Saturday, December 7, 2013

Magician in Frosty the Snowman

I just read a thought provoking blog post about the metaphysical implications in the Christmas special Frosty the Snowman. Check it out here. I recommend it.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Little interesting book stores

When I was a kid there were many little and interesting book stores. They were run by intellectuals who loved books. I remember one that was in an old Victorian house. Its philosophy collection was in an attic room with sloping walls. I remember another bookstore that had cats.Another bookstore was in a strip center, but had interesting rooms: some long and skinny, others square and packed with homemade looking shelves--perfect for hide and seek. I remember one in an upstairs room over a restaurant--a converted apartment with creaky floors and a maze of small rooms stuffed with books. I remember that most had coffee too and sometimes cookies-- and unlike with B&N or Borders, they were complimentary. But then the big stores came and customers preferred the big and bland to the small and unique. With the little stores, shopping was like finding unknown gems. You bought what they had, not necessarily what you wanted. We loved the big stores with their "big" selection. But they have now learned there is always a bigger fish and now the big box store is being swallowed up by the biggest eFish of all--Amazon. With Amazon, you can search for books you really want and you can most likely find it, even if it is out of print or just very obscure. And many times, you can read a few pages and read some reviews. It is really a nice system--better in many ways that what it replaces. And, many of the used books come from other resellers, ones that I like to imagine are little quirky used books stores that are in old Victorian homes and have cats and stock their philosophy books in rooms with crooked walls.

Saturday, January 1, 2011


“With this in mind I make my prayer.” That is how our reading from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians begins. Our passage starts with chapter 3, verse 1, but clearly something is already in mind. But what?
To find out, I go back to the beginning of the letter—to that little salutation that Paul always includes. He begins: “From Paul, Apostle of Christ Jesus, commissioned by the will of God, to God’s people at Ephesus, believers incorporate in Christ Jesus.
“Incorporate”. . . interesting word. Important too, for he repeats it a few lines later. Incorporate means to be embodied. The center part of that word derives from corporeal—as in corporeal punishment: that method of discipline that the schools are no longer allowed to do.
It refers to the body, but Paul is not referring to the body of the historical Jesus. He is not talking about a baby in a manger. He is not really even using language referring to the person of the historical Jesus. He is using body in a cosmological sense. The body, as in the stuff of the universe.
He also writes in this first chapter that the whole “universe, all in heaven and on earth, might be brought into a unity in Christ” (Ep 1:10). In-corporate: to be brought into one body—a unity. “The many become one.”
And not just the universe as a whole—something entirely abstact—Paul also refers to Christ as the foundation stone of the Church. In Christ, he writes, the “whole building is bonded together and grows into a holy temple” (Ep 2:21). Paul tells us that God the father has appointed Christ Jesus to be the head of the Church. Again, we don’t see this commission given in the historical accounts of the life of Jesus. Paul is writing here in cosmological terms—the same kind of language that the author of the Gospel of John so often wrote in. We often hear our own pastor, Jonothan Edwards, use similar language when asking us, just who is the head of this congregational church. His answer, as well as Paul’s is that Christ is the head of the Church. The Church is the body of Christ. Think about this when you hear the words of institution later in our service when we celebrate communion. When J holds up the bread and says, “This is the body of Christ,” think of it referring to the Church. This is no mere metaphor—not for Paul. The Church, he writes, “holds within it the fullness of him [meaning Christ] who himself receives the entire fullness of God” (Ep 1:23). (That is the transitive property at work.) This is quite a statement. First wrap your head around the claim that Christ received the fullness of God and now, that the Church (as the body of Christ) “holds within it the fullness of” Christ. And you, when you partake of communion, you are joining yourself to the fullness of the Chruch, of Christ, of God, of everything.
Incorporate indeed. Unity. One body. The many become one. “With this in mind, I make my prayer,” Paul wrote.  . . . 

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Why December 25th?

Why do we celebrate Christmas just a few days after the winter solstice when almost no one thinks that Jesus was born on December 25th?

An important clue lies in the Gospel of Mark.

Mark? You say. The author of Mark didn’t even write about the birth of Jesus.

Exactly: this earliest of the surviving gospels doesn’t mention anything about Jesus’ birth. Sometime after Mark was written, theological questions about the incarnation arose: What does it mean for God to become incarnate?

The authors of Matthew, Luke, and the non-canonical gospel of James each chimed in with DIFFERENT accounts of a miraculous birth of the baby Jesus.  (The author of John went a different way, emphasizing the eternality of Christ (as opposed to the birth of Jesus)—he only refers to the “Word” becoming “flesh.”)

This is to say that the account of the birth of Jesus (i.e. Christmas) is the answer to a theological problem about what the incarnation MEANS. As theological commentary, the placement of Christmas on December 25th is a reference to a familiar theme. It is an allusion to pagan notions because those were the common parlance, tropes, and memes of the day.

Co-opting solstice celebrations is not theft or borrowing, but the use of something familiar to explain something unfamiliar.   

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Comparing the contested genealogies of Jesus given in Matthew and Luke

Immediate observations:
·         Matthew emphasizes that Jesus is a Jew, showing that Jesus is the son of (i.e. the descendent of) Abraham
·         Luke emphasizes that Jesus is the son of God (and hence available to all, not only the Jews).
o   Besides the genealogy Luke also does this via Jesus’ reference to “my father’s house” meaning God’s house (Luke 2:49).
The women of the genealogies:
·         There are four women mentioned on Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus
·          There are no women on Luke’s genealogy—including no mention of Mary
o   Luke’s failure to mention Mary should be troubling for those who see Luke’s genealogy as the Genealogy of Jesus through Mary
o   An early (and still prominent) view holds that Luke’s genealogy details Mary’s ancestors, not Joseph’s
§  This is in no way clear
§  It seems, at the outset to be, merely an easy ploy to explain away a contradiction (as if that were an important goal) rather than learning from the contested stories
There are  4 women mentioned by Matthew and at least one can be inferred:
1.       Tamar – was accused of being a prostitute (Gen 38:6-30).
2.       Rahab – a former prostitute who provided shelter to Joshua’s spies sent to Jericho (Joshua 2:1-24).
3.       Ruth – a Mobite widow who left her own people to follow her mother-in-law (Naomi’s) Israelite tribe and religion rather than return to her own people (Ruth 1:1-14).
4.       Mary – a pregnant teenager carrying a child who is not her husband’s (as in Matthew), or her betrothed husband (as in Luke.)
5.       Bathsheba can be included by inference. We know that she was the mother of Solomon (who appears on Matthew’s list (but not Luke’s). Bathsheba was an adulteress. She was already married when she had an affair with David (he was too).
Numbers of Generations
You will note that there are several more generations on Luke’s genealogy than there are on Matthew’s.  Some will say that Matthew skipped generations (after all, to say that Jesus is the son of David, just means that he descends from David. It doesn’t necessarily imply that they are in adjoining generation.
How are the numbers 7, 70, and 77 relevant?
If we accept the view that Matthew wasn’t concerned with stating the exact number of generations, but was merely making note of some famous ancestors, then what are we to make of Matthew’s claims about the numbers of generations?
·         Matthew explicitly states that there were 14 generations from Abraham to David,
·         14 from David to the deportation to Babylon, and
·         14 from the deportation to the Messiah (Matt 1:17)?
·          If Matthew skipped some intentionally, then why would he directly refer to an exact number of generations and the pattern of three sets of 14?
Seventy seven
·         Note also that 3 sets of 14 is 6 sets of 7. And what would come after Jesus is the start of the 7th set of 7. This sounds a lot like 77.
·         Curiously, Luke’s genealogy has 77 generations from God to Jesus.
·         Augustine suggests that the number 77 symbolizes the forgiveness of sins.
·         In the non-canonical book of Enoch the Lord instructs Michael (the Archangel?) to “bind them [meaning humans] fast for seventy generations” due to their uncleanness. Note that Enoch (the great grandfather of Noah) is in the 8th generation, starting with God as the first. Thus, the generation after Jesus (who is in generation 77) would be 70 generations past Enoch. The book of Enoch claims that this will be a time of judgment and new beginning.
   Who is who on Luke’s genealogy?
·         From God to David, Luke follow the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), not the Masoretic text (which is the authoritative Hebrew version). We see this in that Luke includes Cianan who is mentioned in the Septuagint, but not the the Hebrew versions.
Who is who on Matthew’s genealogy?
·         From David through Jeconiah, Matthew lists the legal Kingly line
 Solomon or Nathan?
·         Luke shows that Jesus descended from David’s son Nathan (not Solomon, as on Matthew’s genealogy).
·         Matthew shows that Jesus descended from Solomon
·         Why the discrepancy?
o   Because from Solomon we have the descendants of the legal kingly line from David up through Jeconiah. In Jeremiah, it is reported that the line that descends from Jeconiah would be cursed and never again rule (Jeremiah 22:30). If Jesus were to have been a descendent of Jeconiah, this curse would mean that he could not be the King of the Jews.
§   Luke solves this by going back to Nathan so that Jesus does not descend through Jeconiah.
§  Matthew seems either unconcerned (this would be surprising as the Jews of Matthew’s time would recognize the name Jeconiah and immediately think of the curse and its relation to them their current subjugation) or else Matthew solves it with the virgin birth. This too would be very surprising in the sense that one hearing the story for the first time would not see this plot twist coming.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Nativity story (or lack thereof) as found in the four Gospels

·         At the beginning of Matthew, the genealogy of Jesus is given from Abraham through Joseph (The genealogy shows that Jesus is Joseph’s son—and, by extension, David’s son (i.e. descendent) , and Abraham’s son.)
·         Mary discovers that she is “with child” by the Holy Spirit (This part implies that Jesus is not Joseph’s son, but is the Holy Spirit’s son. This seems to contradict the afore mentioned genealogy. Unlike Luke’s account, there is no mention in Matthew that Mary is visited by an angel.)
·         When Joseph discovers that Mary is pregnant, he decides to set aside the marriage contract. An angel convinces him to stick with it.  (His consideration of setting aside the marriage contract seems to indicate that Mary and Joseph are already married; compare this to Luke where they are only betrothed to be married.)
·         The author of Matthew makes a reference to a prophecy of virgin birth [from Isaiah]
·         Matthew reports that Jesus is born in Bethlehem (Matthew’s account contains minimal birth details. There is no mention of traveling to comply with a census, a manger, or shepherds.)
·         Astrologers from the east “see” a star that indicates the birth of the king of the Jews. They come to Bethlehem looking for the child. [It seems that the star does not point to the manger like an arrow in the sky that anyone could follow, but points only in a way that can be understood by astrologers. I say this because Herod didn’t simply follow the arrow to find the child. Instead, he consulted astrologers to find the child that the star indicated.]
·         King Herod consults either those same astrologers that came from the east or else consults his own astrologers and asks them to find the child, Herod’s astrologers find Jesus, but don’t go back to Herod
·         The astrologers offer gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the baby Jesus and warn Mary about Herod, then return home avoiding Herod
·         An angel tells Joseph to take the child to Egypt to protect Jesus from Herod (Joseph takes Mary and Jesus to Egypt and they stay until Herod’s death) This also, according to Matthew, fulfills a prophecy about the Messiah coming out of Egypt.
·         Herod is angry that Jesus (said by the astrologists to be the king of the Jews) slipped through his fingers. He reacts by massacring all the children of Israel under two
·         Jesus doesn’t return to Judah (specifically to Nazareth) until “about” the time that John is preaching. [If Luke is correct and John is only six months older than Jesus, then the time of Jesus’ return to Nazareth contradicts Luke who says that Jesus grew up in Nazareth and stayed there until he was twelve.]
·         The Gospel of Mark contains no nativity story—and no mention of the virgin birth. In Mark, we first meet Jesus when he is baptized by John.
·         In Luke, Jesus’ birth is related closely to John the Baptist’s
·         The angel Gabriel visits Elizabeth (who was “well on in years” and “barren”) and announces that she will give birth a son. [We later know him as John the Baptist]
·         Six months later, Gabriel visits Mary. Mary is surprised given that she is a “virgin.” [In the Greek , virgin (παρθένος, parthénos) generally just means “young woman.” It generally does not directly imply anything about not yet having sex. ] Gabriel announces to Mary that she will give birth to a child named Jesus.
·         When Elizabeth is about six months pregnant, the pregnant Mary visits the pregnant Elizabeth and the Holy Spirit enters into Elizabeth on this occasion
·         Emperor Augustus orders census and Joseph and Mary travel from the Galilean town of Nazareth up to Bethlehem (to a City of David) to comply, since his ancestors descended from David.
·         Mary (betrothed to Joseph, but not yet married, as reported by Luke and possibly contradicting Matthew) gives birth to a child on the way. (The child is not yet given a name.) Mary wraps the baby in swaddling clothes and lays him in a manger. Luke states that there is no room in the “house.” There is no mention of an Inn.
·         Nearby shepherds are visited by an angel and go visit the baby (Mary ponders their visit)
·         Mary and Joseph do legal Jewish stuff. (It is interesting that the only Gospel that mentions these things was written by Luke, who is a Gentile):
o   Per Jewish custom, Joseph and Mary “buy back” their first born, who by Jewish custom belonged to God, with a payment of two turtle doves (two of the gifts mentioned in the Twelve Days of Christmas song)
o   Eight days after birth, Mary’s baby was circumcised and named Jesus
o   Two prominent Jewish people recognize that there is something special about Jesus:
§  Simeon (an upright and devout very old man) says that Jesus is the Messiah. Simeon could not die until he saw the Messiah. (Mary and Joseph are full of wonder at Simeon’s reaction to Jesus)
§  The prophetess Anna also told Mary and Joseph that Jesus is special
·         Joseph, Mary and Jesus return to Nazareth in Galilee where Jesus grows up. Jesus doesn’t leave Nazareth until he is twelve. [This account of Jesus growing up in Nazareth contradicts Matthew’s account that has Jesus growing up in Egypt up until the time of John’s preaching.]
·         Luke’s genealogy of Jesus is given on the occasion of Jesus’ baptism.  [Luke’s genealogy shows 77 generations from God—emphasizing to many that Jesus is the son of God—not just the king of the Jews. Luke also shows 43 generations from David to Jesus, contradicting the 28 generations for the same period that are in Matthew’s genealogy. There are very creative ways apologists have of hand waving over these contradictions. All of these attempts take liberties with the actual Biblical texts and treat them as secondary to the presupposition that there can be no contradictions in the Bible. An early, and still widely held view, is that Luke’s genealogy gives the ancestors of Mary (although it never mentions Mary), and is not the genealogy of Joseph as it literally claims to be.)
·         John emphasizes thae eternal nature of Christ—emphasizing that Christ existed prior to creation.
·         There is no mention of the birth of the historical Jesus
·         There is, however, a reference to the Word becoming flesh. (In John, there is no Nativity story, no mention of a virgin birth, there are no angels announcing Jesus , and astrologers, and no star.) 

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Scary Thoughts

Our first reading today consists of two passages that, in keeping with Halloween, might fall under the category of “scary thoughts.” At least that is how some evangelists try to use them. There is a tradition among fundamentalists Christians to attempt to convert others using small pamphlets known as “tracts.” These tracts often contain scary questions such as: “If you died tonight, do you know where your soul will go?”

To add a sense of authority to their message these tracts usually contain a couple of scripture passages. Two popular ones are ones I will read today.

Now, at the outset, lest there be any confusion, I do not intend to put down the writers or users of these tracts, and I certainly don’t intend to make fun of them. I understand them to be quite earnest, if a bit desperate in their faith. I would no more make fun of someone reaching for spiritual certainty and help than I would make fun of a dying family member whose last words seem theologically unsound. There is a time for discussing theology and a time for comfort.

But, in reading the scriptures as we do every week, as a Christian who looks at these matters in a different light, I do want to reclaim these Bible passage from the way that they are being used in these tracts. Theirs is not the final word on the subject.

The first passage is John 11:25-26

Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and I am the life. If a man has faith in me, even though he die, he shall come to life; and no one who is alive and has faith shall ever die.”

The second passage comes from 1 Corinthians 15:42-44

So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown in the earth as a perishable thing is raised imperishable. Sown in humiliation, it is raised in glory; sown in weakness, it is raised in power; sown as an animal body, it is raised as a spiritual body.

Notice the scary theme: Death. The John passage is even more scary in that it implies conditional resurrection. That is, one will be resurrected if one has faith in Jesus. Faith is a tricky thing. I can decide walk down this aisle and then immediately walk down the aisle, but I can’t decide to have faith and then just simply have faith.

This creates an unsettling feeling in many who hear these passages. I am reminded of the poster on Fox Mulder’s wall in the TV show the X-Files. The poster stated: “I want to believe.” Well, I may want to believe, but wanting isn’t enough. To satisfy the criteria of the John passage, I actually have to believe. And if I waver, then I get scared. Or I am sure that many people are scared at such loss of faith.

The remedy for many is more certainty and less doubt. The more one witnesses about one’s faith, the more he or she convinces themselves that they are indeed certain. And the more certain, the less scary are thoughts of death.

But certainty comes at a high price. If you are looking for your keys, you stop looking as soon as you find them. This method may work for keys, but does it also work for more nuanced and complex things like Biblical interpretation and an understanding of the body, soul, and death?

You stop looking for your keys, because you are sure you found them, but just because you are given a simple and comforting answer about death and your soul, does that justify that you stop looking further. Does your spiritual growth stop with the first answer?

I have heard testimony of faith that, to me, is just too flat, and superficial to believe, and yet I believe that the people who present this testimony truly believe it. It goes something like this: I was down and out (drugs, prison, divorce, teenage angst) and then a friend offered me a prayer and said that Jesus was the answer and I was saved.

Now, I should repeat, I do not wish to make fun of such stories, even though they seem all too simple and lacking in reflection. To me they read like I was hungry and sitting in the parlor. A friend came up to me, extended a cookie and said, “cookie?” and I was satisfied.

Now, there is clearly more emotional content to the acceptance of salvation than there is the acceptance of a cookie. But I am not sure there is any more cognitive component. And that, to me, is a scary thought.
We learn some math in kindergarten and 1st grade, a first grader might even be certain that 3+3=6, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t more to learn.  Indeed, it is a little too early to be certain and to “stop looking” to get back to the key analogy.

Just as a final caution, 3+3 isn’t necessarily 6. It is in the base 10 number system that we learn first, but 3+3=1 in base 5. 3+3=2 in base 4. To clarify this analogy, let me suggest a system of modular arithmetic that you are all familiar with: the analog clock. What is 7 hours more than 8pm? It is not 15pm. It is 2am. Here is a case in which 7+8=2.

My point is that math is more complex than our initial instruction would imply. I think that faith is too. To me, the scary thought isn’t “what will happen to my soul if I die tonight?” The real scary thought is, “What will happen to my spiritual growth if I rest on a comfortable certainty and stop seeking.” To repeat: The real scary question is, “What will happen to my spiritual growth if I rest on a comfortable certainty and stop seeking.” 

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Isaac's Initiation

Today is Children’s Sabbath and so we have a father-son story: that of Abraham and Isaac.

I think that most of you know the story:
  • Abraham prays for a son. 
  • He finally gets a son (Isaac). 
  • God tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. 
  • Then at the last second, God spares Isaac.

It is a bit of a difficult story to hear. It is brief, yet full of possibilities. I don’t suppose to tell you definitively how you should interpret the story, but I will offer you a way out: a way to hear the story and not hate Abraham.

When we hear the story of Abraham and Isaac we often pause to ask, “What was Abraham thinking?” Was he insane? What kind of religious fanatic would even consider killing his own son, let alone making preparations to do so?

But, since our focus is on children today, I propose to ask another question: What was Isaac feeling?
Fear, I am sure as he lay bound and Abraham raised the knife for the offering, but what beyond that: disillusionment?  Contrast this feeling of disillusionment with how Isaac would have felt about his father just days before.

Consider who his father is: Abraham. We know him as the father of three faiths (Judiasm, Christianity, and Islam)—the great patriarch. He wasn’t just any man, he was someone who talked to God. He made a covenant with God, and God was already making good on his end of this covenant. Isaac himself was the fulfillment of this promise that God made to Abraham. I wonder if Isaac knew this. Imagine if he did.  He would have idolized Abraham for his relationship to God, and he would likely have felt woefully inadequate as a gift from God.

But perhaps we are looking at the story with too much hindsight. What would it have been like to have been Isaac just before that trip to Mt. Mariah?

Abraham at this time is not yet a great patriarch. He is an old man with only two young children. He has no grandchildren. He has some wealth. He has slaves, property, and live stock.

So how does a man like this—well off, but not particularly special—become a patriarch? How does he raise his sons so that they will carry on his family name? He can’t simply spoil Isaac and baby him. We see this lesson retold in second and third generation industrialists. They often become playboys—men with no particular moral or leadership distinction, and adult children who squander the wealth of earlier generations. (We see this with girls too. Paris Hilton comes to mind.)  

Isaac had to be different. Abraham has to make Isaac tough—he has to turn a boy into a man, and a father, and not just any father, but the father of all the tribes of Israel. He has to make Isaac a patriarch too. Isaac has to be his own man. He can’t just be an imitation or a follower of his father—he has to come into his own.
Isaac, like all of us, knows his own flaws. He knows his own shadow side. He knows he has fears, and doubts, and fragilities. Indeed, in what we learn of Isaac from the Bible, things are often happening to Isaac. We see it in this story, and the other big story involving Isaac is how his youngest son and wife conspire to trick him.

But, for now, in Isaac’s eyes, his father, as seen in the eyes of a young child, is a little too perfect. Most fathers are for young children. Fathers are like gods. They are all powerful. Hopefully, they are powerful for good, sometimes for ill, but powerful and they speak with authority. Their presence brings deliverance (and sometimes fear), and their absence brings longing and lack.

How could Isaac ever hope to measure up to a father like Abraham—a father who speaks to God—and a father whom God makes a covenant with?

There is notion that is ingrained in the psyche of premodern people. Abraham knew it—perhaps he wouldn’t articulate it in these modern psychological terms, but he knew it (as did others of his time and as do the gangs, drill sergeants, fraternities, and secret societies of today). Their knowledge is evidenced by their respective initiation practices; each knows the dangers of an idealized father.

What better way to transform a childish boy into a man and eventually into a father than to show that boy that he can attain what the father is—indeed even to surpass the father in some way. The first step it to bring the father down to earth—down to reality. The father cannot continue to be a god to the son. The father cannot be an idol. In a coming-of-age initiation, it may appear that the son’s life is in danger—that Isaac’s life is in danger—but the reality is that it is the idealization of the father than ends up dying.

The son gets to live as his own man, only after the idealized father is killed and the son can see the father as a man (not a god): a man of faults, doubts, fears, and excesses.

Despite what the story implies at the beginning and as it unfolds, Isaac doesn’t die. Isaac gains his life. It is often said that in substituting the Ram, God gives Isaac to Abraham a second time. That is to look at the story from above, but from Isaac’s perspective, in his initiation on Mt. Mariah, Isaac is able to see his father clearly for the first time. (Compare this story to the Star Wars saga. It is like when Luke Skywaker first sees his father without the Darth Vader mask. You will recall that just before this scene, Darth Vader tries to kill Luke—that is, he tries to kill his own son. It sounds a little like the Abraham and Isaac story.)

 For Isaac and for Skywalker, each in this pivotal moment first sees both the dark side of his father, as well as the frailty and the light side, and, in seeing this juxtaposition in one all-too-human individual, the two of them share a bond and the torch is passed to a new generation.

Now that you have heard me talk about the story, let us now hear the enduring words of the story as found in the book of Genesis.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Psalm 137

A reading of Psalm 137:

By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept
    when we remembered Zion.
There on the willow-trees
    we hung up or harps,
for there those who carried us off
    demanded music and singing,
and our captors called on us to be merry:

Understand what is going on here. This psalm is written in Babylon by Israelites who were taken there after the fall of Zion. The Israelites sitting by the rivers in Babylon are sad. They have hung their harps in trees because they have no interest in playing them. And yet their captors come to them and demand music. The Babylonians say:

‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion.’

But the Israelites reflect:

How could we sing the Lord’s song
    in a foreign land?

Making a promise to remember, the Israelites express their love for Zion—the land and life they were forced to leave. Further remember that this is not just land, but the place where their temple was located. It was where they talked to God—where they were protected by God—and governed by God. In remembering Jerusalem, they remember their life in closeness to God:

If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
    let my right hand wither away;
let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
    if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jersalem
    above my highest joy.

The next line, I think, asks for the Lord to take some revenge upon their captors. Using “remember” and “against” in an ominous manner, the Israelites pray:

Remember, O Lord, against the people of Edom
    the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
when they said, ‘Down with it, down with it,
    down to its very foundations!’
O Babylon, Babylon the destroyer,
    happy the man who repays you
    for all that you did to us!
Happy is he who shall seize your children
    And dash them against a rock.

Psalm 137 starts out as a sorrowful psalm about Israelites in exile after the fall of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians. It starts in sorrow, but takes a vengeful turn at the end. As a result of this last line, the Psalm becomes controversial and problematic for use in worship. As a result, some worship leaders take the easy way out and choose not to include it as part of a worship service because it is too difficult to explain.

Others wish that it weren’t even included in the Bible, counting it as one of the least likely lines present in the Bible to have been inspired by God.

Some try to explain it by drawing attention to the mindset of the Israelites at the time: Jerusalem had just been sacked by the Babylonians. Many of their men were killed in battle. Many of their children were no doubt killed and many of their women were raped as spoils of war. The Babylonians would have killed the infants of the Israelites so that these young Israelite mothers would, in that way, be free to raise new children fathered by Babylonian soldiers. So we can see it as an “eye for an eye” expression.

We can also see it as expressing, not hatred against infants, but the length of time that the Israelites foresaw as being their time in captivity. If captivity lasted a generation, then the Babylonian babies of today would be their captors of the future. Dashing babies against a rock is a bit like the human version of the expression: nipping it in the bud: deal with something little before it becomes bigger and tougher.

As a way of taking away some of its shock, some would also point out that there was an emptiness to their “wish.” Given their subjugation, there is little chance that the Israelites actually could dash any Babylonian babies against a rock.

Others yet refer to this a “cursing” psalm and understand its use as a way of dealing with human frustration and anger. Its inclusion is an example of how the Bible can be “brutally honest” when addressing human emotion, even when what we want isn’t what we should want.

One thing is clear: The inclusion of Psalm 137 (in the Bible and as a reading in a worship service) poses a challenge to the reader and to the listener. It nearly jumps off the page demanding a response. Do we apologize for it? Do we excuse the Israelites for wishing it? Do we justify their request given their own hardship? Or do we address it in some other manner?  

Friday, April 23, 2010

Divine Truth

I used to think that truth about divine reality was simply too big for us humans to grasp in its entirety. As I saw it then, we were each like the blind men in the parable who each feel and describe part of an elephant. One man, feeling a front leg, describes it as an upright pillar. Another man under the belly describes it as an expansive ceiling. A man at the back being flicked by the tail describes it as a fan that brushes him lightly.
Each man captures a piece of the truth, but none can see the whole truth—the whole elephant.  
I used to think that the religions of the world were like this: blind attempts to describe a reality beyond our grasp—each partially right, but all incomplete. No one ever saw God in God’s entirety.
But in this metaphor, it is assumed that there is a truth to be known—it is just too big for any of us to grasp. This truth is the Elephant.

Now, I am not sure that the elephant is really present in any kind of objective sense in which a statement about it could, at some theoretical level, be judged to be right and a wrong. Rather than an elephant, I now consider God to be more like you and I in that moment right before we come to a decision. In that moment of unrealized pregnancy of possibilities, we hold mutual exclusivities in the same compartment. (I could go to the store. I could make dinner. I could take a walk.) At that moment I am all these possibilities and none of these objective truths. I wonder if this is the way God is at all times.

In quantum physics light is described as having properties of both a wave and a particle. Each of these states is mutually exclusive. It cannot be both. Yet, prior to observation it seems to be both. Then along comes a scientist running an experiment that forces the light to make a decision: wave or particle? I need to know right now. Then, as a result of that observation (that perspective) the pregnancy of possibilities that is the light in its natural state is forced to make a choice. Sometimes it chooses particle, sometimes it chooses wave.
I wonder if God is like this too: a reality, not just too large for any of us to grasp (like the blind men who cannot see the entire elephant for what it is), but like you and I prior to a decision, or like light prior to observation. Perhaps divine reality is not yet an objective fact, but a plethora of possibilities offered to the world.

So long as you remain in that moment prior to a decision, I cannot know you. I have to wait until you act, then I know you as the one making dinner, or the one taking the dog for a walk. Prior to your decision, there is no objective fact to be known about that decision, for it has not yet happened. I now think God is like this: a host of possibilities not yet concrete.

What would it be like if God came to a decision? What would it be like to see God as an object of our perception? The writers of the Bible seem to realize its danger. “No one can see God and live” they caution. The Messiah would wipe out the world as we know it.

Our lives are a fluctuation between a moment of indecision followed by a moment of expression. We see the expressions of others—the indecision, the holding of mutually exclusive possibilities, remains hidden in the other’s interiority. What if God is like this moment of the other’s interior indecision: not something to ever be witnessed second hand; not something objective about which one could utter something true or false about, but forever possibilities for us to make actual?

Did God speak to Moses from a burning bush? Is Jesus God’s begotten son? Did God bring Mohammed up to heaven? Does God play hid and seek with “himself” in creating multiplicity? Is any single truth to be found here, like the single elephant beyond each of the blind men’s reach? Or is God all of these at once: both particle and wave, both the God of Christians, and the God of Islam, both the God who lead the Jews out of captivity, and the Hindu God who plays hide and go seek with himself?

Some will demand that it has to be one to the exclusion of the others. I suspect that God is none of these in any concrete sense, and all of these in a potential sense. God is a God of the future, calling creation into existence by the lure of possibilities. We must not look to the past to find God as a concrete object, but to listen to God’s call, drawing us to something beyond where we are right now, to something better.