Sunday, July 10, 2011

An Over-arching or Under-girding God or "Philosophy"?

I had a conversation with an atheist last week on a blog, and I "heard" something curious in the way we each thought of religion, philosophy, God or not-god.

When he thought of religion, he thought of an over-arching philosophical system. Essentially, it seemed he thought of Someone or a (self/group-sanctified) Group of someones telling other people what to do, when to do it, and how to live in almost every aspect of life. He's not off the mark of many "religious" folks - in every religion, and irreligion, including Christianity. There are many, many people who become religious or irreligious, and many people who become religious or irreligious leaders who are really masking a deep narcissism that wants other people to listen to them as they want to listen to "god."

However, there are also many religious people who start from a foundation of God. They think the best of God, and they trust in God's sustaining creation and love. Do they have tough times, lament, mourn, experience oppression & heartache? Read the Psalms, and you'll find your answer, there, as I did.

What I've noticed as a fairly uniform pattern of the type of person my atheist dialogue partner disliked is that those with over-arching views begin with an assumption of distrust in those who are different than they are, or behave or choose differently. They want to change others, they want to make them into their own image of who "perfect" people should be, they want to tell others that they know best how to do everything, and they want others to believe that their view of the world & every experience is the only "true" view. There is no other story which is allowed to interfere with their "superior" understanding. They will use all sorts of means - some seemingly "good" and others downright ugly - to manipulate or dominate, connive or threaten, cajole or coerce others into compliance. This atheist and I are in agreement, here. We both think those people's beliefs and methods are wrong-headed and unproductive of shalom. (He'd state that differently, though.)

As I've mentioned before, "belief" or "faith" is defined in the doing of life. I don't share the same "faith" as people who have these over-arching views, because I don't arch my own views other people's lives.

Psalm 136 gives the heartbeat of my faith in the continuous refrain:

Psalm 136
1 O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.
2 O give thanks to the God of gods, for his steadfast love endures forever.
3 O give thanks to the Lord of lords, for his steadfast love endures forever;
4 who alone does great wonders, for his steadfast love endures forever;
5 who by understanding made the heavens, for his steadfast love endures forever;
6 who spread out the earth on the waters, for his steadfast love endures forever;
7 who made the great lights, for his steadfast love endures forever;
8 the sun to rule over the day, for his steadfast love endures forever;
9 the moon and stars to rule over the night, for his steadfast love endures forever;
10 who struck Egypt through their firstborn, for his steadfast love endures forever;
11 and brought Israel out from among them, for his steadfast love endures forever;
12 with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, for his steadfast love endures forever;
13 who divided the Red Sea in two, for his steadfast love endures forever;
14 and made Israel pass through the midst of it, for his steadfast love endures forever;
15 but overthrew Pharaoh and his army in the Red Sea, for his steadfast love endures forever;
16 who led his people through the wilderness, for his steadfast love endures forever;
17 who struck down great kings, for his steadfast love endures forever;
18 and killed famous kings, for his steadfast love endures forever;
19 Sihon, king of the Amorites, for his steadfast love endures forever;
20 and Og, king of Bashan, for his steadfast love endures forever;
21 and gave their land as a heritage, for his steadfast love endures forever;
22 a heritage to his servant Israel, for his steadfast love endures forever.
23 It is he who remembered us in our low estate, for his steadfast love endures forever;
24 and rescued us from our foes, for his steadfast love endures forever;
25 who gives food to all flesh, for his steadfast love endures forever.
26 O give thanks to the God of heaven, for his steadfast love endures f

We note how differently Jesus tells us to treat others with whom we disagree - even if that disagreement is across every level of life, personal, familial or national. When Jesus tells us to "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect!", Jesus is telling us to love the evil and the good people, just as God does. Jesus came to serve others, not to "over-arch" or lord it over others.

Matthew 6:38-48

38“Here’s another old saying that deserves a second look: ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’
39Is that going to get us anywhere? Here’s what I propose: ‘Don’t hit back at all.’ If someone strikes you, stand there and take it.
40If someone drags you into court and sues for the shirt off your back, giftwrap your best coat and make a present of it.
41And if someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life.
42No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously.
43“You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’
44I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer,
45for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty.
46If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that.
47If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.
48“In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.

Let us "Grow up!"

Monday, July 4, 2011

The Simple, the Foolish and the Wicked

Reading scripture & praying have long formed the center of my daily spiritual discipline. Psalms and Proverbs form “corner pillars” for me, and I’ve read parts of these books almost daily for decades. Psalms are the liturgical songs & prayers of the Old Testament, and Proverbs is one book of Biblical “wisdom” literature. The psalmists taught me how to pray honestly – worshiping God alone, while facing the reality, head-on, of who I am and in what circumstances I find myself. The psalmists appeal to God to reveal his justice in the world, and to guide us in his ways. Proverbs have the purpose of raising up “wise” children to become wise men and women. The “wise” in Scripture are not those who are well-educated, well-traveled, able to reason or argue facilely, well-read, privileged, rich, or well-placed. As a matter of fact, those characteristics are more often markers associated with the unwise, the foolish and the wicked! Rather, as biblically-defined, “wise” people are those who follow God’s paths, commandments and ways in the world, act with truth and integrity, exhibit righteousness in the marketplaces and practice relational righteousness and compassion (toward the weak, the poor, the powerless, the widow, the orphan, the alien).

Years of prayerful, regular reading in Psalms and Proverbs have attuned me to patterns that occur in the overall content and flow in each book. The late Dr. Gerald Wilson, with whom I studied Psalms at Fuller Theological Seminary, specialized in “the shape of the Psalter”, and his teaching helped clarify themes in the Psalms and, indirectly, in Proverbs. Perhaps I could have reached my understandings earlier had I spent more time in rabbinic literature and OT commentaries. :-)  Nevertheless, it became clear that both books help the people of God to be shaped by God in order to embody wisdom, godly life and worship. In the early chapters in Proverbs, both parents (cooperating with God and his “master worker”, the feminine-voiced Wisdom) commend, admonish and describe the godly ways to raise children, the need for wise instruction and just discipline of children & youth, the avoidance of sinful companions, sexual immorality, drunkenness, and foolish behavior. A child is born “simple” and will act foolishly, at times. Without godly correction and discipline, our simpleness and foolishness will allow the influence of the wicked to increase over us. Wickedness is the end of those who repeatedly refuse to consider the outcome of their own foolish ways, and who ignore and deny what others’ actions and words reveal about their hearts. As the paths of the wicked & the wise interweave throughout the book of Proverbs, the wicked who won’t acknowledge either their own sin or others' godliness. The wicked seek to deceive others, cover up their own actions, and misuse their humanity and positions to harm others.  When acting unwisely and unlovingly in concert with those like them, the "fools" escalate to become “the wicked” who actively seek to lead others down their paths. In the "name of" a self-justifying end, pleasure, wealth, lust, or a misleading "good", the wicked draw in the simple and the fools.

One chapter that describes “the wisdom of the world” as foolishness in God’s sight is Proverbs 26. In the New Testament, Paul clearly drew on his knowledge of Psalms and Proverbs in his writing. For example, 1 Cor. 1:10-2:16 sets God’s wisdom and the worldly wisdom as antithetical and antipathetic to one another. The latter is evidenced by divisiveness & lording it over others, and the former by unifying love, justice and service of God and neighbor, in Christ.

Here are the first 8 verses of Proverbs 26, as an example of the distinction between the wise and the foolish:
Proverbs 26
1 Like snow in summer or rain in harvest, so honor is not fitting for a fool.
2 Like a sparrow in its flitting, like a swallow in its flying, an undeserved curse goes nowhere.
3 A whip for the horse, a bridle for the donkey, and a rod for the back of fools.
4 Do not answer fools according to their folly, or you will be a fool yourself.
5 Answer fools according to their folly, or they will be wise in their own eyes.
6 It is like cutting off one’s foot and drinking down violence, to send a message by a fool.
7 The legs of a disabled person hang limp; so does a proverb in the mouth of a fool.
8 It is like binding a stone in a sling to give honor to a fool.
There’s a Hebrew poetic device in the antithetical parallel in verses 4-5. On the one hand, v. 4 advises that to answer a fool according to their folly makes us a fool, too. However, in the very next verse, we’re advised to answer a fool according to their folly, so they won’t be wise in their own eyes. If we didn’t understand the context of Proverbs, we could throw up our hands in exasperation here, when using our own natural understanding and education-based reading. However, when one understands how folly should be responded to according to Proverbs, this changes the whole picture.

People of high educational achievement, according to the current academy, will inevitably misinterpret scripture at some/many/all points, if that education and credentialing is not founded upon godly wisdom. Our teachers, professors & colleagues teach us that rhetorical argument and logical presentations are keys to academic success & “victory”. Every academic degree or professional credential is celebrated as certifying this person as more qualified to lead, or teach, or advise than another “lesser” degreed or credentialed person. This is a hierarchically-based and often a crony-supporting system, although people of integrity are found within poor systems.

Wisdom, as described in OT and NT, counters that worldly victory and names it insufficient, at best, and false, at worst. 

If an immoral, dishonest, unethical, bullying, manipulative or domineering person proclaims his/her superiority over another (according to academic, credentialed, economic/financial, class, gendered, ethnic, or racial standards, etc.) in order to dictate another's behavior, Proverbs and the canon of Scripture name him/her as fools according to their unrighteous, unloving and unwise actions. Prov. 26:1 and 26:8 state clearly that honor is not fitting to a fool, and is, in fact, harmful; yet worldly businesses, society, media, organizations and the academy honor & acclaim fools all the time! In Scripture, fools are identified as fools by their choices and behavior, irrespective of their academic or economic prowess, position, status or credentials. 

Paul made this exact same point to the Corinthians. The key verses following his forthright, sarcastic description of the way the Corinthians were behaving (1 Cor. 4:6-13) are 4:17-21. Paul sent Timothy to Corinth to remind them of his “ways in Christ Jesus”, and not of Paul’s “plausible words of wisdom” (2:4-5). He told the Corinthians that he wasn’t interested in “the talk of these arrogant people”, at all, but in their power (what their deeds and actions reveal). (4:19) “For the kingdom of God depends not on talk but on power.” (4:20) The power of God is found in the cross of Christ, which is foolishness and a stumbling block to those who don’t seek God’s life and love in their hearts, in service of God & neighbor, to the spiritual transformation of their lives.

The fools as described in Proverbs, though, have not quite attained to full-blown wickedness. To return to that poetic antithetic parallel in vv. 4-5, what might the writer mean by stating we shouldn’t answer a fool according to his folly in the v. 4? Given the story of wisdom and foolishness in Scripture, it would seem that Paul gave the best response. We don’t answer fools by trying to reason them out of their positions. We don’t try to gain victory over them using the same worldly methods of rhetoric, education, position, human power, manipulation, deception, argumentation, etc. Although education, information and knowledge are useful to a servant who uses them in service of God and neighbors, in themselves, they cannot transform a fool. At times, we may not answer at all, in love and care for them. Proverbs 14:3 claims, “The talk of fools is a rod for their backs, but the lips of the wise preserve them.” As Paul asked in 1 Corinthians 4:21, “What would you prefer? Am I to come to you with a stick, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?” In other words, “will you Corinthians continue to be fools needing correction, or will you turn toward the demonstrated wisdom and power of God in Jesus Christ, and him crucified?” 

Yet, v. 5 indicates that fools might become aware of their foolishness and turned toward wisdom, somehow. But, how? We find out by looking at the context of that verse in the chapter, and the context of folly, fools and foolish behavior in Proverbs, overall. As harsh as it seems to our contemporary “sensibilities”, verse 3 commends physical discipline to drive out folly. The Proverbial “rod of discipline” used wisely must not be “a rod of anger”, or a rod that sows injustice (Prov. 22:8). It isn’t a rod of vengeance, or of oppression (Isa. 9:4), or an assertion of human power over another. It isn’t the rod of master over slave, superior over inferior, abuser over victims. The rod of loving discipline is used to alter the paths of the youthful and immature fools, to bring them back to wiser ways, choices and behaviors.  Consider the context of the rod in a psalm which is beloved by many to whom I’ve ministered – whether current or former church members – Psalm 23. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff – they comfort me.” (23:4) We can and should cherish the awareness that the chastising of the Lord is for our good (Heb. 12:5-13), to give us appropriate laws which are fulfilled in love of God, self & neighbor, to encourage wisdom and increase strength, to benefit ourselves and our families, and to assure our hope & future (Prov. 23:12-19, 24:13-14). (cf., also, Proverbs 10:13, 13:24, 22:8 & 15, and 29:15)

Jesus' words give the context of love to every law and consequence: "But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your father is merciful." (Luke 6:35-36) Only in the power of the Holy Spirit, which operates through love & self-giving service, do we have a prayer for fulfill his call to us.

A provocative solution to the current prison overcrowding in the US was offered by a professor of criminal justice, Peter Moskos. Salon interviewed him, here. Moskos’ book, In Defense of Flogging, offers the “outrageous idea” of returning the option (by giving the convicted person the freedom to choose) of flogging to the sentencing roster. The interviewer expressed rightful concern that flogging harkens back to days of slavery and other oppressive & abusive relationships. Moskos made the points that prison is a worse punishment and actually may be more detrimental to most prisoners & their families than flogging. A friend who works among the urban poor in a violent neighborhood considered this proposal a possible alternative to passive-aggressive incarceration and ostracism from society that most people commend, today. The fact is that most people in power who make the sentencing decisions really don’t care sufficiently for the people to want to rehabilitate them, so whatever “rod” of punishment is meted out – whether imprisonment, abandonment, social isolation, or flogging – it will more likely perpetuate current patterns of alienation, economic, social & racial injustice, in isolation from healthy contexts. Should we ask, however, if a foolish criminal has or would welcome relationships with wise individuals and a community who can mentor and guide him/her into better paths, might a flogging soon over be a better option than years isolated and tortured with other criminals in a destructive environment? Are we, the church, not called to be such a community offering redemption & hope to one another? (Matthew 25:31-46)