could preach to the sinners. In the Islamic tradition, the Qu'ran has Noah warning people for almost 1000 years. The image of Noah preaching, warning, and pleading with the people to repent and join him on the boat is almost heart-wrenching. This Noah is seen desperately trying to save other people even though he did not express this desire to God. This is the caring Noah who believes that his fellow man is worth saving. The Noah in Genesis does not question nor bargin with God like Abraham who boldly challenged Him when he was told of the impending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Noah is a yes-man, and he follows God's instructions to the letter. Noah doesn't even complain when it seems that God forgets Noah aimlessly drifting out in the open sea. What could be running through Noah's head as he looks out across the waters? Everything and everyone he ever loved is now gone.
God then, maybe out of pity for Noah, promises that he will never again destroy the world with a flood. But the damage to the human spirit has been done, because the first thing Noah does after his talk with God is plant a vineyard and begin to drink. Ham walks in to his father's tent and sees him sprawled out naked after a night of heavy drinking. Noah, maybe suffering from survivors guilt, does not curse Ham, but Ham's son, Canaan. Noah avoids taking responsibility for his actions and instead takes it out on an innocent bystander. Throughout history the curse of Ham has been used to justify racism and slavery and as Armstrong states, "some of the worst atrocities have occurred as a result of this type of scapegoating, when we blame others for our own crimes and inadequacies". (In the Beginning: A New Interpretation of Genesis)
So what can we learn from Noah? If we see injustice, do we sit idly by or do we speak out against it? Must we be limited to the morals of the Bible or do we try to transcend them? Some Christians speak about God's disgust for homosexuality yet proclaim that they love the sinner, they are still bound to God's prejudices. Must we hate what God hates, and only love what God loves? Are we bound to following orders and never question God's will? Should we not question the divine even if we feel injustice in the command? A God who resorts to mass destruction and genocide is like a child who tosses a toy away when he's bored with it. How can this be the same Compassionate and Loving God who loved the WHOLE world that he sent his son to redeem it? Being yes-men and secluding ourselves in a spiritual ark may save our own skins, but we might begin to lose our compassion for humanity by separating ourselves as an elect group among a sea of sinners. Even after wiping out every living thing God admits that even the survivors have the same evil inclination as those he destroyed. Humanity's morality should always progress forward even if it means that we must challenge and become stronger than the God who did not even have the strength to deal with a sinful creature.
Friday, August 28, 2009
2...Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. 3 In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the LORD. 4 But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering, 5 but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.6 Then the LORD said to Cain, "Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? 7 If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it."8 Now Cain said to his brother Abel, "Let's go out to the field." And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.
9 Then the LORD said to Cain, "Where is your brother Abel?"
"I don't know," he replied. "Am I my brother's keeper?"
While reading In the Beginning: A New Interpretation of Genesis by Karen Armstrong, I came across an interesting view on the story of Cain and Abel. Those unfamiliar with the story can click here. After Cain murders his brother, God questions Cain about the whereabouts of his brother, Abel. Instead of answering, Cain evasively dodges the question with another question and a pinch of sarcasm, "What, am I responsible for my brother now?"
[The Death of Abel by Gustave Doré]
1000 times YES!
At first it sounds as if Cain is trying to ditch his responsibility for his brother. But after rereading the text I believe the writers of Genesis were trying to tell us something about the relationship between the Divine and mankind. God did not give any reason for showing favoritism towards Abel's offering while disregarding Cain's. And when Cain became angry God asked him to cool it as if he were teaching him a lesson.
God: "Sometimes I'm gonna pick on you (mankind) and you're gonna have to learn how to master your emotions. I may send storms to destroy your homes and famine to kill everything and everyone you love, but you must seek control over yourself."
God takes the role of the teacher even though he shares in the responsibility of causing Cain to become angry. Yet Cain cries out against this injustice in an interesting Jewish Midrash (click on the link and scroll down to the section on Multiple Interpretations). In it, Cain blames God for not protecting Abel and for creating mankind with this evil inclination. God also blames himself for creating man with this evil inclination before the events of the flood (Genesis 6:5-6) and regrets for being too hard on humanity for His mistake, regrettably, only after the mass genocide and destruction of the flood (Genesis 8:20-21). To Traditional Christians, this evil inclination originated with the Original Sin of Adam and Eve and not from God. Armstrong interprets the text as stating that mankind was created with an instinct for life and creativity. The 6th day when God proclaimed that his work was very good was the same day that he created this evil inclination in humanity.
And behold it was very good. This is the evil impulse. Is the evil impulse good? Yet were it not for the evil impulse no man would build a home, nor marry a wife, nor beget children, nor engage in trade. Solomon said, "All labor and all excelling in work is a man's rivalry with his neighbor." (Genesis Rabbah Ecclesiastes 4:4)
So when Cain responded with his seemingly sarcastic response he was defending himself, and humanity, for only being human. Yet, this does not let Cain off the hook. I don't know Hebrew, but I have Google. Cain's response in Hebrew:
Lo yadati , I do not know.
Ha-shomer achi anochi? Am I my brother’s keeper?
Shomer in Hebrew translates as guard, keeper, or watchman.
Even though Cain blames God for causing him to become angry and for creating him, and the rest of humanity, with this evil inclination Cain is also to blame for not guarding his brother from himself, a fallible man. Cain represents humanity as it struggles to guard itself from itself AND from God. God may have created us with an evil ticker, making God an accomplice to evil, but in the end the choice to commit or not to commit evil falls squarely on us. We are to watch and guard each other from every evil regardless of the origin, espescially when it originates from within ourselves. We can blame God and Satan all we want but if we allow our inner demons (hatred, prejudice, greed, etc.) to cause harm to our fellow man then we deserve mass genocide by the hands of God. But we can be better than that for we are born with the ability to love and hate. Which will you choose? Hatred has no boundaries so why should we limit our love? We should love the rich and the poor, the clothed and the unclothed, the friend and the stranger, the hetero and homosexual, the saint and the sinner. If we pick and choose whom to guard, whom to love, then we have failed, and deserve to be wiped off the face of the planet. I am no saint either. I pick and choose just like everyone else, but I strive and struggle to move beyond my inner boundaries, introduced to me in my childhood, to a natural state of love. So when I read Cain's question "Am I my brother's keeper?" I see it as a cry of injustice to all of life's woes. How do we help one another when we're all caught in the same struggle? Well, simply by understanding that we are ALL caught in the same struggle, so let us choose to struggle together.
Thursday, August 27, 2009
Peace and blessings.
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
[Cover of Illustrated Stories From The Bible by Paul Farrell]
How then do we reconcile the good stories with the bad? And what does this tell us about God? Would God really cause innocents to suffer just to further His Will?
I have not read Illustrated Stories From The Bible by Paul Farrell, an agnostic, who brings up a challenging point just by looking at the cover: we pick and choose certain tales to tell our children. Let's take a look at the tale of Elisha and the two She Bears (illustrated on the cover) found in 2 Kings 2:23-25:
23 From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some youths came out of the town and jeered at him. "Go on up, you baldhead!" they said. "Go on up, you baldhead!" 24 He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the LORD. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the youths. 25 And he went on to Mount Carmel and from there returned to Samaria.This IS horrifying! Elisha calls down a curse in the name of God and two bears maul 42 of the youths. So I believe a question worth asking is why would God send bears to kill these kids (or youths, but kids make it sound a bit more shocking)? [Click here and here to read a couple interesting views on the text.] Notice, I'm not asking why God allowed this to happen because terrible things happen everyday without divine intervention. The interpretation by Traditional Christians would be something along the lines of "Don't mess with God and His prophets, EVER!" Talk about a loving God who doesn't use fear tactics. How would a child interpret this story? Would they believe that if they're bad that God would send something awful after them? This may be a reason why Christians sugarcoat certain parts of the Bible during Sunday school.
Although I don't know what the authors originally intended by including this story (other than "Don't mess with God") I agree with David Kerr over at Lingamish that the bear attack was purely coincidental and that we, the readers, made the connection between the bear attack and God being sore about the name-calling. 2 Kings ends with Nebuchadnezzar taking God's Chosen people into captivity and burning down the house of the Lord. You would think that God would be pretty peeved for burning down His house and send a whole army of bears after Nebuchadnezzar.
Let's go back to our main question: why would God send bears to kill these kids?
I believe that if God is a bloodthirsty, violent character who demands worship then 1) this story would fit in perfectly with his character and 2) we're all in a whole heap of trouble. A God who uses fear to encourage His creation to Love him is not an image of a loving God no matter how you try to cram the two different views of God into one Almighty. It just doesn't work. I'm sure other Christians would claim that I'm taking the portions of the Bible that makes God look bad (and there are quite a few) out of context without looking at the Big Picture. This doesn't get us anywhere because I can say the same thing about how Traditional Christians portray God by focusing on the stories that only show God's goodness while ignoring the troubling ones. If God's Character is indeed found in the Bible then we must look at ALL of the texts, both the good and the bad.
I do not think that stories like these reflect a God of Love and tell us more about mankind then they do about God. Is it not possible that these are just stories and not literal history? Is it not possible that the authors of the Old Testament penned myths and legends from oral tradition that speak about how they viewed Reality? If we read scripture literally then we are trapped making excuses for all of God's bad behavior. When read spiritually we can learn and delve into fathoms of knowledge of our inner most selves, the human experience, and the reality we call God.
Monday, August 24, 2009
[Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, By Gustave Doré, 1855]This is a 3 part response to Don's three posts on what it means to be a Christian in Exile, what Jesus means to an Exile, and the never ending journey as a Christian in Exile. Please read these before moving on.
In Don's first two posts, Are You in Exile? and As an Exile...What to do with Jesus?, Don brought up the identity of exiled Christians and a new vision of Christ. In his third post, I am a Believer in Exile, Don introduces the issues and challenges of living as an exile. Two very important issues he touches on in his series are self-identity and group identity as exiles. All Christians that are dissatisfied with Traditional Christianity may be labeled as an exile, but as each individual has their unique spiritual paths how then do we avoid the pitfalls of establishing rigid borders of faith as a community of believers?
I have found a few movements (as well as broad terminology) that offer alternative perspectives and communities to that of Traditional Christianity which may help those in exile:Emerging Church, Liberal Christianity, Post-Modern Christianity, Christian pantheism (and panentheism), and not to forget Unitarian Universalism just to name a few. Although terms like Liberal and Post-Modern Christianity may be interchangeable each have their own theological views and issues. But the one theme I have found running through all of these is the focus on spiritual growth and a questioning of the boundaries set in stone by Traditional Christianity.
I am not trying to demonize Christianity nor am I attempting to reform it (I'm no Luther), I am just trying to make sense of my own religious identity. If there were to be any reform within Christianity it will be done slowly and painfully if ever. (I have yet to finish reading the Complete Idiot's Guide to the Reformation.) Yet I believe the only way forward for those exiled would be to form new communities (i.e. denominations) because mankind is a tribal creature and we naturally yearn to be in groups especially when it comes to matters of the Spirit. I find it distressing at times that I have no community I can call my own, but I also find it extremely liberating that I am not bound by the boundaries set forth by a community. It is like standing in an Oklahoman field, a Christian standing on Christianity's frontier, where my spirituality can grow without borders. Some would say this is dangerous and will lead me down the wrong path, but how can I fail with Christ as my compass, my guide?
As I stated in the previous post my spirituality is a never ending journey toward the heart of the Spirit. My beliefs, theology, and thoughts on the divine might be completely different a year or even six months from now. I believe as long as I am moving towards being an imitation of love and compassion I am headed in the right direction. My beliefs and theology won't matter anymore once I reach that point BECAUSE all of my searching, questing, and learning is meant to lead me to a summit of love. Once I'm there, I can look back upon the trail I took and see exactly where I fell and how I could have avoided it, but it won't matter anymore because I would already be There. Now it sounds like I've already contradicted myself. How can I be There while also traveling on a never ending journey? Being There is a state of being, but reaching this state of being is not a state of human perfection. No, I will then struggle to maintain it BECAUSE of my humanity. The struggle itself is the journey, like Jacob, we must struggle with both God and Man. The struggle with God (or the Spirit) is not a fight against God but a struggle to understand our own spirituality, the divine within ourselves. The struggle with Man is not a fight against mankind but a struggle with our own ego, the demons of our humanity. Somewhere between both struggles we may find our true identity and become what we are meant to become.
Christians in Exile Blog Series:
Part 1- New Beginings
Part 2- Ille qui nos omnes servabit
Part 3 - The Never Ending Journey
You can also read all three back to back, here.
Friday, August 21, 2009
[Screenshot from the Season 5 finale of Lost.]
This is a 3 part response to Don's three posts on what it means to be a Christian in Exile, what Jesus means to an Exile, and the never ending journey as a Christian in Exile. Please read these before moving on.
Only within the last few hundred years have we begun to discover alternative interpretations of Jesus' message, life, and teachings which have been overshadowed by the towering statuesque institution of the church. So what will guide this new vision of Christianity? Ille qui nos omnes servabit. The title of this post is Latin for "he who will save (or protect) us all". The phrase is taken from the Season 5 finale of Lost as the response to the one question that has been burning through the minds of fans since the question was first asked: "What lies in the shadow of the statue?" I am a HUGE Lost fan, and if I had more time on my hands I'd probably be a fanatic. So what does this have to do with Christians in Exile? Probably not much, except as an excuse to mention my eternal love for Lost. I'm not going to analyze the show's symbolism or explain what the smoke monster is (although, like most Lost fans, I have my theories) since there are more experienced bloggers on the web that do a much better job than I ever would (click here for a list of my favorite sites). The Season 5 finale was filled with so much religious symbolism that I couldn't help but notice parallels to the topic of exiled Christians: a displaced people (in space but not time), the tension between the forces that displaced them, and He who will save them all.
In Christians in Exile, Don pointed out the dissatisfaction exiled Christians have of the traditional beliefs set and defended by the church. In the second post, As An Exile…What to do with Jesus, Don explains a new interpretation of Jesus for an exiled people, those dissatisfied with traditional Christianity. Jesus Christ is the focal point of every form of Christianity (that I know of) regardless how each sect interprets him and his teachings. But is an interpretation of the life and teachings of Christ outside of the traditional interpretation still seen as Christian? I believe that depends entirely on the communal identity of the religious group. The beliefs of the group are what sets the boundaries of their identity. Yet within Christianity all groups can agree that there is a spirit of Love and Compassion that must be included within each individual group's identity to be accepted as Christian by other denominations. For example, a white supremacist group (or a hate group of some other form) may proclaim that they are Christian yet the spirit of the group is not one of Love and Compassion but of outright hated and bigotry. I believe that a religious group can meet two basic requirements and be labeled Christian: following Christ message and teachings, and internalizing the same spirit of Love and Compassion found within that message.
I believe Jesus to be an imitatio dei - an imitation of God, who is an example of God's central quality, compassion. This vision of Jesus does not have him die for our sins as a perfect sacrifice because this would envision a God of Judgement instead of a God of Compassion, a God that demands sacrifice (human sacrifice!) to atone for the sins and mistakes of a fallible race. I believe Jesus brought salvation to humanity by revealing to us our highest potential of becoming loving, compassionate people. Don summed up the relationship between Jesus, God, and the exiled Christian with the following statement.
Being a follower of Jesus does not require me to make literalized creedal affirmations about him or about the theistic God who supposedly invaded our world and lived among us in the person of Jesus. Neither does being a follower require that I literally believe all things spoken about him in the New Testament. It only requires me to be impowered by him to do as he did, imitating the presence of God in him by: living fully, loving wastefully, and having the courage to be all that God created me to be. It doesn’t mean that I have to turn away from life, to shun life, to make contact with the holy, because the holy is within me. It does mean that my contact with God is shown by the degree to which I can give my life, my love, and my being away to others.What I seek is to increase that degree in which I can "give my life, my love, and my being away to others." It is this seeking through Jesus that makes me a Christians, but seeking outside of the traditional church that makes me an exile.
These new visions of Christianity and Jesus I believe have enriched my spirituality and have broken the barriers erected during my childhood. These new visions may not work for anyone else but they work for me. I believe it doesn't matter HOW you interpret Jesus as long as it leads you to becoming a better person. Traditional Christianity just doesn't work for ME anymore, but that doesn't mean that it is wrong nor does it mean it is an outdated system which needs to be tossed out. Traditional Christianity brings hope, strength and love to billions of people on the planet, and I hope it sticks around for another 2000 years. Yet I have outgrown this system because my spirituality is not a destination I seek but a never ending journey I travel. As my spirituality grows the borders of my beliefs may change but my foundations of Love and Compassion will always stay the same because we share the same guide, Traditional and Exiled Christians, who will guide us back to God: Ille qui nos omnes servabit.
Christians in Exile Blog Series:
Part 1- New Beginnings
Part 2- Ille qui nos omnes servabit
Part 3 - The Never Ending Journey
Or, you can read all three back-to-back, here.
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
[Emperor Cyrus the Great of Peria allowing The Hebrews to Return to the Holy Land, Jean Fouquet, 1470]
This is a 3 part response to Don's three posts on what it means to be a Christian in Exile, what Jesus means to an Exile, and the never ending journey as a Christian in Exile. Please read these before moving on.
Moving away from traditional protestant Christianity was a slowly evolving process for me. It began innocently when I realized that there were other traditions, sayings, and teachings of Jesus Christ in other faiths, especially Islam, where I began (To read my struggle between Christianity and Islam, click here.) a study on the three monotheistic faiths. That is when I realized the struggle humanity has endured in attempting to describe the indescribable. It was through this realization and the fact that humans are fallible that I came to fully understand that no single faith (let alone one denomination) has all the answers nor can have an accurate and complete description of God.
Everywhere I turned I found different words, symbols attempting to describe a Presence, a Spirit, something beneath and behind our various veils of reality. For awhile I had labeled myself a non-Christian. In fact I didn't know what to call myself other than a monotheist since those within Christianity (friends, family, etc.) would not accept me as one of their own. I strayed from the faith and found myself outside its gates. This was when I realized that my religious identity as a Christian is not validated by others but by my spiritual journey. I now view myself as a Christian standing on Christianity's frontier, a Christian in exile.
I don't think I can ever find the appropriate words to describe my departure from Christianity without offending someone, nevertheless my journey beyond the borders of Christianity began as a pull towards something greater as I found the church teachings lacking. There were corners of my spirituality that traditional Christianity failed to illuminate: the unjust system of punishment and reward (traditional views of Heaven and Hell), the literal reading of spiritual texts, and the extreme exclusivity of all other beliefs, just to name a few. I realized that questioning these elements within the church would only lead to dead ends, and in some cases caused those I questioned to retaliate by questioning my faithfulness in God. I reflected on my faith in God ("Had I lost faith, or was I questioning the borders that define that faith?"), and further down the rabbit hole I went.
I felt that my faith in God, my spirituality, must be based on something more than recited beliefs I've been raised to believe. It must be grounded in something that binds humanity despite all of our differences, and those foundation stones to my spirituality are called compassion and love. All other components within my spirituality are just expressions of my foundation: prayer, theology, beliefs, etc. If compassion and love is equated with this Ground of Being (See Don's post for further explanation) how then do we learn what is truly loving and compassionate despite our fallible nature? We turn to those throughout history that have best understood and have became physical manifestations of what it means to live a loving and compassionate life. As a Christian, I believe that Jesus is my main example, compass, and guide in best understanding this Ground of Being but he is not my only example.
Don's title alone, Christians in Exile, had me thinking about the Jewish Exile to Babylon, the present-day Jewish diaspora, and the continuous creative reinvention and reinterpretation of the Jewish faith before I completed the article. Are Christians going through a religious exile like the Jews? As membership in churches across all denominations in the U.S. begin to dwindle are we approaching the cusp of a creative reinvention and reinterpretation of the Christian faith? Can we still be considered Christian as we sing this "new song to a new vision of God"? I do not know the answers to these questions yet, but I am glad I have fellow travelers along this journey so that we may seek out these answers together.
Christians in Exile Blog Series:
Part 1- New Beginnings
Part 2- Ille qui nos omnes servabit
Part 3 - The Never Ending Journey
Or, you can read all three back-to-back, here.
Monday, August 17, 2009
We do not love God because He is perfect. We do not love Him because He protects us from all the harm and keeps evil things from happening to us. We do not love Him because we are afraid of Him, or because He will hurt us if we turn our back on Him. We love Him because He is God, because He is the author of all the beauty and the order around us, the source of our strength and the hope and courage within us, and of other people's strength and hope and courage with which we are helped in our time of need. We love Him because He is the best part of ourselves and of the world. That is what it means to love. Love is not the admiration of perfection, but the acceptance of an imperfect person with all his imperfections, because loving and accepting him makes us better and stronger.
Friday, August 14, 2009
"Yet this strong emphasis on grace got transformed into a new system of conventional wisdom, not only in my own mind but, I think, in the minds of many Lutheran, and many Christians generally. The emphasis was placed upon faith rather than grace, and faith insidiously became the new requirement. Faith (most often understood as belief) is what God required, and by a lack of faith/belief one risked the peril of eternal punishment. The requirement of faith brought with it all of the anxiety and self-preoccupation that mark life in the world of conventional wisdom. Was one's faith/belief real enough, strong enough? Thus, for many of us latter-day Lutherans, the system of conventional wisdom remained. Only the content of the requirement had changed- from good works to faith." (Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, pg.79)
When did faith become the requirement for salvation in Christianity? A more challenging question may be why must we be judged in the first place? I believe this is tied to our perception of God as either Judge and Lawgiver or Gracious and Compassionate. Within Christianity the two are blended into one almighty that is both Judge and Compassionate. We will be graciously spared IF we follow his commands and ONLY AFTER we believe. But what if we can't believe, reason that it is a waste of time or foolish to believe? Must these unbelievers be punished just because they can't pass the litmus test of belief?
How is this gracious or compassionate? I can not believe that God would torture unbelievers in the afterlife for their inability to believe nor their choosing the wrong belief. Nor can I believe that the very same God who gave us Free Will would make such a choiceless request: "Believe or else..." How is there any freedom of choice when one of the choices is eternal damnation? Harold Kushner in his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People explains that Free Will allows us to be human. Without choices we would be like animals who follow instinct and do not make as many decisions as humans do. The biggest decision an animal might make would be choosing a fruit from a particular tree. Yet this is also guided by their senses which is driven by instinct.
This is why I do not believe in the Stick and Carrot theology of a judging God. By being offered the choice between life and death the obvious and only choice for all mankind would be life. This does not mean there is not an actual heaven or hell, although I do not believe that these places physically exist. I can not validate the existence of an afterlife anymore than anyone else can. There may be a Heaven and a Hell but my issue lies with the system of punishment and reward dished out by a God who allowed us (or created us) broken in the first place. If this were the case then God is an Unjust God. Neither the system nor this God as Judge exist in my eyes, but do not confuse this with Atheism or Agnosticism. I believe in God although I can not describe what God is. All I can say is what God can not be IF God is a loving and compassionate God.
So what does this have to do with faith? I am unable to comprehend that a loving and compassionate God would hold ANY requirements for us to share in that love (I define this sharing as salvation, being in the presence of infinite Love). Maybe I'm defining Love wrong, or maybe I'm defining God wrong. I do not know. What I do know is that if God is Love then why must we be judged and sentenced according to our beliefs? Does that mean that my inability to comprehend that God as Judge and Lawgiver would automatically sentence me to hell? Well, if it does then we're all in a lot of trouble. I hope that no one has found my words offensive since that is not my intention. I intend only to question, even if what I am questioning is considered sacred, so that I may grow in my spiritual journey.
Wednesday, August 12, 2009
As I've stated many times before, if I believe in anything with every ounce of my being it is that man is capable of making mistakes. With this humble approach to our fallibility how then do we reconcile the view that the infallible and inerrant Bible was penned, edited, arranged, and transmitted by the hand of Man? Should we even try to reconcile these two points or simply look at our freshly assembled Bible with new eyes?
I have noticed two main views when it comes to the Bible's transmission throughout history presented now in a crude graph. (Click to enlarge the image)
- From Divine Inspiration to our modern Protestant Bible (the Catholic Bible is a whole other can of worms), God has guided the transmission of the Bible throughout history to it's Inerrant, and Infallible state
- From Divine Inspiration to the present day the Bible has been through countless of human hands for it to be completely free of error. It has errors that the church must examine and deal with as a community.
The first view is governed by the belief that regardless of man's attempts in assembling the Bible (which was no easy task) God guided the entire process which resulted in an inerrant and infallible Bible. I believe it is alright to believe this as long the only version you read is the King James Bible. Once you crack open an NIV or any other versions/translations that has updated the KJV by removing erroneous texts you run into questions that challenge the view of an infallible and inerrant Bible. We have thousands of examples of scribal/copyist error so either we can
- Ignore ALL of these and accept that God has indeed protected the Bible or
- We can accept that God has not protected the Bible from error and we can begin examining these texts for the best and most reliable witnesses (manuscripts).
Bible Written by Man
The second view is governed by the history of the Bible itself: a long history of men battling over the Word of God. I believe that Divine inspiration was (and is) possible but how that inspiration was passed on through written words from generation to generations is what is continuously being challenged in the field of textual criticism. How close we can get to the original words is the goal, not diluting the spiritual importance and beauty of the Bible itself. The Bible can still be viewed as a source of spiritual strength and truth, when read spiritually, while also holding that fallible man had a part in its assembly. Just because the Bible was put together by man does NOT reduce its worth. As long as it guides us to God then we should keep it in our hearts. As long as I keep compassion, which I believe is the central quality of the Divine, as my compass then I can read the Bible without being trapped by it. Passages like 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 can be better understood as an interpolation, a result of the church wrestling with its beliefs and traditions on women than an outright Pauline command to keep women in their place within the early church. I can not believe that a compassionate God would give commands based on gender on the teaching of scripture. To me, this is an example where men have interjected with their own ideas while proclaiming they came from the lips of God.
We should not despair in the fact that the Bible was written by man but raise our voices in praise. It has been a source of inspiration and hope to millions throughout history and is one of the most widely read and highly praised books of all time. We should not bicker over the origins of this valuable gem but instead focus our energy and eyes on the progression of the human condition. What can a book written centuries ago help us to solve 21st century issues? There are only a handful of verses on homosexuality, should we really turn to the Bible when debating such controversial topics? With a humble understanding on the origins and history of this revered book I can no longer see it as a "Cure-all" text for issues and problems in my life. Again, this does not dilute its worth. It is a source of inspiration chronicling the outpouring of the human spirit. As it is then a human creation (although I do accept there was Divine inspiration) we must not put it on a pedestal so high that we are unable to reinterpret it with 21st century eyes. If there are verses that lack compassion then we must always seek to be compassionate even though our ancestors thought otherwise. In seeking God through scripture, we must surpass the words and deeds of history and transform ourselves into that which those very words beg us to become: imitatio dei, Being compassionate as our Father (God/Brahman/Allah/Yahweh) is compassionate. Even if God throughout the various religions lacks compassion, then we must strive to surpass God him/her/itself in compassion. Then we might discover a glimpse into the true image of God.
Blog Series: Some Assembly Required
Part 1: Some Assembly Required
Part 2: The Best and Worst Intentions
Monday, August 10, 2009
[Abraham Sacrificing Isaac, Laurent de LaHire, 1650]
Genesis Ch. 22 starts off with God testing his servant, Abraham, who tells no one of this test and even Isaac is left in the dark when he asks about the lamb for the burnt offering. Abraham places his son on top of the altar, takes out his knife to kill his son when he is suddenly stopped by the Divine. The Lord provides a ram for sacrifice instead and blesses Abraham after passing the test of faith showing that he feared God. The original story is viewed as a test of Abraham's faithfulness to God and reinterpreted by Christians as a foreshadowing of the perfect sacrifice, Jesus Christ. But what about poor Isaac?
It is not until after Isaac and Ishmael bury their father that the writers of Genesis actually let Isaac speak again. Who's faith was actually tested on Mount Moriah, Abraham's or Isaac's? Even though Genesis references Isaac as Abraham's only son he still had Ishmael (whom the Lord also blessed). If God had let Abraham actually sacrifice Isaac, which ironically would have been a much stronger foreshadowing of God offering his only Son than the the original story, Abraham would still have descendants through Ishmael. Even though Abraham would have lost a son, Isaac would have lost his life. Furthermore, in Ch. 21 God promised Abraham that it is through Isaac's descendants that he will be blessed. The early Christian church responded through the writer of Hebrews that Abraham had faith that God would resurrect Isaac if he had been sacrificed (Hebrews 11:17-19). So if anyone's faith was being tested on that day, I believe it was Isaac's!
Armstrong brings up the fact that Isaac doesn't say a word after the events on Mount Moriah and in the very next chapter we learn of Sarah's death. Did Isaac run off after almost being sacrificed? (There are some Jewish traditions in the Midrash that speculate that Isaac did indeed run off to see his brother after the events on Mount Moriah, unfortunately I can not find them.) Abraham returning home to inform Sarah that God wanted him to sacrifice her baby boy would have been a tremendous shock to any mother, especially if Isaac did not return home with his father (Genesis 22:19). Of course this is all speculation, but we don't learn about Isaac's whereabouts until the end of chapter 24 where he was living near Beer-lahai-roi (Hagar's Well) and later settles in the Negeb (south of Judah). Where was Isaac during his parents' deaths? We can only speculate, but the point is that he moved away sometime after the disturbing event on Mount Moriah and later moved back before the introduction of Rebecca. Armstrong also points out that God is also referenced as "The Fear of Isaac" (Genesis 31:42,53). Most people would say this is a holy fear of God instead of an outright terror, but I agree with Armstrong that even though Isaac had survived Mount Moriah that he might have been scarred for life because of the event.
Ms. Armstrong concludes the chapter on Isaac by readdressing and reinterpreting God's test on Abraham's and Isaac's faith.
"Perhaps God wanted Abraham to argue with him on Mount Moriah, as he had argued for the people of Sodom. Or perhaps, seeing the consequences inflicted by his "test" upon Isaac, God came to realize that too relentless a faith can lead to fanaticism and to a lack of humanity that has permanent and damaging effects upon others." (Armstrong, Pg. 73)Maybe God's true test on Abraham was not a matter of following his directions blindly but to test his humanity. (Or maybe Abraham was testing God's morality by forcing him to stop the sacrifice, click here) Maybe God wanted to know if Abraham still had a conscious and would stand up against injustice as he did for the people of Sodom. Abraham was bold enough to defend innocent strangers in a sinful city from God's wrath, so why not strike at the heart by having him sacrifice his son? Abraham is then torn between his two loves: his love for God, and his love for his son. Maybe Abraham thought that if he did not follow God's command he would take away any promise of descendants, maybe he believed that since God gave him Ishmael and Isaac then God would grant him another son as long as he was faithful. But at what price? Would you blindly follow the command of God even if it meant compromising your humanity to do an unjust act as killing another human being?
Maybe the lesson is that we should never forget our humanity nor lose compassion for our fellow man even if we are commanded to do so, for this blind faith may lead us down the heartless path of fanaticism. I don't believe in a God who would sadistically test mankind to sacrifice their own children, but the one I do believe in is the loving and compassionate God who is found throughout all faiths, buried beneath imagery, symbols, and anthropomorphic attributes. The true compassionate God of Abraham is the God who stopped the knife.
Friday, August 7, 2009
[Gas Mask Jesus by Jackace]
There is no doubt that the majority of Christians are indeed careful of who and what they come in daily contact. There is nothing wrong with being careful but why fear outside influence? Are we (and I'm including myself although mainline Christians would not) so weak in our faith that we might catch a "spiritual disease" from a Buddhist, or even begin doubting God if we talk with an Atheist? I believe the fears are legitimate when seen from within the Christian community: anything alien that enters into our gates that is "not of Christ" may cause disharmony. Take a step back and those fears look a bit xenophobic when seen by someone outside of the Christian community. Christians speak of loving their fellow man as long as they don't get too close: loving them at arms length with a Bible in one hand and Germex hand sanitizer in the other. But not all influence is bad. Zachery Karabell's Peace Be Upon You: Fourteen Centuries of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish Conflict and Cooperation is a great book on the historical relationships and influences between the three monotheistic faiths. History tends to focus on the conflict and what surprised me the most is that not only did these three faiths live harmoniously (as humanly possible) at times, they flourished while influencing each other enormously.
Let's face it, if we hang out with the wrong crowd we're gonna get influenced. I guess the opposite is true for me. Even though I live in the Bible Belt (right next to the buckle) and I'm surrounded by Bible believing Christians I somehow slipped through the cracks and became, to them, an unbeliever. I never hung out with anyone of a different faith, (I have met a Muslim and asked him a few questions he couldn't answer, and my professor is Jewish) just good old, church going Christians. I explain to them I am a Christian even though my views on Christ, the Bible, and God differ from theirs, yet I am still considered lost to them. If I were to move a few hundred miles north I might find a Christian community that holds the same beliefs as I do. So, which community of Christians are truly following Christ? The community itself decides the extent of their borders: whether something is clean or unclean, worldly or Christian, right or wrong. One community/denomination/individual may privately state that the other ones are misguided on their path to God, but we have no way of determining the validity of those statements. We have no way of viewing our theology and warring doctrine from God's perspective. We have the Bible, God's Word, yet it is interpreted with human eyes and human mind. And this is why each community determines for itself where they belong among other communities, what they believe, and how they act. This develops a communal personality that is shared between the members of that community. When someone dies, everyone mourns. When a mother gives birth, everyone cheers. Like members in a choir they sing in unity.
Good and bad influence may come from outside AND inside the community. Yet, it is still the interpretation of the community (and even the individual), not God, that decides the extent of their borders in regards to God's Will. It is fear of division, disharmony, and disease that causes those within the community to keep firm to tradition. This causes stagnation which some may label a "dead church". I am not saying that every church must drastically change their beliefs and traditions (their borders) to keep the community healthy, but continuously challenging those beliefs may lead to growth and progress. Man is a fallible creature and the descendants of a community should not pay the price of stagnation for the beliefs carved in stone by its founders. If not, then black men and women of African descent would still not be able to participate in Temple ordinances that is necessary for the highest degree of salvation within the LDS Church. In 1978, they got rid of a racist doctrine that the founding fathers of the LDS church put in place. I'm sure that there were those within the LDS church that found this to be a "bad influence" and that the secularist ideals of racial equality would poison their long held beliefs and tradition. Yet, progress at any speed is still progress.
In the last 3 years of studying other religions I have come to find that we have more in common between faiths than we think. There are huge differences, but there is no need to fear the differences when we share core values. Outside influence is ALWAYS bad if you're firm that you're beliefs are 110% irrefutable facts while ignoring your own mortal fallibility. I believe that we can learn from other faiths and grow spiritually on our personal journeys. We each define our own borders and we each decide the components of our spirituality. We are not helplessly doomed to Atheism if we are surrounded by Atheists nor are we changed by their presence. We may say that God defines the borders of our faith but even then it is our own interpretation of God's Will that governs over the community we join, the beliefs we hold, and the way we behave.
I hope to always question my beliefs thereby allowing myself to never succumb to a stagnate faith. I do not fear other religions because they are different, I love them because they envision the Divine in ways I may never have know solely within Christianity. If I am influenced by other faiths, I hope to always be influenced towards compassion. I do not try to reconcile the differences between the different faiths but seek out the common denominator between all of us. What we share in common is stronger than the differences that keep us apart.
May peace and blessing be upon you all.
Wednesday, August 5, 2009
[Though odd, comical, and completely unrelated, as far as I've researched this was a serious picture that was posted on the Dinosaur entry on Conservpedia and has since been taken down. Read more about Dinosaur riding Jesus here. There is another picture floating around the internet of Jesus riding a Dinosaur that is fake and meant to mock creationists.]
The Land Before Time is a moving film and has always been a favorite of mine and my sister while we were growing up. It is an inspiring film which teaches young children the value of courage during hardship, the importance of friendship, and tackles the issue of prejudices.
While trekking towards the Great Valley, Littlefoot's mother is fatally injured by a Sharptooth (T-Rex) attack. Littlefoot, distraught at the loss of his mother, encounters Rooter, an aging Sauropelta, who appears briefly in the film to comfort him over his loss. Here is the film script.
- Rooter: Hey! What's going on here?
- [Littlefoot cries]
- Rooter: What's your problem? You're not hurt.
- Littlefoot: It's not fair! She should have known better! That Sharptooth... It's all her fault!...
- Rooter: All who's fault?
- Littlefoot: Mother's!
- Rooter: Oh... I see. I see.
- Littlefoot: Why'd I wander so far from home...?
- Rooter: Oh, it's not your fault. It's not your mother's fault. Now, you pay attention to old Rooter: it is nobody's fault. The Great Circle of Life has begun, but, you see, not all of us arrive together at the end.
- Littlefoot: What am I gonna do? I miss her so much.
- Rooter: And you'll always miss her. But she'll always be with you, as long as you remember the things she taught you. You'll never really be apart, for you're still a part of each other.
- Littlefoot: My tummy hurts.
- Rooter: Well, that, too, will go in time, little fella. Only in time.
Rooter: It is nobody's fault.
No one (not even higher powers) caused Littlefoot to lose his mother. It is nobody's fault. This is one of the most powerful lines in the film which addresses the loss of a loved one to young children who often seek to blame themselves (or others) for deaths, divorce, or parental abandonment. In a tender period in their lives it is comforting to know that when someone close dies, it is nobody's fault, not even God's. These things just happen.
Rooter: The Great Circle of Life has begun, but, you see, not all of us arrive together at the end.
Here is where we get into the nitty gritty. This can be interpreted as a water down explanation of the Monotheistic afterlife but the phrase Circle of Life implies that those who pass on will return maybe even in a different form, but return none the less as if caught in a circle. The Circle of Life was popularized by the 1994 Disney animated film, The Lion King. In essence, the Circle of Life describes the interconnectedness of all life and that the Spirit shared by all living beings stays intact even after the death of the physical body. This is a Pantheistic (and even Panentheistic) concept which I have found best described in Hindu terminology: there is but one spirit/reality (Brahman), and all that exists has this spirit deep within themselves. Conscious creatures like ourselves can seek out and uncover this universal, cosmic spirit by peeling back the layers of our ego to reveal our Atman, our True Self. Our individual bodies may die away but our core is still intact. Eventually, when we fully realize our true state (according to this belief) we break free from the circle, moksha. There is no 'end' in a circle so one could say that Rooter is describing Pantheism (or Panentheism, although I have yet to fully study the differences between the two). You can even go so far to say that Rooter is a Pantheist, but of course I'm sure the film makers were trying for more of a comfort instead of a spiritual scene.
Rooter: You'll never really be apart, for you're still a part of each other.
Another line that restates that they share the same source (Brahman) but their egos keep them from fully realizing that they are a part of each other. Of course this could all be rubbish and I'm probably making a big deal of out of nothing but I love analyzing religion in film and tv.
The theme of life from death (the circle of Life) is best illustrated in my favorite film of all time, The Fountain, Darren Aronofsky's 2006 sci-fi film about one man's quest to save the woman he loves. I wrote a paper analyzing the spiritual and religious symbolism on the film for my Religion in Popular Media class. It can be found in three parts, here. I plan on writing a new updated version that correlates with my current views.
Although poor old Rooter had a tiny part in the Land Before Time, his comforting words echo throughout the film. No matter what Littlefoot and his friends had to endure they never had to endure alone. This I believe is the heart of the film: though life may be tough at times, there will always be someone there to guide and comfort you.
Sunday, August 2, 2009
I happen to stumble upon a very interesting methodology for theological reflection recently that arose from within the Methodist movement, the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. In a nutshell, the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, credited to John Wesley, was used to form his views on theology and is a method that can be used by any faith to form their own views of theology. John Wesley used these four sources to come to his theological conclusion:
- Scripture - the Holy Bible (Old and New Testaments)
- Tradition - the two millennia history of the Christian Church
- Reason - rational thinking and sensible interpretation
- Experience - a Christian's personal and communal journey in Christ
I believe that by tweaking this method one can easily see where, how, and what their theology is based upon by moving through the four sources. For example, a Muslim would use the Qu'ran as their scripture, the Hadith, a school of jurisprudence, and Islamic history as their tradition, their personal reasoning, and their personal experience as a Muslim. Rather quickly one can see that scripture and tradition are both external sources which are counterbalanced by the internal sources of reason and experience. But, where I differ from the mainstream view of Christianity is that I view ALL four sources as originating from the fallible hands, lips, and mind of man. In each of the four categories are hundreds, maybe even thousands, of possible avenues that can be taken which results in a diverse array of beliefs. The core concept that we must remember is that each of the four categories must first be examined, and later accepted or rejected, by the human mind.
John Wesley saw the Holy Bible as the ONLY source of Truth and used Tradition, Reason, and Experience as different lens to reveal and decode truth so that it may be implemented into our daily walk with Christ. Atheists on the other hand might use Reason as their source and use evidence (scripture), scientific method and community (tradition), and their personal experiences as an Atheist ( Ex. The fact that Atheist can be just as moral as Christians, or even more so, can be used as a personal experiences to support their reasoning for being an Atheist). Insert Belief System here and you can see how that system is accepted or rejected by the individual. One individual can not (although they sure try!) say to another that they have the wrong belief because each person may be using a different lens to peer into the Divine. They might not see what you see even after you explain it to them for a variety of reasons. We may share the same faith but our beliefs and experiences found on our individual journeys are as unique as fingerprints.
I believe there are Universal Truths but as humans we are unable to express it in human words although some of us may come to personally experience it firsthand. Our diversity in describing the Divine should not hinder us from sitting at the same table as our brothers. Jesus walked, talked, and ate with the impurest people in regards to the Jewish purity system of his day. So why is it so difficult for us to even accept that our brother's faith (a sin) is different from ours? Growing up in the Christian church I heard that we are to love the sinner but hate the sin. I do not regard diversity of faith as a sin but as creative human outlet which seeks in expressing and defining the Infinite.