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 biblegateway.com.
  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.