Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Jesus Retires

If I had more time or talent I would make a YouTube out of this or a cartoon or something. But here is a little script I wrote:

TV: (Play by play of baseball game. Fade this volume out as characters begin to speak. Props such as a ball, glove and bat for sound effects as well as a couple people imitating crowd noise could add to the scene.)

Jesus (watching a baseball game in an easy chair)

Mary (walking by, cleaning): Aren’t you supposed to be working today?

Jesus: This is work (picks up a stack of paper and slaps it down)

Mary: It sure doesn’t look like it.

Jesus: Mother, please, I have 10,000 people praying for a home run and 12,000 praying for a strike, not to mention a few dozen praying no one will get hurt and that one Methodist who just wants everybody to do their best. I have to figure out how to make this all look like they have free will but still need all my love and power.

Mary: Well okay, but don’t forget your father had plans today.

Jesus: What is Joseph up to now, he is not my real father you know.

Mary: Of course I know, he reminds me of how he got left out of the gospels almost every day. I mean God’s plan.

Jesus: Oh, right, now what?

Mary: He is still trying to work in adoption. He started that “Adoption, it’s part of God’s plan” campaign before he had all the details worked out and people are getting a little antsy waiting for some results.

Jesus: Why is this my problem? I go down there, tell them to think for themselves, I wrap it all up with “it is finished1”, and they are still looking up in the sky for answers.

Mary: You told them think for themselves? I don’t remember that.

Jesus: Well, not exactly, Aramaic is so difficult and then Mark goes and writes in Greek... I said, “laws are for man2” or something like that, isn’t that clear?

Mary: Yes, well, the “man” part didn’t have much foresight, you could have at least mentioned your mother. Anyway, you also said you came to fulfill the law, not to change it3.

Jesus: As soon as someone figures out exactly which laws I was talking about, I’ll fulfill them. I’m pretty sure they won’t. Why do you think they say, “God works in mysterious ways”?

Mary: You also said you came with a sword4.

Jesus: That was allegory. It was about how change tends to tear families and communities apart. Who couldn’t get that? When Peter went to pull out a real sword, I told him to put it away5. How much more clear can I get?

Mary: Then why did you tell him to go get the sword in the first place6?

Jesus: There was a lot of ad-libbing while we were doing that scene, I can’t explain everything. Ya know, maybe I should just retire.

Mary: You can do that?

Jesus: Sure, the Father hasn’t been needed for ages, all the vanquishing is long done.  He’s just symbolic. And now the Holy Ghost is everywhere, flowers, baby’s cries, Muppet movies. The whole thing pretty much runs itself.

Mary: What about the game? (points to TV)

Jesus: If I choose which prayers to answer, we’d either have every batter hitting 1,000 or every pitcher pitching a perfect game. There wouldn’t be a game7.

Mary: What about the end of times?

Jesus: I still can’t figure out how Revelations got in there. The Greeks don’t use it, that’s why they get to be called “Orthodox”. Let them explain it to everyone else.

Mary: We have to leave them with some instructions.

Jesus: It’s all in the book. Or one of the millions of other books that have been written in the last 2,000 years. Look, Paul clearly said, “base the law on love8”, we’ll start that ad campaign and people will adopt out of compassion for their fellow human beings. They’ll be fine.

TV: (Slowly raise the volume of the announcer.)

Mary: Huh, okay, skooch over. (joins Jesus on the couch, grabs some snacks) Who’s playing?

Jesus: (Insert your favorite teams and scenario here. )

Mary: I never really understood bunting, why just tap it like that when you could hit it way out in that big grassy area.

Jesus: The outfield, right, well, it isn’t always that easy, you never know what is going to happen with each pitch, that’s what makes it so fun…..

1 John 19:28-30
2 Mark 2:27 to Mark 3:5
3 Matthew 5:17-20
4 Matthew 10:34-42
5 Luke 22:47-53
6 Luke 22:36-38
7 David James Duncan
9 Romans 13:8-10

Sunday, December 25, 2011


Ralph Waldo was a minister who had disagreements with doctrine and became a secular minister. He traveled across America in the mid 19th century "preaching" on manners, politics and literature. His words are as relevant today as they were then.

It is time that this ill-supported murmur of all thoughtful men against the famine of our churches... should be  heard through the sleep of indolence, and over the din of routine... 
The stationariness of religion: the assumption that the age of inspiration is past, that the Bible is closed; the fear of degrading the character of Jesus by representing him as a man; indicate with sufficient clearness the falsehood of our theology. It is the office of a true teacher to show us that God is, not was; that He speaketh, not spake. The true Christianity - a faith like Christs' in the infinitude of man, - is lost... 
Let me admonish you, first of all, to go alone; to refuse the good models, even those most sacred in the imagination of men, and dare to love God without mediator or veil... 
Yourself a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost, - cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint men at first hand with Deity... Look to it first and only... that fashion custom, authority, pleasure, and money are nothing to you, - are not bandages over your eyes, that you cannot see, - but live with the privilege of the immeasurable mind. 

Thursday, December 22, 2011


Stories, like the one in this link, sometimes get passed around as emails, sometimes appear on science vs. religion web sites, or sometimes actual people try them out. They are pretty crazy, but if you haven’t thought about them much, they can almost sound plausible.

It is a made up story where a student outsmarts a professor, but I would like to cover what would most likely happen in real life. This may be elementary for some, but hopefully a good exercise for others. I’ll even skip the part about the professor taking an attitude that he knows everything and his students are just empty vessels that need his wisdom. Certainly there are professors like that, just as there are priests like that. Fortunately, either one of them leaning into a student’s face and challenging them is becoming more and more rare.

The first argument that silences the professor and the class would not stump even the most elementary of philosophers. Terms such as “cold” are abstractions. If you want to get scientific about it, hot and cold are properties that are expressions of temperature. The OTHER STUDENT is right, “cold” is not really a scientific term. Temperature is relative. Cold to a person is hot to a polar bear. None of that matters. If the student has demonstrated anything, it is that some words are abstractions. I’m sure the philosopher would agree that “god” is a word that expresses something that is difficult to express. The same goes for the terms “light” and “dark”.

The next argument is at least two arguments meshed together and that mixing of arguments continues from here on. The OTHER STUDENT claims the professor is working on the premise of duality. What he then describes is actually a logical fallacy called a false dichotomy. The professor is somewhat guilty of that. A false dichotomy presents two options, God exists or he doesn’t, demonstrates one of those is false, or can’t be proven, and concludes the other must be true. This leaves out the possibility of any other options or of either option being partially true. Philosophy professors love playing with these possibilities, so it is unlikely one would act like the one in this story.

Before discussing any of this, the OTHER STUDENT has already moved on to using a lack of scientific knowledge as proof. Specifically, science has yet to map a thought, or even understand exactly what one is. That only proves that we don’t know everything. To leap from there to believing that there is a powerful being behind creation is no argument at all. That form of argument is called “the argument from ignorance”, when faced with a lack of knowledge, make something up that is simple and easy to digest and claim that it is true. He then tries another abstraction about “life” and “death”.

Without taking a breath, he moves on to immorality and fires a couple more abstractions. In the story this puts the PROFESSOR on his heels, in reality the PROFESSOR would be thinking, “abstraction, abstraction, abstraction”. He would also be thinking about how “good” and “evil” can’t be used as properties in the same way that “hot” and “cold” are. But thinking he has the PROFESSOR in a corner, he pulls out the Bible. He needs it, because he is entering another area that science has not figured out, free will. He will need an authority to support anything he says about that and Biblical teaching relies on free will extensively. The OTHER STUDENT tries to use his “some things only exist as the absence of some other thing” argument and say the existence of immorality proves God’s existence, but this is so unbelievably flawed, that he needs to throw in a new question before the PROFESSOR can respond. In a classroom, or just about anywhere, that would be addressed.

Instead, the OTHER STUDENT is allowed to go on with more questions about whether or not evolution has ever been observed. It of course has been observed. One of the first accounts is by Aristotle who noticed hair color being passed on from one generation to the next. Darwin used the long observed practice of breeding dogs for desired traits as part of his research. Since Darwin, more and more transitional species have been observed in the fossil record. Darwin could not explain a mechanism, but Watson and Crick did. Since then observations of DNA have demonstrated how evolution occurs. High School students breed fruit flies in test tubes and observe the traits being passed on from generation to generation. The OTHER STUDENT apparently requires seeing something like a monkey begin to talk, as in the latest installment of the Planet of Apes series, as the only possible evidence for evolution. This discussion never happens in the story because the PROFESSOR is turning red and making sucking sounds through his teeth.

As an aside, humans did not evolve from the monkeys that we see in zoos today. Both of us evolved from a common ancestor a few hundred million years ago, some little furry butted thing that might have looked like a lemur. It is actually worse than monkeys. Before the lemur, we were fish and before that we were vegetables.

This leads to the crescendo, where the OTHER STUDENT proclaims, “SCIENCE IS FLAWED”. His final proof, a good joke that a 4th grade boy might be able to pull off on his little brother, but would never get past a PROFESSOR. The idea that the PROFESSOR has no brain because no one has ever observed it. Instead of teaching children that these kinds of jokes can be used as serious arguments in a university setting, we should be teaching them how we know things. It is this very flaw in arguing that leads to millions of dollars being invested in museums that show people in robes and sandals running around with dinosaurs.

We begin with our five senses, but we need a lot more than that to fully understand the universe. When Galileo extended our ability to see, he figured out that some of the lights in the sky were planets and we could finally fully understand why they moved the way they did. When we figured that things fit patterns that could be explained with formulas, we also figured out that those formulas could help explain things that we couldn’t observe directly. Epistemology is really pretty interesting, something you might learn at a university. Or just look it up.

Just as a simple example, here’s how we know the PROFESSOR has a brain. First we rely somewhat on the authorities. Just a few hundred years ago, people still accepted that Aristotle was right, and the brain was there to cool the blood. Emotions came from the heart or the gut, thoughts came from the soul. Now we point to our heads when we say “think” and little children pick this up and never question that it is the center of our nervous system. We accept that everyone needs a brain to remain an upright, walking, talking person. The PROFESSOR does not appear to be a robot, a hologram, a figment of our imagination or anything other than a real person. We accept that the university had some sort of process to determine that he was intelligent enough to teach the class. All of this would require a brain. So, barring any far fetched notions and implausible scenarios, he has one. If as a philosophy student, you want to argue that is not 100% positive proof, that’s fine, and exactly what philosophy is all about. As a proof that science is flawed, it is a misunderstanding of science.

Even if all of the other arguments of the OTHER STUDENT were accepted as sound, in the end, he has only proved that the existence of God cannot be disproved. Some scientists would argue that when enough evidence has been examined, a lack of evidence constitutes proof. We don’t really need to go there. We can at least say that there is not enough evidence to constitute a valid theory of God. Assuming we agree on the understanding of what a valid theory is. I’ll leave that for later.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Banned Questions VI

The final installment of my responses to some of the questions in Banned Question about the Bible by Christian Piatt. I know this hasn’t been my most exciting blog series, but it gave me a chance to comment on some new areas. The stack of books I’m getting for Christmas should prove to be more interesting.

Why would an all-knowing God begin the process of creation knowing that it would be corrupted by evil and lead to so much heartache?

Joshua Einshon tells a story of hearing the answer to this question in 9th grade. I can understand why the answer worked for him at that young age, but not as an adult. The answer is “free-will”. That is, God could have made a bunch of “wind up dolls”, but he didn’t. This answer is quite a bit more sick if you realize that this also means that God created us in a way that leaves us unsure if we should choose Him. It just leads you right back to the original question. Joshua restates the choice, saying it is between being loving to each other or not, which is really irrelevant to God’s existence. We do have that choice and that would seem to me to make the case that there is no God and we have to figure this out for ourselves.

This question contains within it a few theological questions that anyone who believes that they believe should consider. Is God all-knowing? What is time to God? Did he know the consequences of his creation? Why would he do it if knew it would turn out as it has? If He could give us more information to make an informed choice about Him, why wouldn’t He? What purpose could be served by leaving that choice up to His creation?

Why are there so many completely different interpretations?
This question goes unanswered in my opinion. I suppose because the obvious answer is that people throughout history have used the Bible to mean whatever it serves them to mean. The Bible does not provide answers that can be tested, or provide logical explanations. It chronicles a history of changing norms. Interpretations change depending on your knowledge of the author or the time of the writing. Leaving out some of that context, or making some up can easily alter what the text seems to mean.

This quote is typical, “The result of these multiple interpretations of passages is precisely why there is so much division among Christians and Jews – all of whom base their faith on the same text.” It is a logical fallacy, in that it states the reason as the explanation. It is similar to saying, “Ronald Reagan was the great communicator because he gave great speeches.”

Why are (or were) the Jewish people God’s chosen people? Why not someone else? Are Christians now God’s chosen people?
This is just a silly question and I only comment on it for comic relief. The Bible or any religion is about justifying yourself and your friends as the chosen ones. I’ll give Brandon Gilvin a little credit for having a discussion of the changing theism throughout the Bible, from Elohim to YHWH and the eventual switch to monotheism. But the more humorous statement comes from Christian Piatt,
“It’s no real surprise that those who wrote these scriptures down also are the ones chosen by God in the stories. The fact that men wrote the texts down probably had a similar effect in placing males at the top of the social pyramid.”

There is nothing in the surrounding text that gave me the sense that this was tongue-in-cheek. I know it doesn’t help, but the only response I have to this is, “Ya think!!?”

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Banned Questions V

My continuation of comments and additional answers to the questions in “Banned Questions about the Bible”, a book by Christian Piatt.

Banned Questions IV

I skipped this one earlier but then thought it worth addressing:

In the Old Testament, God seems to be actively involved in world events. In the New Testament, God is portrayed as less interventionist but still directly involved. Now, it seems God is much more abstract. What happened, and is this a good or a bad thing?

Gary Peluos-Verdend completely confuses you with “it is important that we understand the interaction of god’s agency with human agency”. Jarrod McKenna goes quite a bit further, suggesting the question is easy. He dismisses any theology that would say god is elsewhere or that god is everything. He says God is the redeemer. I won’t try to explain that, but he tries by using a series of other words that theologians pretend have meaning like “web of creation”, Trinity, Incarnation, “heal the brokenness” and grace. This is all almost completely useless.

In an earlier time, a “banned question” would get you a smack on the back of the head, or time cleaning the pews. Now, it gets you a string of words that sound like they are important, and will keep busy if you want to find out what a bunch of people think they mean. In the end, you will find out that someone a long time ago started using these words, and since then, people have argued about what they might have meant.

Where are all the miracles?

This question has one of the stranger quotes in one of the answers. There is a brief discussion about televangelists and faith healers, then, “Perhaps we don’t see or hear about more miracles because too many Christians have made us too cynical. When we put God to the test in prayer, it may put undue pressure on everybody. “

This is really twisted. It avoids the question and tries to deflect the reader into loosening up their rational thought process. What pressure does it put on anybody to test whether or not prayer works? Since when is praying a test for God?

Christian Piatt has some nice words about the miracle of birth and the little, everyday miracles, but he also says, “There may have been a time when people miraculously received sight, walked on water, or came back from the dead.”

This is dangerous thinking. Either we can demonstrate that miracles happen or not. If we can demonstrate that they are currently not possible, then they were not possible in the past. By some definitions, miracles go against what we can prove to be possible, so if one was claimed to have happened in the past, the only way to disprove it is to have been there and have collected evidence. This sets up non-falisifiability and is as worthless as my claiming that there is a pink dragon in my garage, unless you go look, because he goes away when you look.

Modern Christians attempt to reconcile the modern world with the worlds of Jesus and Moses by creating a world that has physical laws that have changed over time. If that were true, science would not work.

Are there any mistakes in the Bible?

This question has been central to the de-conversion of many since the Enlightenment. Many people still focus on this. If you come from a community that claims there are no mistakes, but then you find some, I can understand that it would be important. Many sects have dealt with this by modernizing the notions of God’s word and revelation, as does this book. Finding books or websites that discuss the known discrepancies is not too difficult these days but unfortunately many people will still not find these until later in life and continue to be surprised by them.

David J. Lose starts out with an important distinction that anyone looking to the Bible for truth should consider. That people didn’t think in terms of facts the same way we do now. In a Marcus Borg’s Heart of Christianity, he says, “ the pre-modern meanings of English words believe and believing and Latin word credo very different from what believing has come to mean in our time.” Credo “does not mean ‘I hereby agree to the literal-factual truth of the following statements.’ Rather its Latin roots combine to mean ‘I give my heart to.” The word itself is possibly related to French term cri de couer (cry of my heart)- meaning "a passionate belief that comes from the heart...Given the pre-modern meaning of ‘believe,’ to believe in God is to belove God.” (39-41)

They don’t include Borg’s book in their references, but in this brief answer, David does gives you a decent way of approaching the Bible. The rest is pretty much repeats of earlier commentary about the Bible being “inspired” instead of inerrant. Great for discussion with a fundamentalist, but elementary to someone who has already dealt with that question.

In some cases, Paul (the purported author of many New Testament books) seems to support women in leadership roles in church, and in others, he says, they have no place. Which is it? Any why the seeming contradiction?

Becky Garrison scores big again with this answer. Although others in this book have given passing references to translation problems, changing doctrine, unknown authorship and understanding historical context, Becky applies that knowledge skillfully to this answer. She addresses women covering their heads and suggests this was done because others in the Roman Empire were doing it, and a small persecuted religious sect probably should be pragmatic and not draw attention to itself. The stronger statement about women being submissive in Ephesians, was probably edited in later, according to scholars, says Becky. She ends with this whopper:

“As the church became more closely aligned with empire, it began to tone down some its more radical teachings, such as the full equality of all in Christ.”

I wish she had more time to develop that thesis.

David J. Lose reiterates some of what Becky says, and makes an interesting comment about how the New Testament chronicles the splits that may have been occurring in the early leaders. The Letter to Timothy, sometimes attribute to Paul but more likely came later, constrains gender equality. This pattern of splitting of doctrines soon after the death of the original authors can be seen in other major religions, such as the Sunni/Shia split for Muslims and the North/South split of Buddhism. Rather than diminish religion and expose it as a farce, these patterns of cultures dealing with values bring color to history and give us an opportunity to reopen the conversations. I find it much more interesting than trying to guess how Paul would have voted on the Equal Rights Amendment.

All 4 answers take a strong stand that Paul was following an egalitarian message of Jesus and the statements that clearly state otherwise were probably added later by a male dominated world. This is the clearest stand like this that I have seen in this book so far.

Who gets to decide which laws in the Bible are irrefutable, which laws are out of date, and which laws should be applied only in certain situations?

This is the essence of the problem with religion. People who think they know the answer to this question and ignore any actual laws of their government when they enforce what they believe is God’s law. Or more often, just tell you what they think you are doing wrong. Fortunately, the answers are light hearted and admit that no one should be deciding this, only attempting to understand it. Nadia Bolz-Weber sums it up best. She says she would like to just know the rules and then follow them, but, “To do this is to effectively leave Jesus idling in his van on the corner as though to say to him, ‘If we know what to do to be saved, we’ll just do that rather than rely on you’.”

Monday, November 28, 2011

Thay is not special

Thich Nhat Hanh is one of those people who should be more famous. I’m not sure I can blame the American media for this. It seems to be his choice. I have mentioned him before. Recently he has discovered social networking and begun to put his talks on the Internet. After following this link, you can click on the “Plum Village Online Monastery” and find lots more. This link is not representative. I wanted to talk about one of his answers to the children’s questions.

First, who is he? He has been a Buddhist monk since 1949. In the 1960’s he worked to rebuild bombed villages in Vietnam. He travelled to the U.S. and urged the government to get out of his country. He influenced Martin Luther King, Jr. as heard in something else that should be more famous, his speech at Riverside Church. I won’t attempt to explain his theology. As with any theology it contains its own vocabulary and symbolism that can seem circular in short summaries.

What happens in the link video explains enough. These are questions from children who have just completed a retreat on his teachings. The giggles and gasps are typical when children ask their innocent but also unfiltered and direct questions of the master. I really like his practice of having questioners take a few breaths first and again after the question is asked. Such a relief from the news and talk shows of the West or even casual conversation where we expect instant answers and brief but well thought out statements.

The third questioner (about 25 minutes in) is a bit reluctant as kids often are and he has to be translated through a whisper to his mother as well as across the language barrier. He has just had some training and education and was probably told that it would make him wiser or smarter. He is asking about just what was it that he learned. What is it that makes him so smart and so wise.

Thich Nhat Hahn almost appears stumped, but this is his usual slow and thoughtful way of responding. In the answer he refers to himself in the third person, using a nickname form of his name. The answer is “…nothing special, Thay has no special talent.” And, “…if you want to practice, then you can do it.” The compassion in his face as he looks in the boy’s eyes demonstrates his sincerity. The laughter shows a bit of relief from the audience when Thay says, “Thank you! Good question!”

The next question, “Why do we have homework?” is the perfect ice breaker after that, and Hahn, “This question is too difficult for Thay. I will have my brother answer it.”

While looking for this video, I found another blog that has a similar answer from the Dalai Lama. I couldn’t find anything like this from the three major monotheisms.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Occupy the gospel

What’s up with that “occupy” thing?

I’ve kinda avoided current events on my blog, but if I feel up to commenting on the history of everything, why not include history in the making too? A recent OnBeing got me thinking in that direction, although that turned out to be mislabeled. It was good, it just didn’t talk much about “Occupy”.

So, if you read the above CNN article, or even if you didn’t, you have probably heard that the movement is criticized for a lack of focus, there is no leader, no symbol. Many of them have responded that this is their strategy. And it might be working. The symbol that is emerging is of innocent peaceful people being sprayed in the face with pepper spray. There is much outrage about this, but wasn’t it expected? The police are responding in a very traditional way to what may be a new way of organizing.

Let’s examine some of those traditions.

Create a mythology. Whether purposeful or not, great story tellers, leaders and writers have built cultures around them that have survived beyond their lifetimes. Whatever really happened to get them started gets lost in history and later generations defend what they believe happened because they so love the story. The story speaks to them, so it must be true.

Attack the symbol. Storm the Bastille or dump tea in the harbor. Take the thing that is the symbol of your enemy and turn it into your symbol.

Peacefully and strategically make a symbol. Rosa Parks was not the first woman to refuse to give up her bus seat to a white person, and she didn’t do it just because she was tired one day. There were people working in basements and churches before Martin Luther King Jr. came along, looking for just the right personality to take that action. They had newsletters, organizers and lawyers ready to popularize that incident and defend her in court.

Social media and instant news cycles have helped bring revolution to parts of the world that without it, may have remained under dictatorships, or ended up in much bloodier revolutions. These new communication systems have also affected how these strategies work.

We have been attacking our current leaders and their images for decades now, and when we tire of that we go back and rip the reputation of Thomas Jefferson and Christopher Columbus. History doesn’t get “lost” so easy these days. Mythology relies on a lack of information. Police and security forces have grown in strength and improved strategies and some parts of the media support anything they do, so acts of violent civil disobedience are not only difficult, they can come with a lot of backlash. Any strategizing is heavily scrutinized and often mischaracterized in the public debate. The battle can be lost in that arena.

The question is, is the strategy of not creating a symbol, a strategy or a mythology that can be attacked, working? Those are normally the things that give a movement fuel. The anger and frustration with a variety of structural problems are usually just recruiting tools. Only a couple months into the movement, maybe recruiting is all that needs to be done. If the opposition keeps responding in a traditional fashion, there will be plenty to be angry about and recruitment should be easy. But most youth have to go through this anyway. At some point they realize the world is not the well organized place they learned about in High School civics and there are bad people, and worse, people who appear good but do bad things. I’m glad an image of me facing that realization half a lifetime ago is not permanently archived on YouTube.

Besides slogans and speeches, leaders should also be supplying information. They had a library in Zuccotti Park, hopefully some people have had a chance to come into contact with authors and ideas that they were not exposed to by their teachers.

A frequent mistake I have seen leaders make is to not seek the counsel of other leaders. In a leaderless organization, a lot of people need to be seeking that counsel. Time will tell if old mistakes are repeated, but so far I see a focus on the non-corporeal corporations instead of a certain generation, a certain dress code, ethnicity or background. This is an improvement.

Leaders also act as a storehouse of ideas. Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders of that movement shared bits of speeches, quotes from philosophers and scripture they were using and weaved those bits in as they were speaking. Take a look at the “I Have a Dream” speech. It starts out fairly dry and the crowd is not responding. Watch his eyes and the eyes of people near him as they notice this. He starts to weave in the “dream” and the crowd responds and he crescendos with bits from the Constitution, the Bible and America the Beautiful.

Perhaps the greatest lesson coming out of recent events is that we all should be asking ourselves what we are going to do instead of analyzing what happened and asking “Occupy” what they are going to do next. Waiting for a leader to show up has not gone well. We might have to limp along for a while, giving each other counsel, sharing ideas with each other.

What will you be doing?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

New Thought

The “New Thought” movement is actually over 150 years old. That’s the trouble with naming a movement. But this one is not about any particular set of thoughts that were once described as new, it has something to do with pointing your mind in new directions. Things like this used to fascinate me. I can see how, at the time they were developed, they might have seemed like a viable alternative to scientific thought that was just developing and sometimes failing. Since then, it has had to be repackaged and renamed to avoid criticism.

The forgotten name behind much of the thought of New Thought is Phineas Quimby.

Using his ideas of mind over matter, he treated Mary Baker Eddy, who went on to found Christian Science that is still going strong and still publishes the respected news magazine, the Christian Science Monitor. More recently, Norman Vincent Peale used some of the doctrine, mixed with Christianity and the psychology of Freud and Jung.

Since then it has crept back into popular use as a form of Christianity called “prosperity gospel”, often found in suburban mega-churches. Estimates of 17% of Christians believe in these ideas. The idea is that Christ wants to give you health and wealth, you just need to believe in him, and of course give 10% of what you have to your church. If that doesn’t suit you, there are books like “The Secret” or other “Law of Attraction” programs. You can find this idea of suspending reason and directing reality using your own thoughts mixed in with Buddhism, quantum physics or Mayan prophecies.

When trying to tease this apart, you can find some things that seem to map onto personal experience and seem to have merit and they kinda do. People do get stuck in ruts based on their thinking. You can read what Southern plantation owners said about their slaves, about how lazy they were, how they appeared to have no ambition, no self-motivation and it was only the whippings that got them to do anything. Even if you talked to one of those slaves, you would have trouble knowing how much of that is true. After years of conditioning, being told you are lazy, given no opportunities to better yourself, people will come to think of themselves as worthless. The slave system relied on this.

Slaves had to maintain the dual thinking required to see themselves as free human beings and still act subservient for the master to avoid punishment. Some of them were not able to do that. But how that affected their actions does not prove that our thoughts can change reality. Attempting to act on those thoughts of freedom led to death for many or the loss of a foot or a hand. It took efforts by slaves and people who could choose to own slaves or not to finally end slavery. Sometimes your circumstances really do suck and there is not much you can do about it.

Further evidence of this can be seen in the behavior of American slaves when they were declared free near the end of the Civil War. They immediately began to educate their children, fight for getting land that they had worked and to run for Congress. Reports of the “Sambo” mentality have since been shown to be greatly exaggerated. It took years of political maneuvering and terrorism by the Ku Klux Klan to restore the power relationship of whites over blacks.

Stopping your thinking is not the answer. That is more along the lines of what Quimby was suggesting. I’m suggesting that a lot of thought has been done about what “thought” is over the last 200 years and we can benefit from it. We have moved far beyond these philosophies and to continue to treat them as if they are useful puts us into the same kind of rut that they claim to be rescuing us from.

Any of these systems, Christian, New Age or otherwise, whether claiming divine intervention or that they are based on the thoughts of ancient philosophers, ultimately rely on making a leap from an effect to claiming their system is the cause. If the desired effect is not achieved the reason given is that the individual did not use the system properly. And that’s putting it nicely. Phrases that are spoken with an intention of being helpful have the opposite affect. Phrases like “you need to have more faith”, or “you just have to want it bad enough” or “buy my latest book”.

Thanks to the guys at Reasonable Doubts for the inspiration for this week’s blog and to Howard Zinn for some help with history.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Banned Questions IV

More questions from the book by Christian Piatt with my comments. Some of the questions start to get repetitious, different ways of addressing the “literal meaning” question and others. Some are just not worth addressing. Even in one of the answers to the question about secret codes embedded in the Bible, he says it is not worth it. So, I’m skipping a few. Some are just disgusting, like the ones about the devil or Abraham and Isaac.

Link back to the first of this series

How to read the Bible?

The first answer is not bad, suggesting what not to do, but once again devolves into revelatory language. One guy points out that he came from a church that read the Bible to support their racist and classist position. He agrees with St. Augustine that any interpretation that isn’t about loving God and your neighbor is wrong. That leaves a lot of passages about God ordering killing unexplained, but it is better than that church he used to go to.

Thank goodness for Joshua Toulouse, he said there is no right way. That is the right answer to most of these questions. He also says that different translations can dramatically change the meaning of what you read. I haven’t heard that said enough in this book.

How do we reconcile the two different “creation stories”?

They got another one right.

The answers do more to explain the difference and tell why they are different and how attempting to reconcile them as if the Bible is a science book is the wrong approach. Brandon Gilvin does something very rare and points out that the God in the Bible is not the “Unmoved Mover” of Aristiotle or the God character usually portrayed in Western philosophy. The Bible grew out of an area near Egypt and is very much influenced by the East. It has God as a character in relationship with human characters. This doesn’t address “scriptural basis”, but it is an answer that gives the reader a way to look at the stories that they probably haven’t considered.

Does God justify violence in scripture?

Brandon Gilvin gives the only possible right answer. “Human beings wrote the stories in the Bible and an invisible, divine hand did not direct them.” They… “were struggling to make sense of how God was present in their histories.” He talks of how the Bible has been used to justify violence and says, “these are abusive readings.” He suggests “reading it with the knowledge that those who came before us struggled with the way to find God in every detail of their lives and histories and sometimes got it wrong.” (my underline)

What is dangerous about saying that of course is that it opens up the question of anything else in the Bible also being wrong. Even some of the good sounding things might not be good at all, or at least not really helpful. Gary Peluso-Verdend describes the dilemma that is created when you decide that the Bible is the direct word of God. You can’t get around the justifications of violence and you have to create a theology to explain it. If instead you decide that at least sometimes the Bible is written by men to justify what they do or have done, then you can answer “no” to this question. The world will be better off when more people do that.

Why is the gospel of John so different?

Is this question really banned? If I were a Bible student and asked this question of my teacher and they told me not to ask questions like that, I would be highly suspicious of what they were trying to cover up. This book doesn’t, and we are now up to 3 good answers out of 21.

To understand the gospels, you need to understand the audience they were written for. It also helps to know that scholars assume there was a source document that came before them that has been lost, usually referred to as Quell. Mark came first and is more of a simply telling of events. Matthew adds the birth narrative and others. Luke brings in more angels because he was writing to Romans who would have liked that. John came much later and was probably writing to Jews that had left the Jewish community because of the debates about who Jesus was. It spends a lot of time justifying that he is indeed the Jewish messiah, beginning with the first verses that puts him at the right hand of God before the world was created. These answers cover all of that and give excellent sources.

What about all the terms for hell?

These answers are helpful in that they sort out much of the confusion about the afterlife and how it is mentioned in the Bible and that it changed through time. Gehenna, a garbage dump in Jerusalem is explained a couple times and that would take care of several misinterpreted uses of it. In most Bibles this gets interpreted as the word “hell” which comes with meanings that were added on by the Greek ideas of Hades later as well as later authors such as Dante.

What the answers avoid are Jesus’ references to being thrown into eternal flames and separating the wheat from the chaff. This is common practice for theologians and unfortunate that it occurs here.

If I don’t believe every word of the Bible is literally true, how do I know what to consider in context and what to set aside?

This is the real question isn’t it? But once again, banned questions are treated as if they are banned. One answer directly chides the question for suggesting that anyone would “set aside” part of the Bible. Another suggests that it just “made sense” to view God as a warrior in the past. Everyone agrees to focus on Christ, but says nothing about what that means, or what you do with the contradictory pictures of him. They do recommend finding a community that you trust and using study Bibles and the internet for help with context. Not bad advice, but sorely incomplete.

The step that this book is not willing to take is to look at the Bible from outside of the Christian narrative that was fully developed after Constantine. That is, the Fall, the Exodus, exile and reconciliation through the Resurrection. Any attempt to make sense of that narrative is going to require logical gymnastics and leaps of faith. To make one of those choices will involve more of a feeling of comfort with a community than historical analysis. For any of those to work, you need to suspend the idea that a man wrote the story for a reason that suited him at that time and accept it as a revealed truth that ties the other stories together.

A few simple guidelines that I use;

  1. 1. Jesus often starts a parable with , “it is as if”. You’ll need to know a little about interpreting parables to understand what follows. For example it is usually the last character of a group that holds the lesson.
  2. 2. Language interpretation can be critical, as we found out in the question about hell and homosexuality. The Bible itself doesn’t contain clues that tell you when a word is misinterpreted. For critical passages, look at a couple different Bibles, if there are differences, find out why. This is easy to do at
  3. 3. There is no way to prove that a miracle from the Bible actually happened or that prophecies were fulfilled or will be fulfilled. Any source that tries to do this should be suspect and I would recommend finding another source.
  4. 4. If you want to jump right in, at least find a basic timeline. One that shows not only what the dates in the Bible say about what happened, but what historians say about when the books were actually written and by whom. There are controversies, but some useful items to note are that there might have been two authors claiming to be Paul the apostle. The gospel of John was probably not written by someone who knew Jesus. No historical evidence has been found for Moses or a large tribe of people wondering the desert for 40 years. It is more likely that Judaism developed out of existing communities in the Levant rather than as a legacy of Abraham. A little research on these questions first will help.
  5. 5. Historical context is key. Including knowing a little bit about the Sumerians and their gods and how the creation story in Genesis might have been a reaction to them. Influence from the Greeks to the West and from Eastern religions is also key, but be sure to use peer reviewed sources. There are some wild claims about mushroom gods, Jesus travelling to India and influences from Egypt.

Was Mary Magdalene a prostitute?

At least one answer tells you the name of the person and century when this idea was first spit out. That is really the important part of this question. This is not in the Bible, it was passed along as gospel for centuries, and still is. Anyone who says it doesn’t really care about what the Bible is trying to say. That covers a lot of people throughout history.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Banned Questions III

Interesting little book by Christian Piatt I found recently with some more liberal answers to old questions that are usually considered taboo. The further I get along in it, the more disappointed I am. I would love to hear your thoughts on these questions, or responses to what I have to say. Comments can be left at the bottom.

Link back to the first questions

Was the book of Revelation written in code? Or had the author gone crazy? Was he hallucinating? Were the images portrayed to be taken literally?

Becky starts out with possibly the only intelligent response to this question by saying the rapture theories are laughable. She addresses the very recent theology and particularly crazy ideas of John Nelson Darby and rightfully notes, “If you only focus on otherworldly things, then there is no point in working toward peace, social justice, the end of poverty and the like, on the basis that such projects are futile.” Most of the rest is useless, although Jason Boyett does mention that the symbolism would have been clear to a first-century reader and Craig Detweiler calls it a brilliant satire. If you read Revelations and see the stuff about giant bugs, I don’t know how you could think it is literal.

Why haven’t any new books been added to the Bible in almost two thousand years? Is there a chance any new books will ever be added? Why or why not?

This question says a lot about what the Bible is and how religions in general and Christianity specifically developed. The first answer just ignores this and says people wouldn’t accept a new miracle story. The second at least acknowledges that there were regular people who argued about what books belong. And the third that different sects still have different collections in their canons. Most of the rest is the type of answer you get when someone doesn’t like you asking questions like this.

The authors that are in the references for this and other questions have responses to this but no mention is made about that. This would have been a good time to bring up the Documentary Hypothesis, but they don’t. This hypothesis has developed over hundreds of years, by Christians, and although there are competing hypotheses, it holds keys to understanding where the Bible came from. It identifies 4 distinct styles of writing in the Old Testament and how they were edited and the history that shaped the stories. Friedman’s “Who Wrote the Bible” is the definitive source for that. John Shelby Spong’s “Jesus for the Non-Religious” is better for discussion of who wrote the New Testament.

Equally important would be some examination of the Council at Nicea. This was a pivotal point in history and a sea change for Christianity. It involved intriguing politics and maneuvering by the powerful people of the 4th century. This book, as with most Christian books, refers to the Council as if it were a friendly meeting of a few good Christians who just needed to iron out some details and get some ideas in writing. James Carroll’s “Constantine’s Sword” is a good reference for that.

The reason there have been no new books added to the Bible is that there are no new people claiming that they or someone fulfills a prophecy or continues with a lineage of someone in the Bible. Joseph Smith is the only one who has managed to pull it off in 2,000 years. He created Mormonism and that may be starting to unravel. Our relationship to writing has changed. We expect people to cite sources and have corroborating witnesses to events. That new books have not been added to the Bible should tell us what the Bible is, an ancient set of books that was created under very different circumstances than today.

Is it true that the Ten Commandments found in the Bible are almost a copy of the Code of Hammurabi, which has been around longer? Why not just include the Code of Hammurabi instead of having a whole new set of rules?

It’s nice that they are acknowledging that there were other similar lists of laws in ancient near east, but these answers don’t give us much. They mention the Ten Commandments appear twice but fail to mention there are differences in those two appearances. They say these laws indicate God cares about us, but provide little or no support that statement.

The Code of Hammurabi doesn’t tell us too much about the Bible, other than that the idea of listing laws existed before it did. Also the Code is not claimed to be divinely inspired. I guess that does tell us a lot.

Did God write the Bible? Is so, why didn’t God simply create it miraculously, rather than using so many people over thousands of years to write it down?

This is another atheist question and it is commendable to include it in any Christian book. If a manual for how to live peacefully suddenly appeared 3 to 10,000 years ago, a lot of suffering would have been avoided and that certainly would be some evidence for a divine being. Avoiding the question once again only makes it worse. If someone is asking this, either they already know that one answer is that the Bible is “inspired” but they don’t really accept that as much of an answer, or they are pretty well convinced that it is completely a human construct and are just giving you one more chance to address that.

One answer does say that the original words have been lost in translations and leaders “must become more honest about that.” This book seems to be that opportunity. Instead they dance around ideas about how God might communicate with us or inspire us, never noting that the Bible ends up looking like any other attempt to convey difficult thoughts about love, hope, loss, community, prejudice, poverty, corruption and forgiveness.

My comments under the “why no new books” questions apply here too.

Do Christians need to read the Old Testament? Why?

This book just gets more troubling as I go. The first answer claims the Bible is a continuous tapestry from creation to the end of time. Once again, banned question, traditional answer. I got a little excited in the second answer when Marcion was mentioned, but then he is branded a heretic.

Several statements are made about the OT being a foundation for the NT. I’ll take just one example. Rebecca Bowman Woods notes that Jesus said, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” on the cross and that those words come from Psalm 22, a traditional Jewish lament. I have heard this many times before, but never with any more reasoning than that. The reason there is no more reasoning, is that there is no more meaning. One writer wrote the words in a Psalm, a lot of people read them, then another writer used them. It is a literary structure, not a tapestry, it adds nothing to the meaning of Christ’s death.

Sure, you’re going to understand more about what is going on in the NT if you read the OT because the people in the NT read and lived the traditions from the OT. But the Bible rarely explains the traditions it just talks about them and includes assuming you know them. You need other sources to understand them. Some things will just be worse. For example Jesus talks about the laws of Moses, but then he breaks them. Some of that can be explained, some can’t but reading the OT will not help you to understand what laws of Moses are supposed to still apply or not. Biblical scholars have been arguing about that for centuries.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Who Wrote the Bible

I can’t really answer the question that is the title of this blog. This is actually a book review/summary. If you are curious about that question, this is a great source. It summarizes the work that has been done on this question since Joseph ben Eliezer Bonfils first asked, if Moses wrote the torah how did he write of his own death. And if it was written in his time, why would he say, “and so it has been to this day”? That sounds like someone writing about the distant past. And it explains why there are two creation stories. I get so tired of people pointing that out.

You can get most of this information by googling “Documentary Hypothesis” or “J,E,D,P”, those are the letters assigned to the four distinct styles of writing. Most interesting in this book is the introduction of the writer “R”, the redactor. He combined the earlier 4 and did his best to make them a coherent history.

If you want the traditional answers to who wrote what, there are plenty of websites for that too, and of course there is Timothy 3:16 that says the Bible is “god breathed”. Some have taken that to mean the entire Bible, every word, is perfect and inerrant and has survived all of the translations to come to you directly from the Almighty. A little further down the spectrum, some say it means God inspired the writers and imperfect humans since then have introduced some errors.

We will probably never know how people 2,400 years ago responded to the Bible that Ezra brought to Jerusalem from his exile in Babylon. Would they have been comfortable with two creation stories, two sets of the commandments, a God that wreaks vengeance and is merciful, mixed up stories of Noah and Goliath? By time it got that way, the kingdom of Israel had already risen and fallen and been conquered by Assyrians then Babylonians, so whatever records there were, were already lost. Story telling was holding the community together, then this new idea of writing down history came to be accepted.

This book only covers the Old Testament, and not even all of that. The New Testament is barely mentioned and the story of how the Christian Bible was canonized is more about politics than history. What I found most interesting about this book was the tracing of how people related to writing through the ages, including the last few hundred years as we have unraveled this mystery.

I should mention that this is a Christian book. The study known as “textual criticism” has been done by Christian scholars. Friedman does not question the facts of the stories of Moses or Joshua or even Abraham. He starts in the time when scribes already had collections of these stories and were copying them. He does not discuss scientific facts like the age of the earth or whether or not Noah’s flood actually happened. He assumes there was a time when these stories were passed on orally and they eventually came to be written down. On two or three occasions, he mentions in passing that these stories ultimately come from God, but he does not spend any more time on this and it does not detract from the interesting history, regardless of your religious bent.

By the time that we can start to identify who the scribes were, or at least what community they came from, there were already multiple versions of the foundational stories. In the Bible, and in other writings, there are references to existing libraries that have not yet been discovered, and may be gone forever. We can only speculate how people related to these early libraries, and how the stories changed during the time of the oral traditions. According to the scholars of the Documentary Hypothesis, we can find two distinct voices in the early chapters of Genesis, from two kingdoms that resulted from division of the one that David brought together. This tells us these authors were distinguishing their communities by creating unique versions of the stories that came from their shared ancestry.

Ancestry was important to these people. The author who claimed to be a descendant of Moses would highlight him and make commentary on the descendants of Aaron by making Aaron look bad in the story. The Aaronid descendants would do the opposite. When Kings or priests wanted to create new laws that benefited them, they would write new stories, but weave them into the old stories and demonstrate how these new ideas were predicted or anticipated by the ancestors.

This might have unintended consequences, as a promise from God that the sons of David would rule forever seemed to be broken when first the Northern kingdom was overrun by the Assyrians and later the Southern kingdom fell when King Josiah was killed by the Egyptians. To explain this, new authors returned to old writings and found the conditional promises made to Moses. God’s promise still held, but the people had failed to uphold the law, so they would have to wait for a future descendant to return to the throne, a messiah.

At this point, there is no “Bible”, only a bunch 0f separate scriptures.
With the kingdoms in ruins it gets even more difficult to trace the writings until, under Babylonian rule, Ezra arrives in Jerusalem with all of these stories and more combined into one “book”. With growing influence from Greece, the idea of writing as a way to preserve history had worked its way in and this book was accepted as just that. Copying, adding and translating continued and with the decline of the empires of that time even more was lost. The differences of the 12 tribes were no longer passed on culturally. There was just one version of Jewish history.

Many centuries later, with the invention of the printing press, the Bible became more widely read and with the Protestant Reformation, asking theological questions became safer. When investigations like this start however, it is not known how they will turn out. What if whole sections of the Bible were found to be forgeries? Could it be shown that the Bible was not “God breathed”? Picking apart scripture was seen as blasphemy by some.

Textual criticism was one of the primary motivations for the fundamentalist movement. Believing in miracles has always been a problem. All of the prophets chided their people for not having faith. Now historians and scientists were creating more reasons for doubt and they might even prove that previous miracles never happened. Christians had to decide what it meant to be Christian. Believing the miracles and believing the stories really happened, no matter what anybody else says, was going to be the definition. Again the consequences of this were unintended. It is doubtful that anyone predicted or wanted a Christianity that focused on one or two issues like abortion or gay rights.

As it turned out, Christianity has survived a tremendous amount of being picked apart. Questioning and discussing scripture has always been a Jewish tradition, so it has also fared well. Many now consider the Bible a mix of history and symbolism, which may be a return to how it was viewed before Ezra. Preachers and writers continue to attempt to use the old stories to legitimate their actions and predict the future, but with peer review and the elite class of scribes being replaced by a legion of bloggers, that is a difficult sell. Although they can find a national stage, those who make truth claims based on the Bible also receive national ridicule.

As Friedman points out, by combining these different authors, we ended up with a book that reflects the world we experience. Sometimes rules must be obeyed and justice is swift, other times they can be bent, authority can be wrestled with, and sometimes transgression is met with mercy. By honoring all of the traditions, even though the story is sometimes confused and contradictory, it came to be accepted as one coherent tradition.

Parents have to decide between justice or mercy every day and as nations we have to continue a similar debate. Religion is declining in some ways and in some places and growing in others. Any predictions of its future are tenuous. The discussion of when or whom we shalt kill, what we should eat and what goods we shall covet is obviously a long way from over.

Note ** Since this book was published, more archaeology has been done and more textual hypotheses have been introduced. As quoted in wikipedia, sorting them out is “not for the faint of heart.”

Monday, October 24, 2011

Thoughts on being accomodating

This is a great speech, actually 4 speeches. If you really have time on your hands listen to the whole hour. It covers some of the most important issues that any movement should know, or anyone wanting to forward an idea of any kind. Some of you may be familiar with the speakers, or at least one of them and be immediately turned off by it. Richard Dawkins wrote The God Delusion and speaks out often against religion. But here he talks about why it is important to take the tone that he does and why it is important to draw a line of decency.

In the segment preceding this one, Tom Melchiorre, talks about Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and how their works complimented each other. How the civil rights movement might have benefitted more from having both of them active rather than just one. Hopefully that intrigues you enough to watch that clip. He may be a little off in his historical analysis, but it still makes a good point.

If you dislike both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X then I don’t know what anybody can offer you. For me each had something to offer, both in what they actually did and through the stories of who they were. I was neither a drug dealer in Harlem nor a seminary student who just wanted a nice quiet ministry in the South so I can’t relate to the youth of either of these men. I can understand how each used those early experiences and took major turns in their life. They both saw the same problems but approached them very differently. Much of the discussion about the civil rights movement at the time was about their approach. Both publicly stated that they didn’t like the other.

If you liked either of those parts of this 5 part series, you might like to dial back to part one and hear Rebecca Watson talk about differences among people in a movement. Rebecca isn’t nearly as famous as Richard Dawkins, but she does merit a lengthy Wikipedia entry. She talks about setting some standards of behavior and ethics when anyone gathers to discuss atheism. Atheism has a bit of a problem in that first the word starts with the prefix “a” meaning “not”, so it isn’t “for” anything. Also, one of the big problems people have with atheism is that they believe it implies you have to no basis for morality.

It is true that there is no official website of atheism that lists rules of any kind. Many people don’t like to be associated with it as a movement even if they don’t believe in God, or Allah or any other god. There are conventions, blogs, newsletters, books and podcasts, but no official hierarchy and there probably never will be. Like civil rights, gay rights and women’s suffrage, organizing will be ad-hoc and someday it will not be needed at all. Some who are organizing believe it is also important to discuss standards and I agree some standards might help the movement. As Rebecca has noted, it would help if more women came to the atheist meetings or joined the secularist or humanist groups, so if they do, show them some respect.

This probably seems fairly simple but apparently some of the people in the audience didn’t get it. Later that night Rebecca was talking with several people, mostly men, in the bar of the hotel where the convention was and at 3:00 in the morning as she went off to bed, one of the men, who had hardly talked to her at all, followed her into the elevator and while they were alone, invited her to his room “for coffee”. Rebecca commented negatively about this in her blog, Dawkins commented negatively about her and you can now get a ton of Google hits on “Rebecca Watson elevator”. It is part of her Wiki page. I hope that is temporary.

I happen to agree with Rebecca and I wish I had heard her advice when I was 17. However I won’t be joining her in boycotting Richard’s book. I won’t dwell on any of that. The point is, in any organization, movement or when 2 or more are gathered for some purpose, disagreements on violations of basic standards can quickly sabotage the purpose. This YouTube post proves my point. It is a great presentation by some of the best in the movement, and it has not been viewed much. Look at the comments, and you’ll see a lot of them are about the elevator incident.

I’m not advocating taking any particular tone or suggesting any one side or segment of any population needs to be more accommodating than they currently are. For the moment, I’m pointing out that the path is difficult. There is no one set of standards in any book anywhere that will prevent all conflict, so maybe spending time arguing about what those standards might be is not terribly fruitful.

The discussion of religion, atheism, education, indoctrination, creation, evolution, global warming, ethics, birth control, prayer, women’s roles, abortion, money and love is a difficult one. I say “one” because all of those things get mixed up into one conversation. We all need to take responsibility for moving it forward.

There is one rule, known as “The Golden Rule” to Christians, and known to many other traditions under different names that is a good place to start. Some versions of it state more explicitly that understanding what the other person wants is an important part of the rule. There are plenty of other resources about how to be a nice person, so I’ll just leave it at that and hope you enjoy the links.

I will leave you with a quote from someone who has been much more successful at navigating the road or difficult political topics than I have. Dominique de Villepin was Prime Minister of France from 2005-2007.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Deep Space Nine Spirituality

There are ample sites that summarize Star Trek episodes, so I won’t repeat the entire story here, but there is part of one that I see differently than anything I have found out there. The episode I am speaking of is the 2 hour pilot of the Deep Space Nine series. This series was a significant break from other Star Treks. For one, it was a space station instead of a ship. It also focused more on politics and religion.

The opening scene a flashback to an important point in the history of Star Trek. Long time fans will recognize the battle at Wolf 359. But if you aren’t familiar with it, the figure of Locutus of Borg, staring at Benjamin Sisko with his red eye conveys the idea of looking into the face of evil. What we need to know for this story is that this is where Sisko’s wife, Jennifer, died.

When then return to the present time for this series as Sisko is taking his first tour of the Deep Space Nine space station. He encounters a Bajoran priest, the priest says, “Welcome, the prophets await you.” In a bit of foreshadowing, Sisko answers “Another time.” A few hours later, the Bajoran attaché introduces Sisko to her religion and tells Sisko that their spiritual leader, Kai Opaka could help unify their people, but she rarely sees anyone. Just then the priest returns and says, “it is time.” He is taken immediately to meet the Kai.

Sisko learns more of their religion and is told that his destiny is to find the Celestial Temple. This kind of thing is pretty common for commanders in the Star Trek series and they usually don’t like it. Sisko is no different, but in this case he is given a vision. Not just a vision, but he fully experiences being back on a beach when he first met Jennifer. The vision comes via a large crystal they call the Tear of the Prophet. Kai Opaka gives Sisko cryptic advice like “I cannot give you what you deny yourself” and “Look for solutions within.” She sends him back to the station with the crystal.

An old friend of Sisko’s, Jadzia Dax, joins the team and applying the power of the United Federation of Planets, immediately finds answers about the crystals. In short order, they head into space and a wormhole opens up in front of them. Not just any wormhole, the first ever stable worm hole. They are pulled into it and they “land” in it, which should not be possible. It probes them and sends Dax back to DS9.

This is where it gets interesting. For those of you who don’t read physics books as a hobby, a wormhole is a theoretical structure in space. For most of human history we have thought of the heavens as something above us. Within the last few hundred years, we have seen that as bigger and bigger, but always as basically a straight line away from us. Very recently, we began to understand that space and time are curved. I don’t really know what that means, but it allows for the possibility that there could be pathways that take shortcuts around those curves, a hole that drops out of normal space/time and takes you somewhere very far away. Science fiction writers love to play with this stuff.

Sisko is left standing on a rocky surface that he knows can’t be real so he just starts shouting, looking for answers. He starts to see what look like familiar faces, but they are talking about him amongst themselves, trying to decide if Sisko is worth interacting with. He manages to engage them but they want to be convinced that he is not a threat. They are non-corporeal and any corporeal being destabilizes their existence.

He uses terms like “experiences”, “memories”, “my past” when trying to explain that he is not a threat. They appear to not understand these terms but talk of living only in the present. Sisko tries to explain that, for him, the future doesn’t exist, that his existence is “linear”.

They show him that his wife Jennifer, is part of his current existence and Sisko argues that she “was”. They say this is inconceivable and act suspicious of him. Their actions are also suspicious although Sisko only expresses confusion. They seem aware of so much, even able to read his thoughts, but their first question is, “what is this ‘time’ that you speak of.” They don’t acknowledge that they know of the vision he has already had or what Kai Opaka said so we don’t know for sure what they know. They are no doubt what the Bajorans call the Prophets, but they don’t call themselves that.

In an attempt to explain himself, Sisko realizes how time is required for logic. He tries to explain how one day shapes another. How pleasure and happiness depend on this. They can see his thoughts and keep coming back to the day he lost his wife and refuse to accept that this is in his past. He is unable to explain “loss”.

They show him a pleasant memory of his wife, it is a sweet proposal, they are planning their future together, then return to the chaos and death at Wolf 359 and say “this is your existence”. They ask why this is difficult. He says he doesn’t want to be there, but they keep saying that he exists there. They ask why, if we can understand consequences, why can we not predict them.

Sisko uses the analogy of a baseball game to explain his linear world. He starts to explain the rules, but realizing that won’t help much, focuses on how each player studies the possible moves of every other player but they don’t know what will happen with each pitch. We use our knowledge of the past to predict outcomes but we enjoy not knowing what will happen in the future. Sisko says, “The game wouldn’t be worth playing if we knew what was going to happen.” And they ask with surprise, “You value your ignorance of what is to come?!” Sisko explains that is what makes us human, we are explorers. He says, "That may be the most important thing to understand about humans. It is the unknown that defines our existence."

They seem to understand this, and are convinced that Sisko and his linear brethren are not a threat, but they still want to know why he exists at Wolf 359. They bring him there again, and Sisko feels the pain again. He asks for the power to take them somewhere else, but they say that it is he who keeps bringing them back there. One of the Prophets appears to him as the Kai, saying again, “we can’t give what you don’t give yourself”.

Sisko finally starts to breakdown as he explains that he was ready to die at that moment. In a sense, part of him did die. He understands that he never really left that ship. His life has been defined by that moment from then on. The physical death of his wife resulted in a death of his spirit, his will for living. He never let go. His past did not prepare him for that moment. He understands his own non-linearity. He looks around at the faces of the beings and they acknowledge that he now understands them. They understood him all along.

Commander Sisko returns to the station with a renewed sense of life. The wormhole will make this distant outpost one of the most important in the galaxy. He reconciles with Picard and starts planning for the future with his new team.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Banned Questions II

A few more of the questions from the new book, "Banned Questions about the Bible"

What does the Bible really say about homosexuality?

They cover the basics, that the passages that do exist are most likely about rape as a humiliating tool used by militaries, or about ritual acts by other religions. Most important, that Jesus never directly addressed the issue. They note that the word arsenkoitai has disputed translations. All the references that I know of are included. That there are other laws near those references that are not followed today is also mentioned.

Several authors answer this question, giving it the attention it deserves, and they pretty well agree. I give them an A+ for this question.

What are the Apocrypha, the Gnostic Gospels, and the Dead Sea Scrolls, and why are they considered holy or sacred by some and not by others?

An important, but fairly academic question, and it is handled as such. The second answer ends with “we know so little about their theological context and much of their meaning is so obscure, even to knowledgeable scholars, that their introduction into a religious community would be a complicated venture.” I would love to hear a knowledgeable scholar’s response to that. It has a hint of avoiding the question to me.

Doesn’t the Bible condone slavery?

The first two answers are more avoidance behavior, using the “it reflects an era” excuse. And of course it gets better with Jesus and Paul, who says to treat your slaves with dignity. Then Rebecca Bowman Woods does a nice job of first explaining how the interpretation of Ham changed over time and concludes with a reference to Tavis Smiley who has written and spoke extensively about how the Bible does not condone slavery based on skin color. Exodus 21 is not referenced which is a suspicious oversight. That includes a verse that says if you beat a slave and he doesn’t die right away, there is no penalty, since you have already lost some property. I don’t know what Tavis Smiley has to say about that chapter.

Rebecca also says, “The more familiar we are with the Bible and other religious texts, the more difficult it is for cultures and institutions to use Holy Scripture for unholy purposes.” The last one really brings it home when he asks you to look at what you are wearing and think about the conditions of the workers who made your clothes. “Slavery” is a term that includes the broader issue of “oppression”. If you are reading this, you are most likely benefitting from the oppression of others. Jarrod asks why we read scripture, “Do we read to justify the status quo that we benefit from? Or do we read the Bible through the story of Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s liberating purposes through [ancient] Israel for all creation?”

I would have added a third choice, do we read it to hear the voices of oppressor and oppressed across time and listen to what those voices say about us? I can no longer read scripture as the fulfillment of a purpose. There are too many definitions of that and many of them are not a purpose I can support. Jarrod at least offers an interpretation I can partner with, although without the “God” part. He says of his second option, “If we choose the latter, we will find ourselves feeding, not killing; liberating, not enslaving. We will become God’s nonviolent army of abolitionists for all who suffer, for all of creation.”

In the suggestions for discussion for this one, there is a good example of how this book teaches without providing a right answer. The question is “Do you think God cares about the equivalent amount of four jumbo jets of people (predominately women and children) that are kidnapped and “trafficked” each day?” That is the type of question that has caused many people to turn away from organized religion or completely away from God. It is difficult to determine the intentions of a book that praises God, but then asks that question. The answers they provide do not qualify as open debate or full disclosure but to ask that question and not follow it up with a lame statement about how we can’t know God or that he is slowly revealing his plan is commendable.