Saturday, October 31, 2009

Efm Year 1 Chapter 7: The Tower of Babel in Genesis 10-11:9

The story of the Tower of Babel tells how God confused the language of the earth so that people would be unable to communicate. This brings up the question of language and communication. What enhances communication and what inhibits communication? Even more basic, what is communication?

When people communicate deeply--really hear each other and understand each other--it is deeply fulfilling. I think that this is because it reinforces our essential oneness. In our physical forms on earth, we experience a certain degree of separation from each other. Intimate communication is so fulfilling because it brings us in touch with that deeper truth of our oneness. Even if we are expressing different opinions, the knowledge that among us we have these varied opinions and that we are united in understanding and respecting each other is fulfilling. We don't have to agree with each other to understand and to be understood.

As I think about the Tower of Babel story, I wonder if the people there couldn't have managed to understand each other if they had tried. In Genesis 11:7, God says, "Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another's speech." The result was that God "scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth" (Genesis 11:8a). Was it really necessary for the people to scatter and leave off building their tower and uniting together in a city simply because they were suddenly unable to understand each other's speech? I don't think so. I think that this may be another indication of the spread of sin, as the biblical writers seem so insistent on emphasizing. The people suddenly couldn't understand each other's speech, so they scattered and left off their project. I believe that, if they had taken time to slow down, get beyond their initial frustration, and ask themselves how they could continue their project even with different languages, they would have found a way. Certainly, people can cooperate and build a tower without speaking the same language.

When people have different opinions, then respect and a desire for understanding can enhance communication. We can have very profitable conversations if we seek, not to convince the other, but to seek to understand the other. People can broaden and deepen their understanding of a subject if they listen closely to those with other views on the subject in a spirit of trying to understand these different points of view, especially if all participants in the exchange share this goal of mutual understanding.

Such a conversation allows me to clarify my own thoughts on the subject, to open myself to other views, to compare my own views with those of others in a spirit of openness, and finally to reach a deeper understanding of the subject. The key is a deep willingness to see how things look through others' eyes. I may come away more deeply convinced of my original view while understanding others' positions more fully, or I may modify my original view in light of what I have heard. I experience this type of listening at the Philosophy Cafe of the New Orleans Lyceum. At Philo Cafe meetings, we consider a question and everyone has a chance to speak to that question. There is much openness to the expression of different views. I have also experienced this type of listening in conversations with friends where we have different views but truly listen to each other in order to understand, not to convince.

Certainly problems arise in communication when we "speak different languages" even though we speak the same language. I think of the elderly gentleman at Galatoire's Restaurant a few years ago who tossed an after-dinner mint onto the table of nearby diners, meaning this as a traditional friendly greeting. One man at the other table, though, took the gesture as an insult, followed the elderly gentleman out of the restaurant, and bashed in his head on the sidewalk to avenge the "insult." This is an example of speaking different languages and of jumping to conclusions, assuming the worst of another. This kind of thing also happens on the international level and causes completely unnecessary wars.

Intercultural communication can be fraught with this kind of misunderstanding. U.S. Americans working with Japanese may appoint the most experienced team member, a young man, to head a task, and the Japanese will be appalled at the lack of respect shown in passing over the eldest team member. In the United States, it makes sense to have the most experienced person head a task, regardless of age or rank; in Japan, this honor is given to the eldest person out of respect, knowing that the elder will consult those more experienced before making decisions. In some cultures, children will avoid looking into the eyes of those in authority in order to show respect; in the dominant white U.S. American culture, the aversion of eyes is taken to be a sign of lying. This causes trouble for children of eye-averting cultures in school. A university student from another country may address a U.S. American professor by last name only without title, calling the professor "Smith" instead of Dr. Smith or Mr. Smith or Ms. Smith. The professor may feel insulted, while the student thinks that he or she is using the correct form of address. An Arabic speaker may ask, "Isn't Mr. Jones in today?" meaning "It appears to me that Mr. Jones isn't in today and I'm asking to confirm if this is indeed true," but a U.S. American may mistakenly hear an insinuation that Mr. Jones really ought to be in today and how dare he be away.

Intercultural miscommunication occurs, not only between people from different cultures, but also between different sub-groups within the same general culture. Books have been written about the misunderstandings between men and women stemming from their different styles of communication. Deborah Tannen has done a great deal of very helpful research and writing in this area. She says that men's talk often has a competitive goal, while women's talk has a bonding goal. As a result, a husband may not talk much to his wife, grateful for the respite from competition at home, while the wife feels that her silent husband doesn't want to bond with her. I also see miscommunication between faculty and students and between administration and faculty at universities.

Those are some of my reflections on communication, emerging from the Tower of Babel story.

EfM Year 1 Chapter 6: The Flood in Genesis 6-9

In the story of the flood, we have the spread of evil to all human society. Here is how the biblical writers put it.

The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. (Genesis 6:5)

Now the earth was corrupt in God's sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth. (Genesis 6:11-12)

And when the Lord smelled the pleasing odor, the Lord said in his heart, "I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth." (Genesis 8:21a)

Here is the explanation in the course materials.

It would be impossible, after this development of the theme of sin, to think of it only in terms of "bad things" that people do. Sin is not simply a few bad actions which occur more or less on the surface of life, so that we might go through a whole day, perhaps even longer, having "committed" no sin. Pride, community alienation, and corruption of the heart are, in the point of view of the biblical writers, more than part of the everyday makeup of humankind; by our fallenness they have become part of us. If we do "right"--and the biblical writers are as insistent on our obligation to do so as they are on the fact of sin--it will be through obedience, and not by "doing what comes naturally." The "nature" of humankind, in the true sense of the word, is "good" because we are God's creatures and are in God's image; but what has become "second nature" to us is not to be trusted: the "thoughts of the heart" are "only evil continually"! (Pages 92-93)

That last sentence in the course materials is important: "The 'nature' of humankind, in the true sense of the word, is 'good' because we are God's creatures and are in God's image; but what has become 'second nature' to us is not to be trusted: the 'thoughts of the heart' are 'only evil continually'!"

Is it true that the thoughts of our hearts are only evil continually and that our second nature is not to be trusted? I wouldn't put it like that. I certainly don't think that it's helpful to teach this to children. Here's why: This implies that the source of our evil is inside us and that the source of our good is outside us. The course materials even say that the way we do good is through obedience, not by following what comes naturally to us. Obedience implies an outside authority whom we obey.

My goodness! Think how grumpy that will make / does make us. I have all these things I want to do naturally, but they aren't good, they are sinful, so to be good, I have to obey what God says even though I don't naturally want to. I spend my life suppressing what I naturally want and obeying this outer authority. I never get to fulfill my desires because I always have to obey God's desires. I'm always going against the grain.

I can think of an acquaintance who did something like this in real life--he obeyed his father rather than what he naturally wanted to do. This acquaintance naturally wanted to make music. He wanted to major in music in college and become a musician. His father, however, wanted him to be a partner in the family business and insisted that his son major in business and then work in the family business. This acquaintance did so. He did not follow what he naturally wanted to do (become a musician) but chose to obey his father (become a partner in the family business). This made him very unhappy and ruined his marriage. The minute his father died, he sold the family business and returned to his first love, music. And he is much, much happier!

The story of this acquaintance is much like what I experienced when Jesus was on the throne of my heart, controlling my life. I couldn't do what came naturally to me because I had to obey what Jesus wanted me to do. I was unhappy and grumpy because I was trying to twist myself into someone I wasn't, just as this acquaintance was doing. As soon as I removed Jesus from the throne of my heart and put myself back in control, I was much happier.

We just aren't going to be happy by suppressing who we are and what we desire in order to obey commands coming to us from outside ourselves, from God.

And it's just plain old not true that the thoughts of our hearts are only evil continually. Good is inside us. It's part of who we are as human beings. We need to learn to look, not to commands from God outside ourselves, but to our inner depths to discover what we desire at our core. We desire good. At our core, we will find a God-place that is ALREADY THERE INSIDE US AS PART OF OUR BEING. This is a place filled with wisdom, compassion, justice, creativity, love, joy, peace. It is far different from the surface emotions that blow across our lives and that can lead to evil, as when we hurt someone in anger just for the momentary rush of power or take from others to alleviate our fear of not having enough.

I believe that it is wrong to say that acting on surface emotions is acting from our selves and that acting from the deep God-place is acting in obedience to God outside ourselves, as though the evil comes from us and the good from an outer God. No, the evil and the good are both part of us--the evil on the surface and the good at our deep core. The deep core is very accessible. I found this out quickly once I got Jesus off the throne of my heart and looked to see what I really deeply want. What I really deeply want is not to get a momentary rush of power by displaying anger or to frantically alleviate fear by seizing what I think I need. What I really deeply want is to act from wisdom, compassion, justice, love. This is what I myself want, not just what obedience to God's commands asks of me. When I am just obeying God, I become grumpy because I am suppressing what I want. But when I myself find and act from the goodness within, then I am joyful.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Frank Schaeffer's Marine Corps Novel: Baby Jack--Who Is God?

In my previous post, I wrote about the way God behaves in Frank Schaeffer's novel about the United States Marine Corps--Baby Jack. In this post, I will discuss what Frank Schaeffer may be trying to say about God through the character of God in Baby Jack.

Here is a summary of God's behavior in Baby Jack.

  • God doesn't seem to care about human suffering.
  • God enjoys drama.
  • God loves the pure in heart.
  • God has a sense of humor about religion.
  • God uses strong language.
  • God insults and injures Todd.
  • God extends grace to Todd through Jack's letter.

To me, it is key that God's behavior ultimately results in reconciliation among people who have been alienated from each other: Todd has been alienated from his son Jack, from Jack's girlfriend Jessica, and from his grandson Baby Jack whom Todd doesn't even know about.

I think that perhaps God's initial harshness with Todd through SDI Jackson is a way of bringing Todd face to face with the wrongness of his behavior. Todd is filled with grief because he did not communicate with Jack after Jack's departure for boot camp, and now Jack is dead and it is too late. But perhaps Todd needs to see that it goes deeper than this--that Todd's life has been about fulfilling his own ambitions while Jack's life has been about true service. And yet more--in opposing Jack's enlistment in the Marines, Todd was trying to get Jack's life also to be about fulfilling Todd's ambitions. Todd wanted to weave Jack's life story into his own, so that he could say proudly to his friends that he had a son with a successful career.

In addition, Todd hadn't wanted to relent and reach out to Jack because of his ingrained stubbornness--Todd had told Jack that he would never speak with Jack again if Jack went through with his enlistment in the Marines, and Todd did not want to appear "weak" by relenting. Besides all this, Todd had shown deep disrespect for Jack at Jack's funeral when Todd exploded in anger at the objects of Jack's service--the Marines and the United States flag.

I think that God wants to focus Todd's attention on Todd's own selfishness and its consequences, and physical pain is a harsh but effective means of focusing attention. There is also something very concrete about an injury, such as Todd's broken ribs. The injury can't be undone, just as Todd's behavior and its consequences can't be undone. I think that the broken ribs say this to Todd: "The consequences of your behavior toward Jack are just as real and concrete as your broken ribs." The broken ribs will heal, but not overnight and not with the snap of a finger.

Once Todd reaches this realization, as shown by his shouting "I'M SORRY, SIR!" to SDI Jackson, God gently helps Todd to stand up and then gives Todd a letter from Jack--a letter that Jack had written to his father and asked SDI Jackson to give to his father if Jack should be killed in action. SDI Jackson had decided never to give the letter to Todd after hearing how Todd had spit on the United States flag at Jack's funeral, but that decision is now reversed and Todd receives Jack's letter.

Jack's letter brings tremendous grace and healing. First, Jack explains his reasons for enlisting in the Marine Corps. Todd had been obsessed with wanting to know WHY his son had chosen military service. Receiving an answer to this WHY puts something to rest in Todd. Understanding why really does help Todd to accept Jack's choice.

Second, Jack asks his father to be kind to Jessica. As a result of this request in Jack's letter, Todd goes to visit Jessica and is introduced to Baby Jack, his grandson, with all the joy that accompanies a new family member. Baby Jack's two families, Jack's family and Jessica's family, are reconciled.

Third, Jack encourages Jessica to live her life and to love another man. This frees Jessica to open her heart to the Marine recruiter Patrick, whom she is starting to love and who has given indications that he would like to marry Jessica. This will also give Baby Jack a father in physical form on earth.

So God's behavior ultimately results in reconciliation. God even points out that Jack's death, painful as it was for his loved ones, resulted in Baby Jack's being alive. Jessica had been thinking of aborting her baby but decided to let the baby live when she heard that Jack was dead, as the baby was her means of connecting with Jack.

But what about God's indifference to human suffering on a general basis and God's enjoyment of drama even when this drama results in great pain? I can't help but think that this is our perception of God's behavior. God takes a longer view than we do, an eternal view. This is why God isn't so interested in saving souls, while the Marine Corps Drill Instructors work intensely to "save the souls" of their recruits. The Drill Instructors have only three months to turn their recruits from nasty civilians into disciplined Marines. God has eternity to "save" us. If we don't "get it" in this lifetime, we will have eternity to "get it"--either in the spirit world or in subsequent lifetimes on earth if reincarnation turns out to be part of reality. Maybe Frank Schaeffer is presenting us with a God who is just plain lively--a God who doesn't get bogged down in suffering, who appreciates the drama of life, who has a sense of humor, who expresses feelings with strong language. Maybe we can say this: God knows that the final outcome is assured, we will all be reconciled with God in the end, so God can relax and enjoy the process even when it goes awry temporarily, say for a few thousand years.

It's certainly true that people do better in life when they hold pain lightly, especially their own--when they take a larger view and focus on something greater than themselves and their painful circumstances. I think of Jean-Dominique Bauby, who was completely paralyzed as the result of a massive stroke--his only means of communication was to use eye blinks to spell out words on an alphabet chart--and yet who wrote a book using this blinking manner of communication. I also think of Joni Eareckson Tada, who has been paralyzed from the shoulders down as the result of a diving accident at age seventeen (she's now sixty) and who has led an active life as an artist (drawing with a pen between her teeth), an author, an actor, a public speaker, a wife, and the founder of an organization that promotes independence for people with handicaps. I think, too, of my friend Ellen, who has had a blood condition for years that restricts her activities, necessitates regular medical treatments, and often exhausts her, but Ellen enjoys an active life of reading, writing, French teaching, babysitting for friends, attending plays, gardening, entertaining, and engaging in stimulating conversations.

I also want to comment on God's love for the pure in heart, like First Sergeant Stan O'Malley. I think that, for Frank Schaeffer, being pure in heart means being a person whose words and actions match his or her thoughts. Jessica, Jack's girlfriend, is also someone like this. Once Jack is dead, he can swim inside his loved ones, and Jack says this of swimming in Jessica: "The amazing thing about Jessica is that what she says and what she is thinking is usually the same thing. With most people there's an internal conversation that's different from what they're saying. Swimming in them is like watching a 3-D movie without the glasses. Thoughts and words overlap but not exactly. But with Jessica her thoughts and words are in sync" (page 256). I think Frank is saying that God deeply appreciates a person like this.

So maybe this is what Frank Schaeffer is saying about God in Baby Jack.

  • God is who God is, not who we want or need God to be.
  • God's actions may seem harsh from our perspective, but they ultimately offer grace and lead to reconciliation.
  • God is a lively God who enjoys the process of life, knowing that the final outcome will be well.
  • God loves those whose words and actions match their thoughts.

Frank Schaeffer's Marine Corps Novel: Baby Jack--God's Behavior

My previous post gave an overview of Frank Schaeffer's novel about the United States Marine Corps--Baby Jack. This post will discuss the way God behaves in Baby Jack.

In Part IV of Baby Jack, Todd--overcome with grief at Jack's death in Iraq--visits the Marine Corps boot camp at Parris Island. And in Part IV, the novel takes on a new dimension in that two worlds merge--the everyday world and the supernatural world. Or we might say that Frank Schaeffer draws aside the veil that separates the spirit world from the physical world and allows us, the readers, to see more of reality, the part of reality that is usually invisible to us. Thus, Part IV is narrated by Jack in his non-physical post-death form. We become aware of the presence of other "dead" Marines, and God interacts with Jack and with Todd.

How does God behave in Baby Jack? We learn immediately that God does not behave as we might expect.

First, God doesn't pay attention to human suffering. God pays no attention to Todd's grief, pays no attention to a Marine who died a slow death while praying for his son, never lifts a finger for any of the Drill Instructors although God loves them, refuses to help Jessica in her grief over Jack. When Todd visits a barracks, puts his arm around a sleeping recruit, closes his eyes, and wills it to be Jack when he opens his eyes--God only laughs. Jack says of God that "most of the time he doesn't seem to care about what he calls the 'minor annoying shit.' To give you an idea, these 'minor annoyances' God refuses to do anything about include sick and dying children and old people begging for forgiveness" (page 227).

Not only does God ignore human suffering, but God also enjoys drama. Therefore, God admires people like Hitler, Stalin, and Caligula because they create drama, tension, and excitement on a large scale. God even says, "A million martyrs' voices rising up crying 'Lord Have Mercy!' Talk about an off-stage chorus giving me chills!" (page 211). God also says that, in the long run, there is a happy ending, but God then explains, "Not 'happy' in the way you Americans think of it, rather happy the way Shakespeare understands things, dramatically satisfying if somewhat dark" (page 228). This causes Jack to exclaim, "Does anyone know or care that a wannabe theatre director is in charge of the universe?" (page 228).

The kind of person God loves most is a person with a pure heart. In fact, the person God loves the most on earth is USMC First Sergeant Stan O'Malley, who trains the Drill Instructors who will then train recruits to be Marines. O'Malley "believes in the mission of the Corps" (page 208). O'Malley's "faith is pure" (page 208). O'Malley is "without guile" (page 208). Whenever O'Malley killed men during war, O'Malley did it quickly with a clean head shot, and O'Malley "never gloated or took pleasure in their deaths" (page 209). God often comes to listen when O'Malley speaks, as do many dead Marines in their non-physical form.

God has a sense of humor (as does Frank Schaeffer!), and God uses strong language. When religious fundamentalists die, they are often shocked to find themselves in the company of infidels and to find that God is very different from their imaginings. For example, when a certain Southern Baptist minister dies and is confronted with God's profanity, the minister tells God that God himself needs to repent and invite Jesus Christ into God's heart, to which God replies, "What are you talking about? . . . I'm an atheist for Christ's sake!" (page 209). God has a low opinion of so-called religious places: God has "called Jerusalem 'the stupidest place on earth' and then muttered, 'three great mono-theistic religions my ass!'" (page 209). Of the Second Coming of Jesus, God says, "'Second Coming' my ass, not after how it went down the first time around. You try and talk him into it!" (page 211).

Near the end of the novel, there is the scene in which God speaks to Todd through Senior Drill Instructor Isaac Jackson, Jack's Senior Drill Instructor during Jack's three months in boot camp. Through SDI Jackson's voice and body, God insults Todd, puts him in a choke-hold until he passes out, and breaks three of his ribs. Then God, through SDI Jackson, becomes gentle with Todd and hands Todd the letter from Jack that SDI Jackson had been withholding. (Jack had written a letter to his father and entrusted it to SDI Jackson, asking SDI Jackson to pass it on to Todd if Jack should be killed in action. When SDI Jackson heard of Todd's disrespectful behavior at Jack's funeral--shouting insults at the Marines and spitting on the United States flag--SDI Jackson had resolved never to give Jack's letter to his father.)

And here is the beautiful thing. Jack's letter is a means of grace and reconciliation. In the letter, Jack explains to his father why he joined the Marine Corps, asks his father to be kind to Jessica, and encourages Jessica to live her life and seek another man to love. This brings about reconciliation among Todd, Jack, Jessica, and Baby Jack.

So we have a God who doesn't seem to care about human suffering, who loves drama, who loves the pure in heart, who has a sense of humor about religion, who uses strong language, who injures Todd, and who provides Todd with the means of grace and reconciliation.

In my next post, I will discuss what Frank Schaeffer may be trying to say about God through the character of God in Baby Jack.

Frank Schaeffer's Marine Corps Novel: Baby Jack--Overview

This post will give an overview of Frank Schaeffer's Baby Jack, a novel about the United States Marine Corps.

Frank Schaeffer began writing about the United States Marine Corps when his youngest child, John, enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1999, right after high school graduation. This was something of a shock to Frank and his family. John had attended a prestigious prep school and was expected to continue on to university and a professional career, as his elder sister and brother had done. The Schaeffers and their friends thought of the military as an option for people with few opportunities in life, not for someone with John's background and abilities. John, however, was determined to enlist in the Marine Corps, and Frank chose to support his son. John's military service turned out to be transformative for Frank. Frank says that he gained a much deeper understanding of service, duty, love, and sacrifice and came to see that our volunteer military is inequitable. We are asking the lower classes to bear the burden of military service and are exempting the upper classes, to the detriment of our country.

Baby Jack is one of five books that Frank Schaeffer has written about the military. The four others are a memoir co-authored with John about Marine Corps boot camp, a memoir of Frank's experience while John was deployed to Afghanistan, a collection of correspondence from military families, and a non-fiction book co-authored with Kathy Roth-Douquet about the inequities of our volunteer military system.

Baby Jack is a novel. Jack Ogden, age seventeen, decides to enlist in the United States Marine Corps upon high school graduation. Todd, Jack's father, is vehemently opposed to Jack's enlistment. Sarah, Jack's mother, is also opposed but remains at least moderately supportive of Jack. Jack also has an elder sister, Amanda, and a girlfriend, Jessica. The novel is written from multiple points of view: we hear from Todd, Jack, Sarah, Amanda, and Jessica. We read their reflections on unfolding events, as well as various letters, emails, newspaper articles, flyers, journal entries, and poems. The novel takes us through Jack's decision to enlist, his last summer at home, his time in boot camp, his deployment to Iraq, his heroic death after only a week in Iraq, and his loved ones' reactions to all of these developments.

We see that Todd, who has remained adamantly opposed to Jack's enlistment and has refused any contact with Jack after his departure for boot camp, is especially devastated by Jack's death. Todd is so distraught that he explodes in anger at Jack's funeral, shouts accusations at the Marines for causing Jack's death, and spits on the United States flag. Todd has also refused contact with Jack's girlfriend, Jessica, and her family; therefore, he doesn't know that Jessica has given birth to Baby Jack, Jack's son and Todd's grandson.

In hopes of coming to terms with his grief and gaining a greater understanding of Jack's military choice, Todd asks permission of the Commandant of the United States Marine Corps to visit the Marine Corps boot camp at Parris Island, where Jack was trained. Permission is granted. At Parris Island, Todd has an encounter with Jack's Senior Drill Instructor SDI Isaac Jackson and with God, which results in a final reconciliation.

Monday, October 19, 2009

EfM Year 1 Chapter 5: Cain and Abel in Genesis 4:1 - 6:4

The EfM course materials on Cain and Abel are very helpful. The course materials see the purpose of the Cain and Abel story as showing the spread and deepening of sin. Here is the progression of this spread and deepening of sin:

  • Putting oneself in the place of God by deciding on one's own what is right and what is wrong apart from what God has said (Adam and Eve)
  • Killing a brother because of jealousy (Cain)
  • Killing another in revenge out of all proportion to the offending act (Lamech)
  • Polluting the court of heaven (sons of gods and daughters of men)
  • Becoming entirely evil of heart (all human society)

Here are some of the implications I see in the story of Cain and Abel, after working with the EfM course materials.

FALLEN WORLD. However one explains it, we do live in a fallen world. This means that we should not be surprised to find sin within ourselves and others. I am sometimes surprised at this myself, which I acknowledge is unreasonable.

We have forgotten that we already have everything we need and that we are all one. In fact, although we do have everything we need and we are all one in ultimate Reality, we have created our own reality in which we most definitely experience not having everything we need and in which we experience being separate from each other. We fear that we won't have enough for ourselves, so we grasp, hoard, and even take from others. We get angry when others take from us. There are those who crave power so much that they will hurt others just to enjoy the rush of power this gives them.

We live in a world where people will do whatever it takes to enrich themselves. As a consequence, we have Enron, we have the dishonest practices now coming to light on the part of bankers and mortgage brokers and Wall Street financiers, we have government money given to financial institutions for the purpose of stimulating the economy being used to pay high bonuses to corrupt executives instead. It doesn't matter that Enron employees lost all their retirement savings, that people suffered in California from the energy shortages created by Enron, that hard-working employees have lost their means of livelihood in the economic crisis, that families are reduced to homelessness, that some are living in incredible luxury while others are living in crushing poverty.

We live in a world where people will do whatever it takes to feel powerful. As a consequence, we have sexual abuse and bullying in all its forms. It doesn't matter that those raped and bullied are destroyed emotionally.

We live in a world where fear and anger predominate, and we need not be surprised to see them. I would say that a faith-filled response to this would be to envision and live into a world of compassion and justice and healing and creativity and beauty and community, yet to be realistic about the presence of evil in the world. Jesus did this. Perhaps the healer is a good image. The healer recognizes that something is not right and needs healing, and the healer works toward that healing. I think, for example, of a doctor who treats a person with a contagious illness: the doctor brings healing but also recognizes the presence of the disease by wearing protective gloves and mask.

SIN LURKING AT THE DOOR. God tells Cain, "Sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it" (Gen. 4:7). I like this image of sin lurking at the door, crouching like an animal of prey, lying in wait, ready to pounce. I like it because it helps me to place sin outside of myself and look at sin objectively. Oh, here is anger, crouching at the door, ready to pounce and master me, but I can recognize this anger and master it by choosing to act from wisdom and compassion instead. Oh, here is fear, crouching at the door, ready to pounce and master me, but I can recognize this fear and master it by choosing to act from courage instead. Picturing sin visibly helps me to see it clearly, to diminish its power, to turn away from it, to choose with wisdom instead.

CULTIC RELIGION TO REPLACE DIRECT RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD. The course materials say that cultic religion came into being so that humans could relate to God in some way now that the direct relationship with God in the Garden of Eden no longer existed. I believe that we need to foster both. We need a community of religious practice, and we also need a more direct personal relationship with God. Jesus fostered both in his own life. He was a practicing Jew, and he spent long hours alone with God in prayer. I can see that relying on either cultic religious practice or direct personal prayer to the exclusion of the other will throw a person off balance. The group tempers the excesses of the individual, and the individual tempers the excesses of the group. Individuals have been known to believe that all sorts of odd-ball directives came to them in personal prayer with God, and groups are often known to cling to past traditions when we need to grow beyond them.

GRACE. The course materials say this: "God's punishment is always softened by grace." God made clothing of animal skins for Adam and Eve so that they would be clothed as they left the Garden of Eden. God gave Cain a protective mark as he became a wanderer.

The Bible does indeed see God as prescribing punishments for sin. I believe that we would do better to see the unpleasant things that happen as a result of sin as consequences. In any case, the consequences of sin are often softened by grace.

In fact, there is grace in every situation, if we can open our eyes to it. This is an important quality to develop: to be a person who sees the grace.

HORROR OF SIN. Sin has become so commonplace in our world that we don't see its horror. The course materials point out that Cain kills his brother, Abel, at the very place where Cain offered sacrifices of his crops to God. God gave life, and Cain destroys the life that God has given, spilling the blood, the life of his brother, onto the earth, with which humans are so deeply connected. We don't see the horror of killing. Nearly every day, someone is killed in New Orleans. We've become deadened to this horror. We are also deadened to the horror of polluting and destroying God's non-human creation.

By the same token, God Godself seems utterly unaware of the horror of some of God's own directives. I think especially of God's telling the Israelites that they are welcome to take any conquered unmarried women for themselves as sex slaves. What a horror for these young women. God doesn't see it.

RIVALRY BETWEEN GROUPS TODAY. The course materials point out that Cain was a farmer while Abel was a shepherd and that there has traditionally been rivalry between farmers and shepherds because the two ways of life are at odds. What is good for the settled farmer is not so good for the nomadic shepherd, and vice versa. The course materials ask this question: Where do you see rivalry between siblings or competition between groups coveting the same land or the same promise, and where do you see places in our culture that parallel the Cain and Abel story?

Having read Frank Schaeffer's warnings about the extremist fringe of the far political/religious right in the United States, I would say that I see this between Democrats and Republicans. Certainly there is a history of non-cooperation between the two parties, and of one party making it difficult for the other party to get important bills passed. The Republicans see capitalism, largely unregulated, as being good for our country. Certainly, this is good for big business. The Democrats see a need to regulate capitalism so that no one is crushed by it. Certainly, this is good for the little guys. It seems to come down to this: what is good for the rich is not so good for the poor, and vice versa. And then other elements of morality come into play: the tendency of Republicans to oppose abortion, and the tendency of Democrats to allow abortion.

Frank especially cautions us about the fringe members of the far religious right. Frank says that these are people who see themselves as politically disenfranchised. They see themselves as standing alone for God in a secular and godless culture, despite the fact that fundamentalist churches are quite strong and influential. They perhaps feel disgruntled with their marginal status within the overall culture. Their books, for example, do very well, with a large fundamentalist following, but their books are often ignored by the New York Times and hence the wider culture.

Cain felt that God did not have the same high regard for him as God had for his brother, Abel. The extreme fringe of the far religious right tends to feel that our society does not have the same high regard for them as society does for human secularists. Cain was jealous of Abel and killed his brother. The extreme religious right is jealous of the rest of society and is eager for God to kill them--or perhaps to help God with the killing.

In his newest book, Patience With God, Frank Schaeffer points out that the far religious right loves the Left Behind series of novels by Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye. These novels describe the End Times of the Apocalypse, when Jesus will return to earth, rapture his faithful into heaven, and unleash his fury upon the ungodly who are left behind on earth after the rapture. Frank says that the far religious right loves the idea of God taking vengeance for them against all whom they see as having deprived them of full cultural enfranchisement. In some cases, members of the extreme fringe of the far religious right have felt God calling them to kill and have actually killed doctors who perform abortions.

So I think we can see in the Democrats and the Republicans something of the rivalry that existed between Cain and Abel, at least in Cain's mind, and we can see how the kind of jealousy that led Cain to kill Abel also exists in the extreme fringe of the far religious right.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

EfM Year 1 Chapter 4: The JE Account of Creation and the Fall in Genesis 2:4b - 3:24--Thoughts on Discernment

At our last EfM meeting, we discussed individual choice and discernment. Despite the importance of the scriptures, tradition, and the faith community past and present, I come down on the side of individual discernment.

Certainly, one can go to an extreme with individual discernment, thinking that one need not listen to anyone else and that voices from the faith community of the past are out-of-date and that we know so much better now. On the other hand, one can go to the extreme of overly revering what was said and done in the past; one's reverence for scripture, tradition, and our faith ancestors can be so great that we never change what should be changed, such as slavery or the refusal to ordain women priests.

I think that it's important to listen seriously to our faith ancestors through scripture, tradition, and the faith community's writings and voices--and I think that it's equally important to discern individually what rings true and what doesn't, what comes from God and what comes from our ancestors' personal and cultural filters. Either we discern this individually for ourselves, or we rely on the discernment of others.

If we over-rely on the discernment of others in scripture, tradition, or voices from the faith community, we get the perpetuation of unjust systems, such as the dominance/subordination model of social relationships. That's the way it was in scripture, that's the way it was for our faith ancestors, so that's the way God wants it. God has ordained a role for women that is inferior to the role of men. God finds slavery a fine acceptable social institution. God abhors all homosexual acts.

On the other hand, if we over-rely on our own discernment by rejecting any influence from the faith community, we get nuts life Saint Simon Stylites, who lived an extremely ascetic life perched for years on a tall pillar in the desert. It seems that individual discernment gone amok produces extreme masochists, who fast to the point of starvation, flagellate themselves, and crown themselves with thorns--or extreme sadists, who kill in God's name.

Even if we hear direct messages from God, either audibly or in our thoughts, we still need to exercise individual discernment. Is this voice really God? Would our faith community recognize this message as coming from God? Hearing this kind of voice can be God's message (something we need to know or are being called to do), or it can be our own selfishness (God supposedly approving what will benefit us unjustly), or it can be mental illness (God supposedly telling us to jump off a roof or crown ourselves king or exterminate an innocent person).

So I would say that we must discern individually what is God's word to us. We must not do this in a vacuum but in the context of scripture, tradition, and the faith community. Yet the responsibility for ultimate discernment is ours individually.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

EfM Year 1 Chapter 4: The JE Account of Creation and the Fall in Genesis 2:4b - 3:24--Thoughts on Work

The fall of Adam and Eve apparently had serious consequences for work. Here is what God said to the man in Genesis 3:17-19:

Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you, "You shall not eat of it," cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

And from our course materials:

The man and the woman will eat only as a result of toil. The man was created for work. He was to till the garden and care for it. Now, work has become toil. It is hard, bitter, and offers few rewards. Instead of being a plentiful garden, the earth is now a hostile place in which the barest necessities of life must be eked out by the sweat of one's brow. This is the kind of world in which humankind has lived throughout the ages and is still the situation of most people today. Modern affluent America is quite different from most of the societies of the world, but we are becoming aware that even we may not have escaped the ancient judgment after all.

Here I think we need to remember that the story of the fall and God's judgment upon the man and the woman is the Hebrew people's way of explaining why things are as they are--why work is so burdensome. This is not the actual unassailable pronouncement of God. It is a Hebrew story to explain life conditions.

The worst thing we can do is to submit to these judgments--to say, "Oh, well, God says that work will be drudgery, so I'll just have to accept it and go on drudging away." NO!!!

Even the Bible says that work was originally fulfilling and fruitful. So what do we want to create? Surely a world where work is joy-filled, creative, and soul-satisfying. Work requires discipline, yes, but discipline motivated by an underlying passion.

If we wanted to, we could have a world where everyone has fulfilling work and where we all share the mundane tasks.

EfM Year 1 Chapter 4: The JE Account of Creation and the Fall in Genesis 2:4b - 3:24--Thoughts on Moral Development

The story of Adam and Eve and the fall certainly has a lot to say about moral development. I also have some thoughts on the matter based on my own experience. I'll look at these three areas: development of an inner sense of right and wrong, sin, discernment.

DEVELOPMENT OF AN INNER SENSE OF RIGHT AND WRONG. I grew up with fear-based obedience. Fear was used to motivate me to obey: by my father, by the teachers at my Catholic school, by the Catholic Church, and by the God of the Bible. Obey--or you will be punished--you will be spanked or humiliated or sent to hell for eternity. To avoid those extremely undesirable consequences, I obeyed. I obeyed out of fear.

This ripped apart my inner sense of right and wrong. Right and wrong were outside myself--whatever the authorities said. I had little inner sense of right and wrong. I simply wanted to do what the authorities said was right so that I could avoid pain. THAT'S WHAT CHILDREN LEARN WHEN FEAR IS USED TO ENFORCE OBEDIENCE.

Children need to be taught to distinguish their inner core of wisdom from their surface emotions. That inner core of wisdom is present within each of us by the very fact that we are human beings. It's part of our nature. We need to learn to access it. But we will never learn to look within if we rivet our attention on authorities who will pounce to punish us for any disobedience.

One way to develop our inner sense of right and wrong is to develop our highest vision of the world we want to create. We then live into that vision. Our inner core of wisdom supports that vision. Our surface emotions may or may not support it. Certainly acting on surface emotions of fear or anger does not. We need to learn to recognize fear or anger in ourselves, acknowledge these emotions, and simply choose not to act from them for the temporary relief or power-surge they give but to act instead from our deep core of wisdom and compassion.

SIN. I'm starting to doubt that sin is a useful concept, largely because it refers to individual actions. The course materials define sin like this: "Acts of sin are specific things that we do that are wrong in the sight of God." I think that direction of movement is a much more useful concept than acts of sin. In which direction is my life moving--toward God or away from God? We need to be aware of the direction of our life. Certainly our acts will move our life in a certain direction, but it's the direction that's important, not whether any given act is a sin or not. In other words, an emphasis on sin seems to me to be so focused on details as to avoid the big picture of one's life.

That said, I think that my reluctance to see sin as a useful concept may be colored by the over-emphasis on sin during my Catholic childhood and adolescence. All those catalogues of mortal and venial sins. And the belief that one act of mortal sin could send you to hell forever if not confessed and forgiven (in which case you would escape hell but you would have to settle up with time in purgatory). No wonder I was so focused on individual acts of sin and whether any given sin might be a mortal or a venial one.

Maybe the correct way to see this is to consider both the big picture (the direction of life) and the details (individual acts which become that life direction).

DISCERNMENT. Oh, this is so important. The sin that caused the fall is seen as a sin of pride--human beings taking to themselves that which belongs to God alone. God alone determines right and wrong, and the fall was occasioned by human beings taking that function to themselves.

Well, okay, God alone determines right and wrong. But how does God communicate God's determination of right and wrong to us? God does not speak to us directly with an audible voice. So we either use our discernment, or we blindly accept what someone else tells us that God has said.

There are those who would say that God has told us what God wants us to know about right and wrong in the Bible. Oh, great. According to the Bible, slavery is just fine, men should dominate women, war is a great way to extend one's borders, homosexual acts are an abomination, and killing "God's enemies" is a godly act. No. We simply cannot blindly accept what the Bible tells us that God says. We must discern for ourselves: where does the Bible ring true as God's voice, and where does it not?

We each have a deep core of wisdom that comes with being human--God within. We need to learn to go within and listen to the God-part of ourselves. When someone tells us that God wants us to do this or that, we need to check out what they are saying with our inner wisdom. And that includes checking out the Bible.

EfM Year 1 Chapter 3: The Priestly Creation Story in Genesis 1:1-2:4a--Thoughts on Being God's Representative

Genesis 1:26 states: "Then God said, 'Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.'" Genesis 1:27 states: "So God created humankind in God's image, in the image of God God created them." What does it mean to be created in the image of God?

Our course materials offer an intriguing thought in response to this: "It was a common practice in the ancient world for statues of a king to be set up throughout his realm. These were not regarded simply as carved statues, but as the king's representatives, looking out for his interests in those places where the king himself could not always be. This seems to be the idea expressed here: humankind is God's representative, looking after God's interests in the world."

These statues intrigue me, representing the king's interests in places where the king himself could not always be. God, of course, is always present in the world--BUT--and this is very important--NOT PHYSICALLY.


WOW! When people see us, hear us, touch us, they should should see, hear, and touch something of God. God simply cannot minister physically to someone in need except through us.

What does this imply for our ministry?

SUSTAINABILITY. At the very least, it implies maintaining, not destroying, God's creation. This means making decisions about purchases, transportation, heating and cooling, and disposal with sustainability in mind. Do we purchase biodegradable products for cleaning? Do we buy food in biodegradable containers, reusable containers, or even no containers? At church meals, do we employ reusable plates, cutlery, and napkins--perhaps asking people to bring their own? Do we take our church bulletins and newsletters, as well as news and publications from other sources, in online form? Do we recycle as much as possible? Do we compost? Do we walk or bike to places we want or need to go whenever possible? Do we use natural air conditioning--open windows--as much as possible?

INCLUSIVENESS. God pronounced all of creation good, even very good. This means that belonging should be available for all. For a church, this means full access and welcome for all people, including wheelchair ramps, interpreters for the deaf, and rides for those who are unable to drive.

JUSTICE. With inclusiveness goes justice. We need to advocate for the basic rights of all. The rights of humans to basic nourishing food, clean water, hygienic and attractive living arrangements, healthcare, education, freedom from fear of criminals. The rights of animals to live natural lives free of constant pain and distress. I think here of animals raised for food in crowded and stressful conditions with no regard for their well-being. We need to consider very, very carefully the necessity for any testing of products or medical procedures on animals, as well as the treatment of animals used for such testing.

BEAUTY. God made a world of infinite beauty. For aeons before any human walked the earth, there was abundant beauty. The plant world alone is stunningly beautiful. And for aeons, plants thrived with no human witness.

One huge part of being made in God's image is that we, like God, are creative. In fact, if we don't create in some form, we lose energy. Creating replenishes our life energy because being creative is part of who we are.

Our ministry should be done with an eye to beauty, with attention to the aesthetics of what we do and where we do it. I think of simple things, for example, like adding a small bouquet of flowers to a meal we take to someone who is ill. Making our places of worship beautiful with flowers on the altar, candles, stained glass windows, colorful vestments, organs and other musical instruments, singing. The arts in all their forms should be encouraged in church, and the church should be an advocate for the arts in society and in our schools. The church can be a place for us to share and showcase our art.

Perhaps beauty also extends to our physical appearance. I'm not very good at this, but my friend Merry is. Merry is always a delight to look at. I'm not speaking here of becoming obsessed with society's ideal of beauty and trying to conform to it, but simply of giving thought to our physical appearance: people will be looking at me today, and I want to give them something pleasant to look at. Merry is not obsessed with her appearance, but she just always looks nice and attractive, and she accomplishes this simply.

COMPASSION. This is perhaps the central quality of God. We are God's compassion in the world.

CENTEREDNESS. This implies connection with God, being still, going within, and connecting with the God-part of ourselves. In other words, acting from the wisdom within, at our center.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

EfM Year 1 Chapter 3: The Priestly Creation Story in Genesis 1:1 - 2:4a--Thoughts on Dualism

In my previous post, I spoke about dualism and some dualistic systems of thought, such as Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, Platonism, and Neo-Platonism. In these dualistic systems, we have a good god of light and an evil god of darkness, or a higher world of spirit and a lower world of matter. "Two" is very important in dualism, as is separation. Things are either this or that. We certainly see dualism alive in the world today.

SEXUAL ORIENTATION. This is a huge area of dualism, although any glance at people's actual behavior should make clear that sexuality is far more complex than a dualistic understanding of it. People seem to think of two sexual orientations--heterosexual and homosexual--and want to fit everyone into one category or the other. These are not the only two sexual orientations, however. People may be bisexual, monosexual, asexual, having a preference for menages-a-trois, for orgies, oriented toward fetishes. People may have one orientation at one stage of life and another orientation later, such as adolescents whose sexual feelings are first aroused by members of the same sex and who as adults settle upon members of the opposite sex. People may have one orientation in certain situations and another orientation in other situations, such as those who behave heterosexually in ordinary life in the world, but homosexually in prison.

SEXUAL IDENTITY. We seem to think that there are only two sexual identities, male and female, and we tend to assign certain characteristics to each, though I think there is more openness today to assertiveness in females and nurturing qualities in males than there used to be. I think that it is important to recognize that an individual's make-up doesn't necessarily fit the male mold or the female mold, and I hope that we will continue to make strides in recognizing this.

I wonder if a greater recognition of the complexity of an individual's sexual identity might not cut down on the perceived need in some individuals to change their sex through drugs and surgery. From what I understand (and I admit that my understanding is imperfect), a man who wants to change himself physically so as to become a woman feels that he is really a woman trapped in a male body. He wants his body to reflect his inner reality. But here's what I would say. Suppose I notice myself having many feelings that have been attributed exclusively to males. Should I conclude that I need to become a male physically so that my physical body will be in line with my inner feelings? Or should I conclude that my feelings are actually within the realm of feelings that women have, even though such feelings have been attributed exclusively to men. I think I could say, "Hmmm. I have feelings that have been attributed exclusively to men. Well, guess what. It turns out that these are not exclusively male feelings. How do I know? Because I'm a woman and I'm having these feelings. So clearly these feelings are within the range of possibility for a woman, because I, a woman, am experiencing them."

In any case, male and female are not the only two sexual identities. There are androgenous people, transgender people, transvestite people, men who act the way we expect women to act, men whose bodies have womanly curves, women who act the way we expect men to act, and women whose bodies are muscular and lean.

RACIAL IDENTITY. There was a time when certain official forms asked people to check off one of two choices for their racial identity: white or black. This is beyond silly in a world with multiple races and people of mixed race. Some scientists who have studied the question of race have concluded that race is a human concept that doesn't objectively exist.

SAVLATION. This is an interesting area. It is an area particularly important to those whose faith leans more to fundamentalism. Certain fundamentalist groups see people as divided into two groups: saved and unsaved. In fact, people fall at many different places on the faith continuum--moving toward salvation, being newly saved, growing in their walk of faith, moving away from salvation, spurning salvation. I would say that the direction one is moving toward and growing in is far more important than any saved versus unsaved division.

OVERALL. Overall, I think we would do well to approach the world with an appreciation of nuance rather than a dualistic view.

EfM Year 1 Chapter 3: The Priestly Creation Story in Genesis 1:1 - 2:4a--Thoughts on Platonism

The course materials say that the idea that God created everything ex nihilo, out of nothing, is a response to dualistic thought systems, but it is not the only way to read the text of Genesis 1:1-1:2. Ex nihilo is certainly what I learned in the Catholic Church: it seemed very important for Catholics to believe that God had created out of nothing. The course materials tell us, though, that it is possible to understand that a chaos existed before God shaped it into an orderly world.

The reason for ex nihilo, say the course materials, is that the church was concerned about dualism. Dualistic systems, like Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism, posit two gods--a good god of light and an evil god of darkness. The church felt it important to state that God created everything there is from nothing and pronounced it good to make clear that there was no evil god in existence countering the good creator god. The One God made everything, and all of creation is good.

Besides Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism, the course materials discuss Platonism and Neo-Platonism. The course materials also include this question for us to work with: Where do we see Platonism in the world today? I find this a fascinating question.

First, let's look at Platonism. As I understand it, Plato believed in an Ideal that exists only in the realm of ideas. Anything in the physical world is an individual representation--a necessarily imperfect representation--of the Ideal. Neo-Platonism took this further. Neo-Platonism distinguishes between the One and all that emanates from the One. The One is beyond our ability to know, and we can only speak of what the One is not, not of what the One is. All else emanates from the unknowable One, and as these emanations flow farther from the One, the more unlike the One they become, until they reach the stage of physical matter. Humans are seen as spirit beings trapped in material bodies. Neo-Platonists offer spiritual exercises that allow humans to transcend their material bodies and unite with the One.

Now, let's go back to Plato's thought of the Ideal that exists in the realm of ideas and the individual representations that exist in the world of matter, and let's answer the question of where we see Platonism in the world today. I would say that we see Platonism today in areas where we strive to attain an unattainable Ideal. Plato had the sense to say that the Ideal does not and cannot exist in the material world. We don't seem to have this sense today. I will look at two areas where people seem to strive for an unattainable Ideal.

IDEAL BODY. I see people today striving to embody an Ideal of human beauty in their own individual bodies. Our society holds up an Ideal of female beauty, for example, which includes a yourthful appearance and an unrealistically thin body. Many women strive to attain that Ideal through a multitude of cosmetics, plastic surgery, and extreme diets that can lead to eating disorders. Even women with beautiful bodies will often express dissatisfaction with their features because their features don't perfectly fit the Ideal. In fact, the Ideal, by definition, is unattainable, and striving for it creates frustration and even physical harm from trying to force the body to be something it cannot be. An individual representation can never be the Ideal. Men have their own version of this.

IDEAL WOMANHOOD. This is something I saw in the Catholic Church as I was growing up. The Catholic Church teaches an unattainable Ideal of womanhood. I have never been the least bit interested in this Ideal, but many women have been drawn in by it, including my mother. An Ideal woman, according to the Catholic Church, is one who finds her true fulfillment in giving herself for her husband and family. In my family, I saw my mother giving and giving and giving and giving and giving for a critical husband and six demanding children--and wondering what was wrong with her that she didn't feel fulfilled. Just who benefits from having women strive toward this self-sacrificing Ideal? I'll guarantee you that it isn't the women. As Mary Catherine Bateson (Margaret Mead's daughter) has said, "Women are taught to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the marriage; men are taught that the marriage exists to support them." An Ideal of constant giving and self-sacrifice simply isn't realistic or attainable. Men have their own version of this, too, involving the need to be strong, to thrive under intense competition, and to hide emotions.