Empathy, perspective, and the log in all our eyes.

A story about ancient Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu goes like this,

One day Chuang Tzu and a friend were walking by a river. “Look at the fish swimming about,” said Chuang Tzu, “They are really enjoying themselves.”

“You are not a fish,” said the friend, “so you can’t really know if they are enjoying themselves.”

“You are not me,” said Chuang Tzu, “so how do you know that I do not know that the fish are enjoying themselves?”

 

I don’t know why, maybe it’s because of our roots and heritage that the Christian church is obsessed with sin. What is it? Is this a sin? Is that a sin? Is it something I do? Something I think? Something I believe? All the above? In fact we’re so gripped by the idea of sin, actually we’re gripped by the idea of sins more so than “big S” Sin, so obsessed with them that we read the idea of transgressions back into the text where it may not even exist.

Consider Matthew 7:3-5:

“Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”

Now this passage, in my personal experiences, especially in the house church movement, has been read in two major ways.

On the one hand, it has been used as a reactive defense against confrontation. If someone says to you, “You sinned by going to watch that Batman movie.” (I wish I could say this is a fictional example.) You might say to them, “Yeah well I saw you smoking a cigarette! Get the log out of your own eye!) Hopefully shutting down the confrontation.

On the other hand, some have focused on the last verse and said “Look! Jesus meant for us to help the brother to get the speck out in the end. As long as I am free from sin in my life I have every right to point out my brother’s sin and help them remove it.” In my experience if the brother in question didn’t agree to accept the “help” it wouldn’t be long before exclusion from the community was a consequence. I’ll write more about this sad process later.

But what if we have sort of missed the point of the whole thing? If the basic premise of living a Christian life means slowly but surely eliminating your sins until you look like the “sinless” Jesus then yes, this verse would seem to fit into that paradigm somehow though it becomes very destructive. I can bear witness to this in my own experience.

But does this look different with a new paradigm of the Christian life? I think it does. What if the Christian life is about transformation through renewing our mind? Finding and exploring new ways to think about everything! And what if this is a lifelong process instead of a one time destination? This is much closer to my current view of living the Christian life. Along with other things of course.

So with a paradigm of mind renewal driving personal transformation, how might we read this verse anew?

How about instead of seeing the speck and the log as sinful behaviors or even thoughts, we look at them as faulty modes of thinking or faulty ways of seeing reality. Here’s why I think this makes sense. The eye is the key here. If something is in your eye, you can’t see properly. Everything is skewed and blurry and distorted. This isn’t a metaphor for sin. It’s a metaphor for illusion or blurred perception. I think most people who didn’t grow up in the church, or who have rejected the church at some point but are now exploring faith and spirituality understand very well the concept of not judging others and showing mercy. I would like to think I’ve tried very hard to get past my tendecy to judge the thoughts and actions of others. What I have replaced that with is a pattern of evaluating the views, beliefs, thought patterns, and perceptions of others to contrast them with my own, pass judgement on their correctness, and do my damndest to bring them over to my point of view and my way of seeing things. I want to read this passage again in terms of illusions and paraphrase a bit to explain how it’s challenging me.

Why do you always take notice of these little “incorrect” pieces of other people’s beliefs while ignoring that your entire perspective is fundamentally flawed? And how can you possibly help them change their perspective when yours is so wrong? First fix your perspective until you understand reality, then maybe you’ll be able to help the others with their illusions.

The powerful and paradoxical part of this is that most likely, it was your flawed perspective that made you think your friend was incorrect in the first place! Another paradox is that if this mind renewal perspective shift IS a lifelong process, when does it become appropriate to try to force anyone else’s perspective to get closer to yours? Reading the passage in this way really challenges me to consider that there may be better ways of sharing our journey without constantly trying to correct each other’s perspective. This is where the Chinese philosophy comes into play.

In the story at the beginning, Chuang Tzu is a victim of his friends attempt to “fix” his perspective. Just stopping right there, I have to reflect on how many times per day I do this, both internally and out loud. Just think about that. It’s not a matter of whether or not this activity is right or wrong, The fact is, I have to assume my own clarity of perspective to be so confident in my denunciation of a differing one, and where does that confidence of clarity come from? Do I really imagine that my friends don’t have that same feeling of clarity? It would be foolish to assume that my perspective is somehow more valid in an objective sense than my neighbor. So the log in my eye isn’t some bigger sin than my neighbor for which I need to repent before judging my brother, the log is the very idea that I can have certainty about the clarity of my perspective. And what if this log is removed? Perhaps the friend of Chuang Tzu, instead of denouncing his perspective, would have sought to learn more about his perspective, to understand what Chuang Tzu was really trying to say or perhaps how he was so familiar with fish feelings. In other words, he may have acted from a position of trying to experience what his friend was experiencing in that moment, which can loosely be defined as empathy.

That’s where I’m going with all of this. I think Chuang Tzu in his response was being a good friend AND a good teacher. He could have flatly contradicted his friend and emphatically stated that he knew the fish were happy. He could have backed off for the sake of avoiding conflict by saying something like, “It just looks like they are happy. You’re right, I don’t really know.” He could have gone into great detail in his knowledge of fish emotions and attempt to persuade his friend that you can know what fish feel. But instead Chuang Tzu took another path. He bypassed the assumption that there was, indeed a speck to be removed in either party’s eye and he went right for the log. “You are not me, so how do you know that I do not know that the fish are enjoying themselves?” This whole conversation is about a simple question:

Do you believe that empathy is truly possible? 

Chuang Tzu’s friend, in order to make his correction, had to assume that he understood the full range of human experience possible. So he assumed his own full empathy with humanity while ignoring the possibility that his experience was limited and growth was possible. Chuang Tzu simply took the argument to its logical extreme, which is that no empathy is actually possible because “you are not me.” In fact, the statement, “you are not a fish” is actually just another form of the more general “you are not me”. If this is true, empathy is gone. Understanding another point of view is gone. Not only will we never understand the perspective of our friends, but they cannot understand ours either and so we cannot convince them. The whole system, built upon the desire to change the mind of our brothers and sisters into the form of our mind, falls apart at the seams because if they are truly different, than they always will be and each of us is an island of self, surrounded by dark waters of our perceptions of reality, unchangeable by those around us.

The log of Jesus is the logical conclusion of Chuang Tzu’s friend. “You are not me.” If we believe empathy is possible, we fundamentally assume some kind of essential sameness. We can debate all day about the fine points of that sameness but it is required for empathy. To some extent the idea of “you are not me” is not true. The log is both the idea that I can be certain of the clarity of my perspective and the idea that you are not me. The path away from the log is one of humility and empathy.

Humility leads us away from the certainty of our own clarity and empathy leads us toward oneness with everything. Another hidden lesson in the Chuang Tzu story is the arbitrary category separation of humanity and other parts of creation in terms of the ability to empathize.

I am not saying we should never try to convince others of things, even this article is trying to convince you of something, as were Jesus and Chuang Tzu. But perhaps our arguments would look different if we were walking with the humility of knowing we are still working on our log and mentally tearing down the walls of differentiation that we build between us and everything else through the process of growing up. Both the Chinese story and Jesus’ parable give us a way to examine these ideas with benign examples void of much emotion. Only by becoming disentangled with the actual issues can we realize the bigger log, otherwise our emotional response to controversial and passionate issues blocks our ability to see it.

Of course if we find ourselves in a state of the log being removed, which some would call enlightenment, we may see that the speck in our brother’s eye was an illusion, that it isn’t important compared to the log we all carry, or we may realize that we were seeing a part of our self all along.

Authority: Deconstruct, Then Garden – Part 3

If you’re starting this series here that’s awesome! You can catch up here if you’d like. This post is an example of a major concept that I’ve had to deconstruct and I hope to suggest an alternative way of understanding authority that doesn’t require a lot of structure building to interact with.


 

There was a prophet named Samuel, as the story goes, well known among the people of ancient Israel, having great influence and providing critical leadership, vision, and direction for the tribes. In fact, his leadership was so established that the tribes came to him when they wanted to appoint their first king and asked him to give them a king, which he did in appointing king Saul. So you have this prophet who routinely provides the people and the king with a word from god. In fact, he supposedly successfully foretold the future on multiple occasions.

One day he approaches the king and tells him that god is ready to avenge the Israelites from multiple generations past when the Amalekites attacked the Israelites, starting with the weakest stragglers. The Israelites won that original battle. But now, it was time for vengeance. Samuel’s instructions were for Saul to destroy them completely. Men, women, children, babies, animals, everything. If you were to read this story, you would discover that Saul more or less carries out the command but not completely and he is cursed for it by Samuel. However, I tell this story not to confront the obvious moral questions this story presents but to explore the relationships of authority that seem to exist between the characters.

To give the story the benefit of the doubt, God gave the command to Samuel. Samuel gave the command to king Saul, and Saul gave the command to his soldiers. It’s an obvious chain of command. But for most Christians, it doesn’t stop there. Someone wrote all this down and so the traditional assumption is that they were eyewitnesses and gave an accurate account, or they were given the story later by God, either through direct revelation or the passing of the story in tradition. So the original chain of command was in place to ensure the event takes place, and a secondary chain of command exists to ensure we know of the event and believe it. There is traditionally no room given for us to disbelieve this story but a lot of room given for us to question it’s meaning or applicability for us today. These two chains exist throughout the bible in the mind of the believer though the secondary chain is clearly implied and must be drawn from other key portions of the text.

But may we ask what might have happened if things were different? We who have begun deconstruction find ourselves constantly asking, what are the stones in my wall that give these stories their power? In other words, what are my assumptions that I bring to stories like this? Perhaps if Samuel was a modern day man he would have questioned whether such an extreme command from god might be a hallucination or some other mental disorder. It doesn’t help that being insane and being prophetic were closely linked in the time this was written. See 1 Samuel 19:24. There was really no context for Samuel to believe anything different but that he was hearing from the god of his fathers. I’d prefer to not assume he had some motive of personal vengeance against the Amalekites, though that might have been the case. But what if he had heard the word and refused? What if Saul had refused to obey Samuel? What if the soldiers had refused to obey Saul? Their society and culture were not necessarily to the place where they would have felt there were good reasons to refuse but what would have happened if they did refuse?

The result is very clear to us who have been drinking from the well of the bible for a long time. The result of such refusal is destruction. If the chain of command is compromised the one who breaks that chain must be removed, and usually killed. This idea is reinforced multiple times in the stories throughout the old testament, it is reinforced in the garden of Eden, Noah’s flood, Abraham’s sacrifice, Moses and his detractors, the israelites and the law, Samuel and Saul, etc… I call this the principle of Absolute Threat. Most structures of authority presented in the bible are based on this principle and the narratives of the culture reinvigorate the principle. “If you refuse, you will join the condemned.” Saul breaks this chain of command in the story, killing all but the king of the Amalekites and keeping the best of the animals. His punishment is the loss of his line as a dynasty and a nasty death following a long descent into madness. This principle finds its terrible finality in the medieval idea of hell. Perhaps I’m putting the cart before the horse in sharing my deconstruction of authority before sharing my deconstruction of the Ultimate Threat (hell) but they are quite intertwined so I had to choose one.

Now, we should ask ourselves if these authority structures can be found in the church as well. Of course they are. In the “early church” there was a great amount of emphasis on the idea that there was some kind of authority transfer from Christ to the twelve (eleven?) apostles. I’m not going to go into great detail here but that concept translated to bishops inheriting some kind of authority from the apostles, and from that cauldron emerged the structure of the Magisterium with the pope at the head, understood to exercise the authority of Christ/God on earth. Most of the splits and schisms before the reformation concerned the question of who exactly held that authority? Who was the “true pope” or the “true church”? But with the Reformation came a new model of authority. Perhaps they would have called it a recovered authority. For them, that was the authority of the scriptures.

Since my religious background and worldview were essentially protestant in nature in understanding authority, that is where my deconstruction had to begin. The protestant view of scripture from the beginning till now seems to be founded on a lofty hope, that the God who inspired the scripture is capable of illuminating the meaning to those who are faithful to listen. This causes a real dilemma. What if my understanding of scripture differs from yours? Than we must either assume God is responsible for the lack of illumination, or we are. If it is God, there is nothing to do but wait until God brings us all in line. In which case, there is no need to worry or argue because God is the only one who can reveal that truth to us anyway. However, if we play a part, we must discover what that part is and how to play it so that we can reach the true understanding of scripture. The second option seems to be the primary way of resolving this dilemma for most of the protestant world from its earliest schisms to today.

To put this all in other words, until we all miraculously reach a point where everyone agrees on what the bible means, we are left with the realization that the authority of scripture, as understood by most protestants, is actually a manifestation of the authority of the individual mind. We in the Protestant movement are asked, nay commanded to go to the bible ourselves to test the preacher and test the church authority. We are not “really” searching after God until we have done this. But the protestant movement is really a mixture of individual authority and church leadership authority. Because when someone does really search and finds some major point of disagreement, the leaders insist that they are interpreting it incorrectly and must fall in line with the orthodox teaching, which is a manifestation of the authority of church structures. So we see that the so called “authority of scripture” is really a mixed manifestation of the already established “authority of the church” and the newly discovered “authority of the individual” thrust into the whole culture by the philosophy of the Renaissance. With the whole mixture using the bible as a kind of language datum rather than a real useful litmus test of right belief.

As you can see from the above paragraph. For me, deconstruction doesn’t involve ignoring a topic because it makes me uncomfortable, but rather to study, scrutinize and understand a topic to see my own faulty assumptions. What I discovered was that the authority which scripture was supposed to hold, lost its illusory power almost from the very beginning of the protestant movement, when it failed to hold together those most concerned with upholding its place as the standard of belief. If it was able to hold together those people who trusted it completely, it might have made a much stronger candidate for a governing authority. But it does no such thing.

So what now, are we to return to the authority of the church as the highest earthly authority for us to know the truth? Many protestants, when they have removed the foundation stone of ultimate biblical authority, desperate for something to go in its place, lest the building tumble, quickly return to one of the older structures of authority (catholicism, orthodox, anglican). I’m not saying that’s the only reason people return to these forms of the faith but I know it happens since the apologists and evangalists of these structures have learned the usefulness of helping their potential converts to deconstruct their view of the bible before welcoming them back to The Church, as they put it. But many are unable to return to “The Church”. That stone simply will not fit. And the building is shaking.

The church also continues the narrative tradition of the scripture in their usage of the Ultimate Threat principle to enforce their authority. Think about excommunication, threat of torture and death (at times), threat of loss of family relationships, threat of loss of marriage, threat of loss of possessions or health, and finally, threat of everlasting torment in fiery hell. We are constantly reminded that to step outside or refuse to follow the chain of command, will result in the authority that once “protected” us, reigning down in vengeful wrath to consume us along with the enemies of God. So both the narratives of scripture, and the actions of the church have sought to enforce a chain of command structure of authority that only works by using the principle of ultimate threat.

At this point I will contend that this is the only way for a “structure” of authority to work. Without the ultimate threat principle, the dissident is always seen as a threat to the structure by their questioning of foundation stones. In order to preserve their concept structure, the dissident must first be intellectually dismissed, then authoritatively condemned. That is, the act of removing the dissident from the community must be seen as sanctioned by God, which is not difficult to achieve given our dedication to the biblical narrative.

It might seem at this point that I am totally against the very idea of authority. But I am not. I do want to suggest an alternative style of authority. One that can only reach one level and still lets us jump to the ground. One that can produce food from the ground in the different seasons of our lives and that can nourish us and bring us from moment to moment without the need for a complicated and fear based chain of command. Let me give you an example. I have separated myself from an arguably “biblical” understanding of authority in marriage. I don’t think I need to rehash the details of that view with the chain of command moving from God to the Husband and then down further to the wife and kids. Yuck! Ok, but what then? That does not mean the idea of authority does not exist in my relationship with my wife and also my kids. If we have any kind of relationship at all, as opposed to two individuals living in proximity, we have authority in one another’s lives. It’s not an authority I can seize and enforce. If I did that, the relationship, as we know it, would be over. Neither can I build this authority using the principle of ultimate threat. I must build it from a different principle. That of the Ground of All Being. That of God. That of Ultimate Love. That is where my relationship must find its own ground. That kind of authority gives us influence over one another in a way that makes us realize our oneness. This authority is a paradox. We don’t have it until we let go. In a way that’s love. Letting go. And it is entirely possible and even natural to “let go” and still fully participate. Don’t mistake my meaning. I’m not saying that we should somehow be indifferent or hands-off in our relationships. I’m saying do not assume that you can somehow control or hold on to the experience of joy you have right now or at some point in the past in your relationship. You may kill it by your desire to hold it too tightly. And there’s no need to hold on to some structure of hierarchy in our relationships. It doesn’t really exist and the relationship won’t fall apart without it.

You might argue that raising kids is primarily about enforcing your will upon them even if it’s in their best interest. However, even then the goal is not to enforce submission long term but rather to teach them how to think for themselves and in fact leave our “authority”. So the result of this authority is still to let go.

What about government? Well, in so far as government is all about governing, we will simply end up with more and more rules that we are less and less sure how to follow. Government also is at its best when it’s not under the illusion that it actually controls people. When it learns to “let go” and work with the people instead of pretending to be over them. Of course it’s not an illusion that many governments, spouses, and parents use the ultimate threat principle to enforce a structure of authority. It’s not an illusion that people are abused or killed or threatened in these structures. It is an illusion that this top down, ultimate threat based view of authority is the only view.

So you have to start somewhere. Maybe personal relationships are a bit complicated for a starting place. If you’re a religious person, observe your religious authority first. Does god really operate from the top down? Has he really communicated his will to some who then accurately wrote it down? Is this how our relationships, the ones we want to last, really work? Seeing authority from a gardening perspective means seeing that authority cannot be taken, it can only be given. And we only give authority to that which we either desire to, or feel obligated to. Next time you read your scripture which has held authority over you, or you speak with your religious authority who may be a person, ask yourself if you feel obligated to take them at their word. If you feel obligated to obey. Now ask yourself if your most valued friendship requires the same sense of obligation for you to experience that depth of spiritual connection. Now imagine this. God is your friend. Does that change anything?

Ground: Deconstruct, Then Garden Part 2

As I explained in my last post, as our consciousness develops, we construct a worldview which essentially helps us understand the world we experience. For whatever reason, we start asking, from a very early age, Why. And our caretakers are at the ready with an explanation. Ancient and tribal cultures began to explore the idea of cause and effect with what we call magic today. Magic was a way of understanding that there must be reasons that things happen, and perhaps we can even influence those events and causes. For a fascinating read on examples of this understanding in ancient cultures, check out this excerpt from a book entitled “The Golden Bough” written by Sir James George Frazer. Religion was a replacement for this early understanding in many cultures though most did not completely let go of a magical understanding, especially among the uneducated. Of course the enlightenment and the scientific revolution changed everything a few centuries ago. Through this process, we have come to understand that there are methods by which we can analyze objects and events to discover the causes. Those causes can then be analyzed in turn to discover further and deeper causes.

There is a fundamental weakness in this approach. While it is useful for many things, the process of analyzing anything forces us to define the boundary of the thing in question. As I discovered in engineering school and especially thermodynamics, this is necessary and effective to manipulate systems. A boundary must be defined at the very outset. From that definition of separation comes all our ability to apply laws and equations to determine desired inputs and outputs into and out of that system.

When we step back though, when we are no longer concerned with manipulating reality but rather understanding reality, the boundaries become a hindrance. They are actually nothing but illusions! This can be a very difficult thing to grasp so bear with me. I once heard Alan Watts ask an audience if they thought they could point to or place their finger on the separation between his fingers. Of course this is impossible. While each can move independently, it is only because they are attached to each other and the hand. In fact if we really want to analyze the finger as totally independent, we must cut it off. In which case it is hardly effective or able to function in any way like we would expect a finger to function. And so, if we want to understand why we build these structures of understanding with levels of cause and effect, we must first understand that our entire worldview, our sense of self-understanding and self-awareness, our way of seeing the world, is built upon the principle that boundaries between things are real, that things have an existence of their own apart from other things, especially human things. And this is just fine. We can go on living perfectly extraordinary lives while believing this. But it is not true. It is an illusion. So what are you?

Let’s return to the stones. The three-year old who asks why until you’ve reached the end of your patience is similar to the three year old that loves to climb up on the couch, only to jump back to the ground again. If you can, remember when you were very young. What made the world such an extraordinary, breathtaking place. For me, in those moments of remembrance, it is the total acceptance of the experience before me. The total, unquestioning openness to reality and my full engagement with it. I didn’t need to understand any meaning behind the wind blowing through the trees and the smells of the air. They were their own meaning in that moment. Truly they were gloriously without meaning. As we get older, we get curious about things like the wind. Why do the trees move, where does the wind come from? Etc. But while we began to set those foundation stones in place, we also loved to jump off of them and roll around in the dirt for a while. Please understand I’m not saying it would be better not to grow up. As Jesus once said, “unless you become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom.” Wisely leaving out exactly in what way we were to become like lowly children. The key to experiencing true reality is not to cease growing, but to remember and engage again with your waking moments as a child. For the idea that there are boundaries between things gives us a context for making use of those things but they also are only real in the sleep of illusion. Since everything must have a meaning/cause/boundary, we lose our ability to re-engage with the meaningless. That’s not to say we don’t enjoy the things we did as a child, but the worries and cares of this world and the thoughts in our heads keeps us from seeing them for what they are.  I won’t say that our culture is entirely to blame, but it certainly is oriented toward giving us the “right” answers to our questions and elevating us higher and higher above the ground. At some point, we cease jumping off the wall and spend the rest of our lives building it higher for the wall’s own sake, perhaps occasionally remembering the feeling, at which point we may find ourselves with a deep longing in our hearts, and the sting of tears as we experience the pain again of losing our access to that childlike acceptance of being on the ground.

Part of what makes the journey of deconstructing this wall so difficult is that we are terrified of the ground. Even though any line of questioning will always lead us back to “just because” we have good reasons for avoiding this and creating illusions, even ones we all share. Our openness as children made us open to pain and suffering as well. We have to handle that somehow. That’s why I don’t say that these illusions are bad or evil. In fact I explain their usefulness and utility repeatedly. I am an engineer by trade after all and my living depends on understanding these boundaries and manipulating them. So we want these illusions and in a certain sense we need them for our current form of existence to continue. But I think we also want the ground, especially those of us who find ourselves in the place of deconstructing our beliefs. Without the ground, we feel only terror that there is nothing left, the void. The paradox is that finding the ground IS to awake, and to awake is to enter the void of meaning and separation. The ground of “just because” is also ultimate reality, which is God. “I am”. Which is also love, or complete giving of oneself to the other, as to Oneself.

This is all very esoteric without any context so my next post will explore an area of deconstruction, and introduce a way of interacting with reality that will hopefully allow us once again to continue engaging with the illusions of our experience while returning to the spirit which allows us to jump off the structure of illusion and live on the ground. This is a practice I will call Gardening.

By the way I’m not some kind of expert in this area. I’m just sharing my thoughts and explorations of these topics, most of which I am learning about myself while I write. However, I’m really not sure you can be an expert in what we are talking about, as we might call it “living”. And who can be an expert at living?

Till next time.

Deconstruct, Then Garden

garden

As we grow up, and begin to ask questions, we find ourselves constantly building ideas. From the 3 year old who repetitively asks her parents why to the 17 year old who no longer believes his parents have the answers. We start with foundations. What am I? Who am I? Why am I here? How did I get here? How does this or that work? Once we feel we’ve found a satisfactory foundation stone, we set it in place, conveniently girded up by the stones to the right and left. Then we begin to build on those. We begin to believe things about ourselves and about other people based on those critical foundation stones. You can know this is true by repeating the exercise of the 3 year old. For every belief that arises in your mind, ask yourself why, then do it again. Every reason is a lower stone. Eventually you reach The Ground, where the only explanation left is “just because”.

Here is a classic example from the perspective of a very patient, modernly educated christian parent. I’ll use simplistic language as if speaking to a 3 year old.

Why is it so hot?

Because it’s summer and we get more sun?

Why is it summer?

Because the earth goes around the sun in a big “circle”.

Why does the earth go in a big circle?

Because the sun has gravitational pull and is constantly pulling on the earth but the earth wants to keep moving away even though the sun is pulling on it so it keeps spinning in circles for ever. (At this point the parent picks up the child and swings him around by the arms to demonstrate and to evoke laughter, which we all love.)

Why?

That is how God made the universe, so that all things pull on each other with gravity.

Why did God do that?

Because he loves us and we couldn’t exist without gravity.

Why does He love us?

And there…we’ve reached The Ground. The only answer left for the christian is “just because” or “He just does” or “it just did”. Any number or level of different religions, philosophies, or scientific beliefs could have drastically varied this process and made it either shorter or longer but in the end, it all ends up at The Ground.

Maybe there is a good scientific explanation for why young children do this. Something developmental, or maybe they just like our reaction. I like to think that they have an intuitive delight in arriving at the ground.

But we adults do not. Why??

For one thing, every time we work our way back down the walls, we have to see again the stones we placed at one point. The catch is, things may look a bit different to us now than in previous years. Maybe the stone doesn’t fit quite as well as we thought it did. Maybe there is a crack in one that we didn’t notice before. Most frighteningly, maybe we find a gaping hole where we thought we had placed a stone but now realize we only imagined it was a stone in the heady days of our youth and really it was a block of ice, long melted away.

We’ve spent a long time building our structure, whether that structure is a castle, a temple, or a high rise. To see the weaknesses in our walls is to realize the risk of damage and collapse. We would much rather stay on top. This is why only the rich can afford the penthouses on top of the high rise. We love to be above the weaknesses and this lofty position is in high demand and is given high value. Those who know the most and who have the strongest walls are given authority. We all want their advice on what stones we should use and how they should be installed. So we stay on top and continue applying layer after layer of new stones. Preferring to ignore the weaknesses below, and remain ignorant if possible.

Something happens though doesn’t it? Something that shakes it all up, something that pulls us deep into our own structure and pushes our face into the weakest stones. For folks who grow up with and maintain a belief in god, especially the monotheistic god of christianity, this process of getting shaken up and seeing our foundation stones in a new light for the first time could be called deconstruction. If you haven’t reached this point, I’m not here to rush you. It’s not fun. But it can be freeing. See it’s very unsettling to live three stories up and to feel your bed shaking underneath you from an unsettled ground below. Those who have experienced an earthquake know what I’m talking about. So it can relieve that unsettled feeling to find that cracked stone and remove it. However, that leaves the unsettled feeling of void, of not knowing what to put back in the place of the stone removed. Not only that, but once one stone is removed, you begin to see more cracks in the stones around it and those must be removed as well if they haven’t fallen out already.

Our first inclination is to rebuild, find better stones, frantically build a whole new wall if that is what is required to keep our building project going. Why??

Let’s go back to the 3 year old game again. The constant question of why could be framed a different way. If someone were to ask you, do you want your life to have meaning, most of us I suspect would answer right away…Yes! But what do we intend by this idea of life having meaning? Words have meaning, a word stands for a concept. In many ways, the concept is seen as the reality and the word is only a symbol of that reality. For instance, you could explain the meaning of the word rock. You could give me a definition of the word and perhaps a picture or an actual rock. But suppose I pointed to your example and said, “OK, but what’s the meaning of the rock?” You would probably say, it doesn’t have a meaning. It’s meaningless. It is what it is. It’s a rock. This is the same as the “just because” answer I’ve already mentioned. That’s perfectly acceptable to us when referring to a rock. But when we are asking about our life it seems to fall flat. To explore why it falls flat, and why we feel the need to get up so high, in the next post, I want to move my focus from the building to The Ground.

House of Cards: Universal Morals in Christianity

I do not intend to prove or disprove the idea of Universal Morality (UM), the definition of which is more airy and difficult to grasp than one might imagine. I do intend to lay out and question the “standard” christian theistic arguments for the origin of UM and our basis for understanding it. The dialogue below is my way of doing this. I hope the scope of this dialogue is sufficiently narrow to hold our attention yet apply to enough interested readers for widespread consumption. I write this as a christian. I try to present a fair hearing of the more common christian views of UM to avoid attacking straw men. If I’m missing some major thoughts, let me know in the comments by all means.

Part 1 – From where?

Paul Matthews (PM): But you must admit that there are objective rights and wrongs outside the opinion of humans!

Roger Watts (RW): There are many questions to raise about this statement but too many for now. Let’s narrow this down a bit. What is the christian view of these objective rights and wrongs? Where do they come from?

PM: I’m glad you asked. They come from God.

RW: Do you mean God decides what is moral and what is immoral? Is morality so arbitrary that one personality in the universe simply gets to decide the definition?

PM: Some might say that, but I believe it falls far short of the truth. If the God of Christianity does exist, than He created everything else that exists. In my view morality is not something that God creates or decides to differentiate as a creative act. Morality is not part of the created world. Rather, I would say that morality as a standard is derived directly from God’s character. In other words, if any action or thought is in alignment with the pre-existent, eternal character of God, it is moral. If it falls outside of that character, it is immoral.

RW: I want to be sure I understand you. God does not create a moral standard by which all other things are judged as moral or immoral. All things are judged directly by their alignment with the character of God. If this is so, how are we to know if an action or thought is moral or not?

PM: The answer is in what you have already stated. You must evaluate your action against the character or holiness of God.

RW: You give me a very difficult task. I can’t comprehend the character of an infinite God. I would find it hard enough to comprehend my own. Is this moral standard to be known by my subjective understanding of God or is it revealed in scripture?

PM: I think it’s both. However, I would be very careful basing moral comparisons on a personal relationship with God or subjective understanding. After all, He is too big to comprehend fully and there is a great risk that you will completely miss His character. Because we are unable to fully comprehend His character, we must trust in what He has revealed of Himself through His word. If we followed His commands and teaching, we would certainly be in line with His character. Also I would warn that we shouldn’t fall into the trap of trying to do the things He does. Because we are a different order of being than God, the things that God does may be immoral for us to do.

RW: That’s a lot and we should painstakingly, or perhaps painfully, work through each point. Let’s take a step back though. Perhaps I won’t be swayed so easily that morality is derived from God’s character/nature. Let’s use the term nature instead of character. Why shouldn’t I simply believe that God created the difference between morality and immorality and mandates that standard to his creation? It seems like a feasible option.

PM: It may be feasible. But I think there are problems with it. First of all, the answer wouldn’t change the fact that the best way for us to know how we can live up to that standard is by following God’s revealed commands to us. Is that something we can agree on?

RW: Yes, I agree that this question wouldn’t change that idea. However, you have yet to show that we can know the standard by the method you suggest.

PM: Good, fair enough, I’m just trying to find our common ground of reason. So let’s tackle this question. Does God create a standard of morality, deciding that certain things are moral or immoral based on His own internal thought process, or is morality, as a definition, a standard that exists based on the very nature of God? I think this may be a false dichotomy. If we say that God creates the standard of morality using some Godlike thought process, shouldn’t we see that thought process as stemming from the nature of God? At some point, all the decisions that God makes find their source in His nature. Not that we are able to fully understand that nature, but all His actions certainly come from that nature.

RW: Ok, I’m not sure I have further argument to draw a distinction. Let us say that God does not act outside of his nature, and further, let us say that all created reality stems from his nature since he created it. That brings me to my next question, with that line of reasoning can there exist anything that doesn’t come from the nature of God? Can there exist anything that is apart from his nature, or by your definition, immoral?

PM: That will lead us to discuss the nature of humans. My short answer is yes. For example, I believe God’s nature is to tell the truth and He only tells the truth. By logical necessity that means He doesn’t lie. However, we know that people tell lies, so beings exist that lie, an action which is outside of God’s nature. The question is how does this work?

Part 2 coming soon.

Fasting From Heroes

It’s still Lent, so I’d like to say a word or two about fasting. Fasting traditionally means abstaining from food for a period of time and has been picked up by many as a way of taking a break from something. It could be anything. Dessert, alcohol, TV…etc. I’d like to ask you to consider something a bit different. Fast from your heroes.

Have you ever found yourself rationalizing the behavior of someone you deeply respect? Their shortcomings are overshadowed by their great contribution to your life. Perhaps you would like to model them in some way. Of course there is always the risk that by modeling your life after theirs that you will not only find their success but perhaps you will also stumble into their darkness. I’m not sure this is an avoidable aspect of life, but when mixed with the obligatory acceptance and approval of religion, this danger becomes startlingly present. So, since this is a season of change and reflection, perhaps I might convince you to take a second look at your heroes in a way that may help you grasp that ever elusive “reality”. As an example I’d like to present one of my greatest childhood heroes, King David, from the Hebrew scriptures.

Reading through 1 and 2 Samuel one can find a plethora of stories that would appeal to almost any young mind, perhaps uniquely the young mind of a male child raised within American masculinity. The young boy who grows into a mighty warrior and popular King is quite addicting. It sparks the imagination and can contribute to development in a very real way. For me, many situations I encountered were filtered through a lens which compared my reactions and actions with those of my heroes, especially David, with the goal being more alignment between my reality and the ideal of the narrative. Of course, looking back, this was greatly assisted by the majority of my scriptural intake during childhood coming from picture bibles and movies, none of which, in my opinion, truly display the horror that is sometimes described in such a banal way throughout these stories. Perhaps that does need to be done at some point, though that media would be very difficult to absorb I think.

I’m not saying that the narrative of 1 and 2 Samuel doesn’t criticize David. It does. Biblical apologists rightly point out that the Hebrew scriptures have a unique penchant in ancient literature for exposing the dark sides of their heroes. We should learn from them. However, it IS interesting that what the narrators find reprehensible are perhaps small and relatively unimportant compared to what we would find disturbing if we were to have accurate theatrical portrayal of the, often celebrated, acts of David. Let me now bring your attention to a central example that is perhaps the epitome of my point.

In 1 Samuel 27 we find the pre-king David and his company of warriors, for reasons I won’t get into here, going to Achish, king of his notorious enemies, the Philistines, and asking for refuge from the current king of Israel, Saul. This would be a slap in the face to Saul and the king of Gath (philistine capitol) knows it. So he allows David to take possession of a nearby town for his home. To retain the favor of the king and to make a “decent” living, David spends the next year raiding nearby villages and taking all their goods and livestock. He then brings a percentage of these spoils to Achish. David tells Achish that he has been spoiling Israelite villages to get these goods and so Achish is all for it. His enemies are hurt and more riches are brought to him. In reality it is neighboring Canaanite communities that have been feeling the edge of David’s sword. The question is, how does David keep up this ruse?

I would dare say I wouldn’t be able to stomach seeing the reality depicted in a well produced Hollywood film. When David ransacks a village he puts everyone to death. This way there is simply no one left to tell the tale. Some might speculate that perhaps babies could be saved, being unaware and unable to tattle, but let’s give the narrative the benefit of the doubt here and take it for its word. Every man and woman, including children, would have to be executed to prevent word of David’s action from spreading.

Yes the overall narrative criticizes David, but not for this, perhaps for sleeping with another man’s wife and killing him to get away with it, but not this. No prophet comes from the shadows with a clever story to trick David into condemning his own action. Nothing. The narrator, and apparently God, is banal in his description and opinion of these events. Perhaps it is this indifference in the narrative that causes so many to simply gloss over this when they read it.

I don’t highlight this story to simply bring up David’s immoral acts or to ask if we might consider a David as a villain rather than a hero considering the cultural context. After all, at that time, there might very well have been similar canaanite bandits raiding and destroying Israelite towns. In fact this is all highly dependent on the narrative. We don’t know if a “historical” David really did these things. I bring it up because, if we are again to believe the narrative, David had a hero as well, one by which he could measure his own actions. One whom he modeled in his merciless treatment of canaanites.

Joshua. The original conqueror. The two can easily be compared and some scholars even see David as continuing the campaign/pogrom of Joshua during this span of his life and the general Davidic conquest of the kingdom. And so we must be very careful with heroes. Especially religious ones. Like David himself, many, even to this day, still model the conquest of Joshua and the establishment of David-ish kingdom in Israel. Many settlers in the area surrounding modern day Israel and their American religious allies carry on this “grand” tradition and see their lives through the lens of ancient heroes.

So that brings us back to the conundrum. How can we not have heroes? How can we not have models? Are we alone in the sense that we always run the risk of adopting the darkness of the other as well as the light? Perhaps, but perhaps fasting can give perspective and warn us of our own hidden motives created by our unfiltered adoration.

Photo Courtesy of Lou Levit

 

The Danger of Repentance

It is Ash Wednesday, a day celebrated for centuries by good catholics everywhere and also, increasingly, by the evangelical church in America. There are doubtless many recent articles highlighting the benefits of observing this day and the season of Lent. If you are not educated on this part of the church calendar feel free to do some light reading about it.

A major point of focus today, across the globe, will be the practice and idea of repentance. The two popular, but perhaps somewhat divergent, meanings assigned to the word “repentance”, can be summed up as follows.

  1. Repentance is the act of admitting that one has sinned against God in thought, deed or belief by breaking God’s law or commands, asking for God’s forgiveness and perhaps the forgiveness of others, and deciding to better act, think, or believe in line with the commands of God in scripture.
  2. Repentance is an intentional change in direction based on a new understanding of God and/or his direction and mission.

These overlap of course but they can also diverge drastically because the second de-couples itself from the Bible as an objective standard of morality. However, what I’m here to write about is a danger inherent in both of these activities. When one has been convinced that God is on a mission and that our actions, thoughts and beliefs can influence that mission, we may find ourselves under enormous pressure to find out how we ought to behave and likewise what we ought to abstain from in order to align ourselves with that mission. This can be a very powerful tool in human communities and calls to repentance are often the catalyst for massive changes in community direction, action, and values.

Let me offer an example. In the book of Ezra, chapter 9 & 10, the community is convinced by some Judean princes and the leader, Ezra that the men in the community were guilty of breaking God’s law by taking wives from other Canaanite communities. With the Babylonian captivity fresh in their minds, they believed that such a blatant act of disobedience, if tolerated, would lead to the removal of the favor that had allowed them to resettle in Jerusalem and again subject them to oppression by foreigners.

The community had a fresh sense of the importance of walking in the ways of God. Armed with an understanding that they were destined to walk fully into God’s mission, and that rededicating themselves to the law of Moses was the best way to do that, they took drastic action to remedy this error. We can read in chapter 10 that the men pledged to “put away” the foreign wives. Some with whom they had children. Now there’s a lot of debate as to whether they still supported those wives after “putting them away” or just put them out on the street, or even expelled them from the community. In any case, the sense is that these women and children got the short end of this deal. Their fault for not being born Israelite I guess…

All debate aside, it can’t really be denied that the motivation behind the action was a renewed effort to align the community with the mission of God by what was seen as strict adherence to the law of Moses as the conduit through which that mission would be accomplished. We can see this tradition carry forward into the first century when we read of the legal debates between Jesus and the Pharisees in the gospels. I cannot help but think of Jesus prioritizing mercy over strict adherence in places like Matthew 9. Perhaps these passages from Ezra would have been upon Jesus’ mind as he discussed the law, particularly with his strong stance against divorce.

Whether it’s Ezra, the law of Moses, or even the teachings of Jesus being used, true believers are too often led away from softness of heart by religious edicts which would replace it with a stone like, impenetrable certainty of rightness and holy mission. I can say from experience that strict adherence to “God’s word” can often fight against our own conscience at times and lead us to destroy good things in this world. Things like relationships, family or otherwise, as we see in Ezra, and as I have experienced in my own life. I can’t help but wonder if some of those men who had grown to love their wives were resistant at first but finally convinced that the relationship must be sacrificed in order to live in obedience to God.

By all means seek repentance and ask God to reveal where you need a change of direction in this season. But for the good of the world and the benefit of God’s mission, seek mercy and love over sacrifice and religious codes.