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.

God is not the owner, or the vineyard keeper

I’ve been reading a lot more about second temple Judaism lately. That’s the culture Jesus grew up in BTW. Thanks to folks like NT Wright and Michael Hardin who have made the topic approachable for someone like me. Wright’s book “Paul and the Faithfulness of God” alone is a wealth of information. I would also recommend Hardin’s book. “The Jesus Driven Life” which also can help couch Jesus in his culture for us.

So one interesting thing that happens when learning this history is that when you read the gospels you start to see things once missed. A perfect recent example for me is my recent reading of Luke 13:1-9

“Now on the same occasion there were some present who reported to Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. And Jesus said to them, “Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans because they suffered this fate? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them were worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” And He began telling this parable: “A man had a fig tree which had been planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and did not find any. And he said to the vineyard-keeper, ‘Behold, for three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree without finding any. Cut it down! Why does it even use up the ground?’ And he answered and said to him, ‘Let it alone, sir, for this year too, until I dig around it and put in fertilizer; and if it bears fruit next year, fine; but if not, cut it down.'””

‭‭Luke‬ ‭13:1-9‬ ‭NASB‬‬

This passage was always confusing to me. On the one hand Jesus seemed to be saying that the listed misfortunes weren’t necessarily connected to how bad a sinner the victims were but on the other hand warning his disciples of a similar fate if they didn’t repent. The moral story usually conveyed by preachers of this passage is that sinners always run the risk of terrible catastrophe unless they repent. Once I learned about a couple things common to Judaism  at this time some things began to fall in place not just for this passage but for verses 5-9 as well. And this interpretation I think could be very freeing for folks. Let me explain.

First of all, nowadays I approach the term repentance in its most general sense when I encounter it in the scripture so that the context of the situation can provide the scope of the repentance. Repentance is basically a change of direction or intention. It does not mean to be sorry for sins or even to stop sinning. There are even times the scripture describes God repenting, indicating a change of direction. So the first thing to keep in mind is that the rest of the passage can inform us as to what change of direction Jesus is referring to.

A common belief among second temple Jews of Jesus’ time was that if Israel could remain pure before God, that He would help them overthrow the Roman occupation and take back Israel. Another common belief was that, in general, God protected and gave favor to those who were faithful and pure while bringing destruction on sinners. These two ideas were deeply embedded in the culture.

When I read this passage yesterday, some things fell into place which showed me how Jesus was actually dismantling a belief that it appeared he was reinforcing on previous readings. The passage addresses two catastrophes, galileans being killed by the Roman governer, and some structure falling on some folks In Jerusalem. I always thought these were disconnected random misfortunes because I assumed Jesus was reinforcing the idea that disaster was a constant risk for those outside God’s protection. But I was wrong. These events are connected in the sense that Jesus uses both to address the same problem, the ongoing and impending violent resistance against Rome, and the subsequent destruction of Jerusalem as foreseen by Jesus. The parable of verses 5-9 also can be seen in light of this problem as well.

With all this context in mind, I’d like to present the following reading of Jesus’ response to the question of the Galileans.

“Do you really think that it was because they were worse sinners that these Galileans were slaughtered by Rome? No, but if you continue believing God will give you victory over Rome and protect you in war you will meet the same fate. And what about those 18 people in Jerusalem who were killed when that tower fell, do you really believe that happened to them because they were worse sinners than others in Jerusalem? I’m telling you that’s not the way things work. But again, if you don’t turn away from your agenda of the violent establishment of the kingdom of Israel, you will meet the same fate when ALL the structures of Jerusalem are toppled by Rome.”

I’m just trying to present this in the way I’m understanding it as I’m reading. So this reading basically disarms the whole holiness/protection/sin/punishment paradigm and also denounces the idea that God is on the side of Israel against Rome. Jesus is warning Israel of their coming destruction, not by the anger of God against their sins, but by virtue of the fact that they are trying to establish a kingdom of God based on the same principles as Rome. Cultural supremacy and justified violence among other things.

Since the idea that God is protecting the faithful and judging the sinner with catastrophe is also very prevalent today, a reading that shows Jesus as denouncing this principle could be huge for christian communities in how they understand God and encourage one another in difficult times and catastrophes.

Verses 5-9 can now be easily seen as a continuation of Jesus’ point about Rome and Jerusalem. Perhaps, like me, you always heard that the meaning of this parable was that if you didn’t eventually bear fruit, God would uproot you and Jesus is the merciful vineyard keeper trying to give you more time. In this interpretation God is the owner, Jesus is the vineyard keeper, and you are the fig tree. Or perhaps you heard the more nuanced interpretation where Israel is the fig tree and God is the owner who no longer sees fruit coming from Israel so he wants to uproot it to make room for new trees ( Christianity perhaps?). Who the vineyard keeper represents is less clear in this interpretation.

I prefer to read this in the context of the Rome vs Jerusalem issue that Jesus addresses earlier. Rome is the owner seeing the people and culture of Israel as more of a problem than as a useful resource to the empire. The vine keeper represents those who are in Jerusalem trying to stave off the wrath of Rome (Pilate, Herod, priests, sympathetic Romans, etc…) and the fig tree is Israel. In other words, Jesus rightly understands the politics at play in the relationship between Rome and Israel and he realizes just how close to the brink they are. He is desperate for peace but knows the opposite is inevitable if Israel, including his followers, remain on their trajectory. This reading frees us from an understanding that Jesus already disarms, that God is rewarding the faithful/fruitful with safety and prosperity, while also submitting to disaster the sinner/unfruitful.

In conclusion, God is absent from our power struggles while still present in our midst just as Jesus separated himself from the ultimate power struggle of his day, even denouncing the struggle, while still being present among the people.

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.

Lent as Preparation

The word Lent, in it’s original language, means Spring. Spring as a time of growth and renewal is a refreshing change from winter but perhaps we might see it as preparation as well for the season of summer with all of its work, productivity, celebration and fruitfulness.

All great movements, like great stories, have a beginning, a middle, and an end. The beginning in a story might be a tale of origin. In movements, the beginning is defined by preparation. Take, for example, the story of the movement surrounding Martin Luther King Jr, itself a specific instance of the greater civil rights movement. King’s movements were almost always preceded by intense preparation, often in the churches of the communities he helped. This preparation was absolutely vital for, without it, the massive resistance to the movement could not be withstood. His speeches and direction, accompanied by mutual encouragement and conversation among the participants, prepared the people for the work they were about to do.

What in your life right now is worth preparing for? How can you prepare your self. Not just your body or your mind, but your essential humanity.

The Christian season of lent is modeled after the story of Jesus spending 40 days in the wilderness before he brought the gospel to the people, and that story, in turn, is modeled after the story of Moses spending 40 days on the Mountain before bringing the Israelites the law. These were major movements within communities that required preparation. But do we not face major events of life every year?

In a sense the personal mission of historical and/or mythical figures is made of central importance by their followers and perhaps also always obscured by the narratives handed down, again by the followers. I would not wish to trivialize or minimize the impact and example of their missions and great movements. However, I also do not want to minimize the impact and change each of us brings to our world. It’s profound and equally obscured by mundane circumstances instead of fanatic or devout followers. Is the fact that another person will be added to my family this year somehow less important then the events in the lives of Moses or Jesus? To you my readers I’m sure it is of less importance. And in a statistical sense it will probably mean less to far fewer people. However, to me, it is no less important and I would not consider myself a good father if I felt otherwise. I’m sure if you think about it, you could bring to mind those things in your life as well.

So here is my challenge to myself and please take this up if you feel so inclined. Use this season, from now till Easter, to prepare yourself for what is coming this year. I’m not speaking of self-improvement. That’s important but New Years already has it covered. I’m also not talking about preparation in the sense of to-do lists or buying supplies, or painting the house. I am challenging myself to use the internal disciplines that I would normally perform, or at least hear about, for lent, and to direct the intention of those disciplines toward preparing for what is coming this year, to strengthen my inner self and tap into my humanity. For me, that means removing distraction and having more time of stillness and quiet, both in the house (much less TV) and in my mind as well. I’m taking a fast, as much as I am able, from critical evaluation of people’s expressions. Critical thought is a good thing, so are TV shows (Parks and Rec reruns anyone?). But sometimes dissecting everything everyone says just takes over. I’m directing this intentional inward discipline toward preparing for what is to come.

If you don’t feel you have something this year bigger than yourself to prepare for, perhaps this is your opportunity to reflect and consider how you may change that.

I’ve already shared just one of the things that needs some internal preparation for me and that is the quickly approaching birth of a new baby. What is it for you and how will you prepare? Leave a comment.