Just say "No!" to oversimplification!

Sunday, March 26, 2017

And All Things Shall Be Well


I never knew
the porch was rotten
til I'd stepped through
and sat upon the boards:
my leg vanished
somewhere in the dark among the spiders.

I never knew
my heart had gone to sleep
til I'd walked years away from you
thinking myself alive
and awake but
dreaming in the cobwebs.

I'd never known
I was a minor character, but here
we are, leaving the theatre now. Aren't we
leaving the theatre together?

Heart's truth, when you said
"We'll always love each other"
I hadn't known, but knew at once

was truer than all my shame
and as useless, to take back
who I was, or the gap I'd torn
between us. Truth breaks out
at inconvenient hours, in dreams
of school and exams for classes
I've never been to, of futile searches
where I'm lost, and can't find you

and now I know
this choreography
did not contain one false step, that no one's foolish wrongs
are more innocent, or less so, or unnecessary.

Eden was for its time
only. I didn't know
I needed to see myself naked,
leave everyone and go
into a place where I'd find everyone
not guilty, out of our silly minds.
We love
who we have
and who we are
or no-one. There's nobody else here.

Do your dances, fear your villains
and hate yourselves
as long as it takes.
We're all leaving together.

Forrest Curo, March 26, 2017

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Seeking God's Guidance


I first encountered the fact of this in the 1960's, when I was flailing through a life already hijacked by God, reframed by mind-striping drugs, immobilized by conflicting ideas and ideals.
In search of a group I might really belong with, I stayed overnight with people who kept the air thick with pot smoke amid the bewildering sounds of a record I'd never heard of: 'The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter,' by the Incredible String Band. Among many intricate, confusing lyrics, one mad fragment struck me:

and who would hear
directions clear
from the Unnam-ed All-Namer?
an obvious reference, accurate or not, to God. "Could I actually _do_ that?" I wondered? That thought was, I knew, a prayer. The answer — I had no idea how I knew it — was "Yes." Why would anyone think they might actually hear from God? Why would they want to?
Because there is something that recognizes truth at the center of every human being. This isn't the intellectual mind, nor is it (strictly speaking) the heart. Its workings aren't confined to the marvelous neural net that embodies each human's interactions with the physical world. It isn't God; but it is our interface to What or Whom it is that people know as 'God'.
There's no place for such a star in the cosmos of contemporary normalism; but the telescope for seeing it is patient self-observation.
I didn't say it's a faculty to make anyone error-free or infallible. Everyone who's ever practiced any art form under inspiration's odd jurisdiction should have seen this at one time or another: A poem (or other inspiration) that wakes a person late at night, inexorably demanding to be written, won't necessarily be a masterpiece; and it may well benefit from subsequent editing. But something wiser than your waking self takes a hand.
People are usually willing to concede this much, but often they balk at claims that what's involved has any power beyond our physical skulls. That reservation is the most obvious obstacle to relying on it; but not the only one.
People have been so much mislead by hopes and fears that they're afraid to trust even valid hopes; they find it easier, somehow, to hope that trusting their fears will keep them safe. This is simply tragic.
The hope involved is that God is real and will give us what we want. The worst outcome, of course, would be if God had been real, but cruel as our imaginations.
Much depends on how we conceive of power. For the monarchists who collected our Bible, power meant being able to give orders and have them be obeyed. The stories they assembled came from even earlier times, when power was a warrior's prowess, including the foresight necessary to an effective war-leader.
The existence of evil was not a problem for either concept. Other gods could contest power; subordinates could abuse delegated authority. Their model of God could be, was supposed to be cruel against disloyalty and rebellion, which threatened the safety of all their law-abiding subjects.
But Newton's God was a system designer, more than merely the Psalmists' artificer of the 'fearfully and wonderfully made" human body — This model of Creation envisioned a builder who'd constructed and set in motion the whole clockwork machinery of the universe. Any flaw in its operation naturally reflected on God's character. As more and more people adopted scientific explanations of how the world works and why it works that way — More and more people found the idea of God as its Maker — morally repugnant. A magnificent Creation — but any God who would create it seemed inept or wicked. So in the academic world, the world of Great Thinkers and socially-acceptable opinion -- Atheism came to be as much taken for granted as it commonly is today.
Still, it left the world just a little too meaningless and hopeless. When drugs suddenly came along that offered a chance to see something else — God, even — It was the brightest students at my university that wanted to see what we might find.
Of all the varied descriptions of how a drug like LSD affects people, the one that seems beyond question is this: that it lowers the threshold for pattern-detector mechanisms in the nervous system. A pattern that isn't visible to normal vision, hearing, or conceptionalization — is generally called 'a hallucination.' But sensitivity to pattern is a basic feature of how a brain functions at all.
The issue is how much sensitivity is desireable. A computer scanning a satellite photo for hints of camoflaged airfields, tanks, soldiers... applies many similar processes; and there's a useful range of responsiveness that picks out features a human observer might miss; while beyond that it would see features that aren't there, or turned too low would miss too much.
Hunger — or fasting — typically lowers the perceptional thresholds. For an individual lost in the wilderness, or a tribe with a failing food supply, that kind of change is functional. It would be too much to have to live with in normal circumstances. People living with pain, suffering, or boredom — prefer beer, a substance with almost opposite effects.
Extremely unlikely meaningful coincidences — examples of what Jung called 'synchronicity — had become a regular feature of my life well before LSD appeared. My love for a young Unitarian woman, who insisted that the word 'God' referred to something real, even if explaining the meaning could be elusive — had forced me to recognize that there could be a powerful intelligence choreographing our lives and that people who thought so weren't always fools, but could in fact be simply more perceptive.
But the dance of my subsequent life included a long series of mis-steps and pratfalls. And hence, my brief stay with this household of holy fools and their haunting new record.
Soon afterwards, circumstances — a further series of synchronistic events — introduced me to a man who often used the I Ching for divination. I don't even remember how I decided to try it myself, nor what I asked [through] it nor what answer I received — except that I was surprized [and somewhat distrustful at first] to find the response meaningful, appropriate to what I'd wanted to know.
Before long I had my own copy of the I Ching to bother. Life in late-60's Berkeley became even more strange and wonderful as synchronicities and unexpected inspirations multiplied, snatches of that String Band record running through my mind:

"May the Long-Time Sun shine on you,
all Love surround you
and the Pure Light within you
guide your way on..."
At times I would stand at some unbusy spot on the sidewalk, feeling for a nudge towards one direction or another, before I'd go that way. Alas, at whatever encounter or destination I eventually arrived, still I was my same unenlightened self. And so, there were other times when this didn't seem such a good idea.
When the I Ching said an idea would work out wonderfully, provided I took proper care with other people's property... this had nothing to do with how things would go if I were careless. So I floundered through many interesting outcomes, until one day I found myself with a raging nicotine fit, sitting on the floor in a welfare hotel room in downtown Oakland, asking: "Why shouldn't I sell you and buy a pack of cigarettes?" Before I'd finished sorting the yarrow sticks, the phone rang — an unexpected invitation from one sweet and sexy young woman friend.
Returning from that, I ran into friends of a veteran I used to smoke dope with — who offered me floorspace in their shared apartment. When a State disability check finally came through and I could at last repay them, I'd become an honorary member of the group.
But eventually I tired of Berkeley, and returned to Southern California, to the small town there where I'd first started college. There I fell into sudden love, and when the I Ching told me, "You are very far from happiness," my reaction was: "Why am I asking this silly book who to love?"
Despite an intense empathic resonance with the woman, I was indeed very far from happiness -- She kept striving to attune herself to God by total withdrawal from the world. As a friend of hers told me: "In India her neighbors would call her a saint, and look after her. Here, they call her crazy, and lock her up." Decades later I found a poem by her in a newpaper in Washington, and wrote to get us back in touch. "Hardships and suffering," she wrote back, "have left me with an unshakable faith... in Something." Where I'd feared I might have treated her badly; she said the time with me had been one of her good periods. But clearly we hadn't been meant to stay together.
The next woman I met was even less appropriate.
Years later, she said she'd seen me first, walking across the lawn at a May Day celebration, and told herself: "I want that guy!" Then a mutual friend had introduced us, and my own senseless lonesomeness did the rest. A few days afterwards, she was caught up in a raid on her apartment building and extradited on a bullshit charge to Utah, well out of reach.
I stayed in town while the local collective mood turned apocalyptic. Nixon was escalating the war against Vietnam, protesters were being killed, too many people had turned to bad drugs or to worse religious notions, while a desperate few wanted to oppose the war with their own futile violence. The only thing that made sense to me was to return to school, maybe study nursing and learn enough to mitigate the widespread suffering that seemed likely. As my summer rental ran out I suddenly realized I'd turned old. The world might end in nuclear folly at any moment; and no-one I knew there cared if I stayed in town or left. I decided I should go home, make peace with my parents while we were all still alive.
I had no plans to stay with them... But I seemed to be coming down with a cold. My mother fussed, claimed I looked sick, insisted I see her doctor. The doctor had no doubts whatsoever: "Mono. Gamma globulim shot."
After that, there was nothing else to be done. I lay around the house exhausted, with a sandpaper throat, passing out at unpredictable intervals. One day I started walking the long two blocks to a nearby bookstore, stopping to rest each time at a bus stop halfway there.
And then I got a letter. After months in solitary (the only woman in a small-town Utah jail), my extradited friend had gone to trial and been released. She said she feared that some people were doomed to find their way through life all alone. I invited her to come visit. As my parents were opposed to her staying with us, I rented a room upstairs from a local health food store; and a year later we were married in the park across the street.
As everyone knows, astrology doesn't work, but when I looked up our data it showed Saturn from her chart in the same place as the Sun in mine, my own Saturn likewise overlapping her Sun. A long-lasting bond, said the best astrology book I had handy. Everyone who knew us thought we were a happy couple, as in fact we were. What the book didn't say, I learned later.
Saturn in Virgo could make a person harshly critical; Saturn in Cancer could squash a person's interest in household matters... and Saturn close to another person's Sun position could definitely cramp a person's style, because Saturn did symbolize a strongly constrictive force, while the Sun in anyone's chart was supposed to be a pointer to that person's basic identity.
Despite the fact that astrology doesn't work, we were tightly bonded — and we each tended to crush the other's sense of who they were and most needed to be. Toward the end, she called me into the living room, where she'd been watching tv — from the bedroom, where I'd been trying to write a novel, as far as I could get from the tv's attention-stealing presence — to say, "Forrest, you know we really don't have much in common." Ten years to the day from the May Day when she'd first seen me crossing the lawn, I moved out of her house and into freedom once again.
My first marriage, and my second wife's first marriage had both violated a major taboo of Chinese astrology: that couples born six years apart shouldn't marry. Our own marriage did it again — and while our first marriages were disasters, we seem remarkably suited to each other. (There is a pattern to the world; but not as simple a pattern as humans tend to expect.
Aside from all that — I'd long ago stopped promiscuously bothering the I Ching. Though there is good advice in it, though traditional divination techniques often serve up truly appropriate passages — Reverence for what I found in the book itself was clearly a distraction.
There's something paradoxical about divination in the first place; this is after all a prayer for guidance, and I should be respectful of the results; yet sometimes these conveyed very little, apparently hinting I needed to "Figure it out yourself, dummy!" I could just flip a coin (and many times did) but that method implied that half the time my answers would need to be 'noes' — unless, indeed, I wanted God to shift physical probabilities out of true, just to accomodate me.
If I'd once yearned for powers beyond the ordinary — Whatever made me expect to use them harmlessly without considerable wisdom? Since I'd shown little sign of that, it seemed better for now to grope through life like everybody else.
And so the matter stood for many years. I still felt myself to be under God's instruction, still read everything promising about religion that came my way, was continually trying to figure out what God was doing with the world, and why.
I hadn't forgotten that [for no apparent merit of my own] I had been touched by Grace, back in that mad, holy era called the 60's. God had given a brief, bewildering backstage tour to a peculiar assortment of idealists and rebels, then gone incognito, leaving the world sleepwalking on into all the evils we'd once hoped to see swept away. While I stopped bothering God for continual guidance, I continued to follow whatever trails of synchronistic breadcrumbs came my way, finding some of them idle hopes, finding some of them truly Gifts.
Whenever it was I found an unfamiliar yoga book at a local library — I had already joined the San Diego Friends Meeting, and the title seemed evocative of Quaker worship: _Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving Into Stillness_, by Erich Schiffmann. While Shiffmann was saying many things I'd heard and read from other yogis, he also pointed out the origin of asana practice as meditation poses, and emphasized yoga's ultimate purpose: enhancing our awareness of the human connection to God. Several chapters were explicitly about a practice of 'Listening for Guidance.'
Keeping in mind the synchronistic lives and intuitions reported in early Friends' journals, this struck me as the most truly Quakerish book I'd seen in a long time.
Schiffmann wasn't telling it the way George Fox would have; his language was more Newage than Christian. In the process of illustrating certain points, he'd thrown in some gratuitous historical howlers. But he was Quaker in his recommendation to examine ourselves for the essential truth, rather than relying on him or on anything we'd thought we knew or anything we thought we should believe.
In my own Quaker Meeting, worthy old Friends were rising to proclaim Messages like: "It's dangerous to think God's talking to you," while this Southern Californian yogi was telling us we should learn to tell when God is talking to us, because God can and does.
Indeed, Schiffmann observes, the gap we see between God and ourselves is largely an artifact of egotistic thinking. "We think it's egotistical to think we are fundamentally perfect expressions of a divine Life Principle." But it's truly egotistic, he says, "to think that you are responsible for who you are and that you created yourself... That's ego." We didn't, after all, make ourselves. It makes more sense "to recognize the Allness of God" — an allness which implies that there is no thing, neither our imperfect selves nor our many faults, that can possibly exist outside of God.
"Meditation means listening, and the meditative mind is the 'listening-to-Infinite-Mind' mind. The practice of yoga is a way of learning to be in this meditative listening state all the time. It's not only about how flexible your body is, or how many advanced and intricate postures you can do, though all of this is wonderful. It's about you and your specific mind listening to, being guided by, and communing with Infinite Mind, God."
Therefore Schiffmann devoted several chapters specifically to learning how to be guided by God. One does this by asking, 'listening' for, and following what guidance comes.
"There is a whole other language involved in listening inwardly for communications from the universe in this way. It is not always dependent on words... You will know what to do without having figured it out." If that process turns ambiguous we are once again in familiar Quaker territory: "The best thing to do in this confused state when you are faced with a difficult decision is mentally to stop, become quiet, centered, and still; and then silently ask again... And then be patient.... If you are calm and attentive and are truly desirous of an answer to your dilemma, and are therefore listening with open ears, the mental waters will become clear and calm and the most appropriate thing to do will be obvious."
Was Schiffmann suggesting people put themselves through dramatic tests of faith, deciding their most urgent dilemmas this way? That's what initially frightens people about the idea; but what he actually says is to practice resolving minor uncertainties with prayers for guidance. This should solidly confirm that it's our best way to navigate through any situation where we don't know the score. (Really, we don't know, more often than we like to realize.)
Schiffmann's book recommends hatha yogi asanas to 'purify' our intuition, to render it a more dependable medium for receiving guidance. Yet I am an utterly undisciplined, obsessively intellectual couch-potato. Asana practice is not the first activity that comes to mind when I wake in the morning, nor at any other time.
Is there hope for me, then? Actually, yogi offers diverse branches for people of different inclinations to reach awareness of our 'yoking' to God. And while contemplative traditions in many religions encourage quieting the compulsive mental chatter that's the most common, crippling obstacle to knowing God; interpretations that would stifle the mind — like those which have traditionally devalued the body and the emotions — are simply mistaken. (I'm an intellectual; I should know!) God permeates all modes of perception: physical, emotional, mental — and that elusive 'something else' people persistently fail to reduce to physical, emotional, or mental events. Truth. Beauty. Love. Everything we're ultimately brought to recognize as 'spiritual'.
Schiffmann says that "Practicing yoga during the day is a matter of keeping your eyes on the road and one ear turned toward the Infinite. It’s about listening inwardly as often as you can for your deepest impulses about what to say, think, do, or be... It is the meaning of `Thy Will be done.`" The distinction between our wills and God's fades with the recognition that our will attuned to God's steers us better than our heedless flailings ever did.
I do not find this easy to practice. What I have realized is that it's our only hope. Probably it fits a spiritualized interpretation of what 'The Reign of God' ought to look like. Probably it describes the way early Quakers navigated their preaching missions. Such conceptional considerations aren't convincing to anyone who denies that he has, that we have, methods that work well enough to effectively guide our lives. But the fact is that following the prevailing ideas of "what makes sense" has brought the Earth and its inhabitants into an inexorable series of escalating disasters. Our various "problem solving" techniques, as David Bohm pointed out, intrinsically produce solutions worse than the problems we started with, in a collective reenactment of "The Old Lady Who Swallowed the Fly." The best possible human plans to cope with multiple interlinking crises — would be clearly inadequate, would never be agreed to, and certainly would leave out crucial unforeseen obstacles.
In my own life, I have reached the end of my habitual "Figure It Out" mindset. I can't do it anymore. My lifelong struggle with having "a mind with a mind of its own" has ended in helplessness.
"I can of my own self do nothing" — or nothing much worthwhile. To write this very piece, I've needed to repeatedly turn away from it, distract myself briefly (a pleasant, but increasingly dysfunctional defense against anxiety) — and most effectively, to sit in meditation until the next piece of it finally came clear.
And you? Do you feel safe in this world as you are, as it is? Do you have a truly adequate way to cope?

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

A Diagnosis

We trust in oracles of stone,
in names of air, electrical
abundances of nothing

yet faith eludes us; hope
remains a treacherous
enticement to futility
and vain regrets. Faith

I tell you truly
is different -- That lost sense
disparaged and counterfeited, credulity
usurps its place, sets us to building
houses of despair, where faith
would break the eggshell prison
from inside, and free us all.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

A Theological Poem

What did I gain, to find my soul
within a perfect dying world?--
With God (my only hands)
immobilized by wisdom

everything
and nothing
remains undone. Violence rules
peacefully over
poisoned earth and yet

I know
where Life is from

and trust the Power that dreams me
will not harm, nor be harmed
no matter what happens
no matter what happens.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Is God Unjust?

I've been asked to write a piece about the Book of Job -- a story which has intrigued and defeated the greatest intellects of Western Civilization for thousands of years now. It comes to us in the form of a story because there are things people simply don't 'get' when one states them baldly; but we know it possesses meaning; and generally we try to extract that meaning into one bald statement or another; isn't that just like us?

The story is particularly rough on great intellects because it isn't susceptible to any purely intellectual mode of understanding, except as a paradox.

It's said that "The opposite of a great spiritual truth will often be another great spiritual truth," so paradox -- the realization that Job triggers a question in us with no satisfactory answer, so that it behooves us to confess bewilderment and go home -- is one logical response.

There's more to it than that. The question of God's justice (or injustice) is clearly essential to any human being who knows we live under God's jurisdiction. Can we trust God not to throw a whirlwind at us for no apparent reason?

Job's real message is that it's the wrong question, an inappropriate question.

An uppity question? -- That's one way to read God's huffing and puffing towards the end; but that's not satisfactory either. ("Because I'm bigger than you and I say so!" is an answer people are bound to outgrow, to rebel against or use to draw all the wrong conclusions: ~"That's not okay for us, but profound when God says it!" or, conversely: "If God throws His weight around this way, it's okay for His Humble Servant Me to behave like that!"

Okay, we're allowed to ask about Justice and Injustice -- Job himself does so repeatedly -- but what we really need to know is, "What is God like?"

God has formed us within a world where pious souls and atheists can both look around and find their beliefs confirmed.

But God is implicitly real in the story of Job; and Job's neighbors not only fail to answer his complaints with their pieties; God appears in Person to refute them, rebuke them and tell Job he'd better pray for them.

And the Devil? The Devil is also real within the story. He is not the  well-known Christian Devil, rebelling against God and doing great harm to us in that endeavor -- nor is he God's absolutely-evil counterpart from Zoroastrian theology -- but he is a personage drawn from Persian influence all the same.

A 'satan', in the ancient Persian Empire, is an undercover cop assigned to test and promote loyalty to the regime. He'll buy you a drink or two, encourage you to get silly, make a few witty remarks about 'that clown Cyrus' and wait for you to respond in kind. If you aren't careful, you'll wake with a hangover in the morning, inside a jail cell, while your drinking buddy
will be outside in his judge's robes, heating the irons for a little judicial inquiry. 'Satan', in this story, is God's agent for exposing disloyalty. He's not acting on his own; his little bet with God (whether he can corrupt Job) is the sort of friendly banter you might still find today when public defenders and prosecutors go out to lunch together.

In this story, it's also quite possible that 'Satan' embodies certain doubts Job himself is trying to resolve. "Do I really love God? Or am I just feeling that way because He's blessed me so much? Do I even know He's real, or simply an illusion I can believe in because I've been so lucky?" Job isn't just excruciatingly pious and conscientious; he wants to Know!

Couldn't God simply tell him? "Hey, I'm real,"? Well, yes, but why should Job believe him? -- "Aren't you just an hallucination? A figment? Why should I believe what You say?" It wouldn't be a satisfactory answer, because it isn't God who needs to know, but Job.

"The Kingdom of God is spread out upon the world, but men don't see it." People faintly intuit a spiritual foundation to the world, to that juncture where their own consciousness and all the stuff 'out there' meet; but this isn't a thing that operates within our human notions of reason or goodness or anything else. It's everything we truly are, yet it's alien to everything we think we are!

People spend years, lifetimes under one or another spiritual discipline, because they're seeking an answer that can't be grasped by themselves, the way they are. They get frustrated, they sometimes crack (and sometimes, as in the song, some light seeps in that way.)

So a Zen teacher may have two sticks, one to shock people through the more typical obstacles -- and a thicker, heavier stick for the most stubborn blockheads. God does His best to clue Job in, but it takes the heavy duty industrial whacker to get through.

And then Job gets it: "I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear; but now my eye sees you!"

May we all find an easier path!

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Redemption, Jews, and Jesus

The Bible says that God produced the Jewish People -- a story which suggests (by its context) that God intends them to play a role in the redemption of the world, our release from the harmful consequences of the 'Knowledge of Good and Evil.' Clearly they have served this purpose in the past, and continue to produce good insights and inspirations. But equally clearly, their existence as a nation-state seems to have always provided bad examples of what human beings everywhere keep doing wrong. Their main contribution so far has been this seductive and problematic anthology itself, full of stories about God and their encounters with that often-enigmatic Being.

Without the Bible, of course, we might have little reason to consider mortality, oppression, or lack of contact with God to be problematic. Unpleasant, perhaps, but not surprising. The Eden story, whether or not we take the Christian view of it -- implies that things haven't always been this way, that our current unsatisfactory state isn't a given -- and may somehow be overcome. For the Jews, exile from Israel became a metaphor for the human condition. For Roman converts to Christianity, however, the offer of a new God-appointed ruler returning from Heaven to set all things right would have been more appealing. And so Christianity needed an explanation, other than Israelite sin, for why so much of the world needed fixing -- and the notion that humanity had inherited a sinful nature certainly fit most people's observations.

In theory, Jewish and Christian interpretations of our needs seem radically different. As to what people mean by them, maybe not so much. Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi re 'what we seek': "We want to be attuned to God, experience a closeness to Him/Her, collaborate with His/Her entelechy as it unfolds His/Her design, become one-d with others who mind as we do, become aligned toward oneness and organicity, to receive the revelation of planetary telepathy with all the other sentient beings who form His/Her embodiment, to be instruments, limbs of God. Our questions are not so much what can we say about God's existence or the nature of His/Her being. Beyond all definitions we are challenged by the ground of our being that lives and breathes, thinks and feels in us." Both Judaism and Christianity can stretch to accommodate a wide range of understandings.

But our Bibles present a diverse set of books, the Hebrew scriptures being mostly unconcerned about death or resurrection, the Christian writings obsessed with them. Whatever ancient Hebrews believed about death and life beyond it, they didn't see much need to explain. They might even have practiced 'ancestor worship,' which would have been a family affair of little concern to the centralized religious establishment, so far as it didn't lead to calling in professional mediums (disapproved as potential rivals to the state cult's prophets, as the story of Saul suggests.) By the time of Jesus, the Pharisees had come to believe in a general resurrection as described in the Book of Daniel, where martyrs would be singled out for posthumous rewards. At least some of their spiritual descendants, the rebbes of the Hasidic movement, included reincarnation among their doctrines... perhaps from some ancient tradition, but who could say for sure? The matter was relatively irrelevant to regulating a functioning theocracy.

Paul, however, in the first writings of the Christian 'New Testament', goes so far as to say, "If Christ is not raised from the dead, then all your faith is in vain." To anyone who values Jesus chiefly for his ethical teachings, such a stance seems perverse -- yet there it is, quite early in our traditions. Of course, for those teachings to be normative to anyone who didn't feel their intuitive force, God needed to  vindicate and thereby endorse the teacher, who had died so wretchedly. Nobody before Jesus expected a Messiah to die and be resurrected; and suddenly it becomes [for standard-brand Christian believers] 'foretold by the prophets.' NT Wright argues that it became doctrine by observation. That is, a dead Messiah could neither rule Israel nor conquer the goyim; once Jesus was alive and well again, his supporters could only conclude that God had returned him to life for that very purpose.

When? "Soon", we are repeatedly told. The Christian Bible is radically mistaken -- or people are mistaken in how we interpret it.

This again seems merely to illustrate how the Bible works. 'Inspiration' is not meant to be understood as rendering anybody whatsoever 'infallible.' Some things people can know intuitively, and not be mistaken -- but as with any source of truth, one needs to reach one's own understanding.

We are told -- with various explanations -- that Jesus' death saves us from our sins -- but supposedly, only if we believe it does. Little of this doctrine coheres with the nature of God as Jesus describes Him. A loving Father who does only good to his children, whether these belong to 'the Just' or 'the Unjust', can hardly be planning eternal punishment for any of them who fail to swallow some absurdity.

What we get are explanations that make sense in the ways people were thinking at the time. Jesus' Judean contemporaries considered "Sin" important because that was their best explanation for why Israel, having been liberated from Egypt by God Himself, was now being oppressed by unclean pagan foreigners.

A secular observer would say that Rome had a larger army, supported by plunder and tribute from rich neighboring countries -- and that agricultural civilizations had always included oppression, had always been ruled by elites taking a big cut from the crops of subsistence farmers -- if they didn't simply foreclose on  them and put them to work on their own land as slaves and casual laborers, as had already happened in Italy and was now happening, under Roman-style commercial practices, in Judea.

Though free from the evils of monarchy, the far-from-ideal institutions of ancient Israel had been constantly threatened by neighboring pagan kingdoms. Only continual miraculous intervention could have maintained their existence under tribal organization and ad hoc charismatic leadership. God might conceivably have provided such help -- but if the people no longer expected that level of protection, was it their fault for lacking 'faith'? -- or did it show that God had never intended that state of affairs to go on forever?

Even an ideal human government could hardly guarantee faith, enlightenment, or closeness to God among a people. A nation of saints might do without a government entirely -- or easily agree on whatever arrangement met the needs of a time. But no one knows what conditions would produce such a nation: wise and enlightened laws and rulers, prosperity, a way of life in which children could grow up happy and bright, yet somehow remain pious.

Yet Jesus' first and central proclamation was that something called 'The Kingdom of God' [This can also be translated as 'The Reign of God'] was either arriving or already, in some sense here. It was either 'within you' or 'among you' or both.

Meaning little to us, that phrase would have spoken eloquently to 1st Century Jews, suggesting the return of God's favor and intervention, deliverance from foreign oppressors, all the blessings their scriptures promised if they could keep to God's covenant with their nation. There were several occasions when popular prophets of the time led crowds out into 'the wilderness,' to cross back into The Promised Land, in one symbolic way or another -- and every time, the Romans suppressed such ceremonies violently. If there was to be a kingdom of Judea, they wanted emphatically to choose who'd be in charge and where the taxes would go.  

However many insights and misapprehensions Jesus' words have generated since then, neither he nor his hearers would have thought he was talking about a kingdom in the sky for dead people. He was saying that God, having seemingly abandoned Hsr people to slavery and their own devices, was now actively engaged with them and the world; as I now consider his sayings and parables, these are saying what that looks like in practice, what we need to do to join in that interaction.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

And What More Is the Bible Saying? Redemption II

For the Israelites to ask for a king was another fall from innocence -- initially relying on God to provide leadership, the elders now want to control the process of choosing leaders. No longer an example to other nations, they become another example of our mistakes, an example which is to acquire immense influence through the sacred books they will someday write.

It is not an example we are meant to emulate, though that's how many people will interpret the story: "God gave them an hereditary monarchy; therefore that's the kind of government God intends us to have." But if you read between the lines, the Israelite monarchy is a disaster from beginning to end. We've already seen the pitfalls of an hereditary priesthood; we've seen that making the role of Judge hereditary also fails with Samuel's sons -- that's why the elders say he should choose them a war leader. They want their leader to be God's choice -- Yet as God tells Samuel, "It is not you they are rejecting, but Me."

If they truly trusted God, they would have the leaders they deserve. So far as they already distrust God, they are getting the leaders they deserve -- Samuel's corrupt sons. We, too, get the government we collectively deserve, yet we, too, imagine that changing a few leaders and improving a few laws will bring us a better government.

Saul chooses Saul -- a strapping, good-looking young man, nobody of any particular rank or prestige -- and once Saul anoints him the Spirit of YHWH 'comes mightily upon him.' Even so, Saul soon reverts to normal consciousness, trusting God in theory but in practice showing anxiety, as if everything depended on his own initiative. When Samuel shows up late to an impending battle, Saul performs a sacrifice to 'entreat God's favor.' To us, this looks like a minor breach of protocol -- Previous war leaders, 'Judges' chosen spontaneously by God, had offered sacrifices. Samuel is the current such Judge, not Saul; so we can understand him feeling personally stepped-upon; but why should God object? Those leaders had been inspired by their faith in God; but Saul's rationale is: "I said, 'Now the Philistines will come down upon me at Gilgal, and I have not entreated the favor of the Lord,' so I forced myself, and offered the burnt offering." Saul does not pray to seek God's will; to sacrifice from that consciousness would have shown faith. He isn't Told to sacrifice, but instead he gets anxious about what might go wrong, wants to control matters personally.

That sort of orientation is one significant interpretation of what it means, for someone 'to know Good from Evil.'

David, the founder of the next Israelite dynasty, gets a very good press; the priestly scribes of his court clearly favor him. Saul is said to have massacred 'the priests of the Lord' because he suspected them of aiding David; and the lone survivor takes refuge with David's band. Unlike Saul, David 'inquires of the Lord' before major decisions. [This does not seem to mean praying for guidance, however, but having this priest perform some kind of divination.] David's rivals typically die under suspicious circumstances; but David has nothing to do with it, except sometimes to summarily execute a perpetrator. He is credited with killing Goliath; the story has it that it happens when David is an unknown boy -- but somehow is already King Saul's armor bearer (a prestigious job for a powerful, trusted professional warrior.) The patchwork story we're given about this simply won't fit together -- and in 2 Samuel 22:18 Goliath is killed again by David's servant Elhanan. It's likely the Psalms attributed to David were likewise written by subordinates. (Although Henry VIII did write a popular drinking song, it's less common for rulers to be poets than for them to take credit for work done on their behalf.)

The one truly rotten act David's scribes do admit is him taking Uriah's wife and having Uriah killed in battle. This is merely an offence against a foreigner, not one against an Israelite -- and it is incidentally crucial for establishing Solomon's right to the throne. Solomon, when he comes to power, kills everyone his father had promised to spare -- and institutes forced labor for all Israelite tribes except Judah. Slavery to a king, years after God freed their ancestors in Moses' time, has once again become a feature of Israelite life.

When Solomon's spoiled son becomes king in Jerusalem, the tribes of northern Israel complain and ask him to reduce their burden. Listening to his cronies' advice, he refuses -- and the country splits into two rival kingdoms. This may seem to be a misfortune -- but what it accomplishes, by creating two Yahwehist Israelite regimes, is to prevent the tyranny a unified rule could impose. The priests of the Temple in Jerusalem attempt to centralize the nation's religious observances there; the regime in Samaria maintains rival shrines at the two ends of its area, removes the family-membership requirements for priests.

In both regions, over time, wealth in land becomes concentrated, the poor are gradually forced into debt and slavery; prophets wax indignant and warn their rulers that God won't let this go on. Jerusalem, a natural fortress, holds out about 100 years more than the northern kingdom, ruled from Samaria. The Judeans later claim that the native Samaritans were taken away by their Assyrian conquerors, who replaced them with foreign heathens; Samaritans have books which claim instead that they're good Israelites who've been there since that upstart David introduced those silly innovations down in Jerusalem.

When the Judean elite return from exile to rule on behalf of their Persian supporters, they've acquired a heavy emphasis on ethnic purity and maintaining the Temple cult, which they re-establish as soon as possible. The hostility which develops almost immediately between this group and the Samaritans is still festering in Jesus' day. The Galileans, conquered and subjected to 'the laws of the Judeans' about 100 years before Jesus, were yet another group of Israelites whose customs and legal interpretations varied significantly from theirs.

None of this seems to have relieved any significant numbers of people from death, alienation from God, or the curse of toil. For a peasant farmer, taxes and tithes and tribute all work much the same, forever threatening you with hunger and the need to borrow. Whatever the Law says, the generous neighbor who helps you out will some day own your sons and your daughters and your ancestral land. Whatever the institutional arrangements, as long as  people are estranged from God, fear corrupts the relations between people.

Neither Christians nor Jews are satisfied with the situation at the end of the Hebrew Bible. As Nehemiah tells his adherents: "Behold, we are slaves this day; in the land that Thou gavest to our fathers to enjoy its fruits and its good gifts, behold, we are slaves. And its rich yield goes to the kings whom Thou hast set over us because of our sins; they have power also over our bodies and over our cattle at their pleasure, and we are in great distress."

In Judaism, the Messiah will come and all will be well, when the world is ripe. In Christianity, the world was ripe, and the Messiah already came -- but it still looks like some things could use a little improvement. In both cases, we're still waiting for something. The original Quakers believed that Jesus really had returned, as Christ 'enlightening everyone who comes into the world' [Taking John 1:9 to the max] -- but also warned everyone that "The Day of the Lord will steal upon those who live without restraint upon earth; whose hearts are set to seek after wickedness, as for hidden treasure; and it will come upon them as a thief." They said, probably rightly, that the appearance of the Messiah was to be experienced spiritually rather than observed as a physical event -- but they too expected to see this manifested in a redeemed world, the imminent overthrow of all evil by what God was doing through their new spiritual movement.

We have people who feel that they, as individuals, have been 'redeemed,'  yet the general state of humanity and the world remains downright scary. Jesus says, at the end of 'Matthew', that "All authority in Heaven and on Earth has been given to me." But -- considering the current condition of the world -- What on Earth can this mean?