Monday, March 31, 2008

Mike: Response to Rami's March 30 Post

Let's take the matters you raise one at a time.

(1) You wrote, "I am intrigued that your faith has led you 'to experience a sense of the presence of God...I never find God in the box of religion, but only when the box is stripped away, etc." Start with the "box." The longer I live with Christianity, the more liberating it becomes. The God Who meets me there keeps pushing at the boundaries. The "box" keeps getting bigger and bigger.

Like you, I find it interesting that liberation has come to us in different ways. Perhaps this has to do with starting places. While born into a culture dominated by Christianity, I found my early spiritual home in literature and science. God sought and found me there in the stories associated with various mythologies, the novels of writers such as Lewis and Tolkien, the simple basics of physics and astronomy and the like. I backed into Christianity through such things. As a result, Christianity in the end was not so much a box as a universe in which God became even more real to me.

As for the presence of God, my personal experience is modest. All I can really say is that at various moments I've known in my bones that I'm standing on holy ground in the presence of God, the One revealed in Jesus yet also the One Who is beyond knowing. On the basis of such experiences, I resonate with writers such as Phyllis Tickle, who speaks of feeling the Presence on the other side of a thin wall. Frankly, such experiences strengthen whatever resolve I have to resist treating anything else as if it were God. Non-verifiable experience? You bet. Still, it's there--and I've got lots of company when one looks back over the centuries.

(2) As for Baptists and religious freedom, you know your history. You're also right about the public perception of the Baptist brand. There's more, though, to the contemporary story. Most Baptist bodies in the United States and the world continue to support religious freedom. The Baptist Joint Committee actively monitors the state of religious liberty in the United States and takes various actions designed to protect and foster such liberty. In any case, I think a deep commitment to genuine religious liberty remains a vital counterpoint to religious predjudice and violence.

(3) "Spiritual formation, I think, always requires that we die in some sense in order to live an authentic human life." You're right. Similar sentiments exist in a range of religions. I also think it relates directly to our topic and text. In the case of the story, the Israelites have to die to the gods of Egypt in order to live well with the God who brought them out of Egypt. It's a multi-faceted death involving perceptions, patterns of dependence, habits of speech, and the like. As quickly becomes apparent, it's hard to keep idolatry in the grave!

Much of our spiritual formation involves discerning and putting away idols, and this nearly always feels as if we are dying. "I can't do that. I can't live without it." We honestly believe our life depends on the idol.

We're right in a sense. When we put down an idol the life we lived in service to the idol dies. Dying usually hurts. Much to our surprise, though, we find we outlived the idol and can do quite well without it, better in fact. Racism, imperialism, and the like rank as some of the big-time idols we must die to in our era. Of equal importance are the more personal idols, little house-hold gods as it were: greed, fear of the other, vengence and the like. Each one must be put away in favor of following the light we're given by the living God.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Rami's Reply to Mike's second 3/29 Post

Just when I was hoping for a good ol’ knock–down drag–out fight, it turns out we agree again. Maybe we need to bring in a shill.

Anyway, I agree that humility is the sign of an authentic person of faith. I know my story is just a finger pointing to the moon (as the Zen people say) and never the moon itself. No story is verifiable. That is what Gödel's incompleteness theorem tells us. What Kurt Gödel said in 1931about mathematical systems is true for all philosophical and theological systems: they rest on untestable assumptions. That is why the value of a religion rests not on the rightness of its theology, but on the effects of its beliefs on its believers. By their fruits you shall know them. Works may not get you into heaven, but they certainly matter here on earth.

I am intrigued that your faith has led you “to experience a sense of the presence of God.” My own experience is the opposite. I love the story in Exodus 22:25: God is instructing Moses on how to build the Ark of the Covenant. One expects God to meet Moses in the Ark, and then God says He will meet Moses “above the cover, from between the two cherubim that are on top of the Ark.” In other words, God will meet Moses outside the box! Literally. That is true in my experience. I never find God in the box of religion, but only when the box is stripped away, only when I stand in the place of unknowing that I experience the Shekhinah, the Presence of God.

I know what you are saying regarding radical religious freedom and the Baptist faith. I imagine most people would be surprised to learn that is was Virginia Baptists who helped elect James Madison to Congress, and did so largely on his promise to fight for religious freedom and the First Amendment. But that was a long time ago. Today the Baptist brand is usually associated with the opposite of what its history would suggest. How sadly ironic.

Your last remark, “Spiritual formation, I think, always requires that we die in some sense in order to live an authentic human life” is also fascinating. While this may not pertain directly to our topic, it is too rich a comment to let slip by. The Sufis have a saying, “Die before you die,” and I am certain we can find similar statements in most religions.

The way I understand this is dying to my story, dying to the box that I might stand outside of it and meet God. What dies is my egoistic or better narcissistic tendency to see myself reflected in my images of God and Truth. I would love to hear a little more from you about your sense of dying.

Mike: Continuing the 3/29 discussion

Rami wrote: "I rank the quality of religions and gods by one criteria: the extent to which they bring people to an ever deepening commitment to justice and compassion for all beings." I might add "humility" to the list, but otherwise we agree.

I, of course, speak from within a religious tradition. My particular tradition (Christianity with a Protestant and Baptist flavor), includes self-correctives to zero sum tribalism. Two examples come to mind. The parables of the good Samaritan and the sheep and goats always challenge self-interest and tribalism. I suspect the commandments perform a similar function. The Sermon on the Mount does as well. The tragedy is that Christians seldom give themselves wholly to such visions.

Obviously, my operating assumption that God reveals himself most fully through the story of the Jews and Jesus is not verifiable. I assume you use the term "verifable" in the sense of being subject to experimental (and repeatable) verification. It is a faith assumption, a postulate if you will. I've found the postulate works for me. It leads me to confront my own self-centeredness, xenophobic tribalism, and systems that encourage such things. Speaking personally, it has also led me to experience a sense of the presence of God, sometimes strongly, sometimes less so.

Once again, though, I'm struck by how our different starting points seem to lead us to similiar conclusions about what is important. Take your point about a "radical humility when it comes to theology and the idols theologians imagine and worship." I agree with you. We agree about the desired end result of good religion: justice and compassion. I suspect both of us think good religion aims at authentic community building, though I might say this is God's vision for humanity while you might argue it's inherent in Reality.

Perhaps my tradition has something to contribute at this point: radical religious freedom. Baptist Christians, with some notable recent exceptions in the United States, have always insisted on religious liberty. By this we mean government or other authorities have no rightful role to play in support of any religion. Instead, each individual is free to choose or reject religion of any kind. Religious freedom is an inherent right. It should not be confused with religious toleration, which assumes some group has authority to give or withhold permission. Put into practice, religious freedom functions as a partial antidote to zero sum thinking.

Of course, all of the above is costly in that it often sets one in opposition to perceived self-interest or cultural norms. Spiritual formation, I think, always requires that we die in some sense in order to live an authentic human life.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Rami: Response to Mike's 3/29 Posting

You raise an excellent point: I am indeed speaking of religion from the outside, and I’m doing so consciously and as clearly as I can. Whenever we speak about something we are, by definition and necessity, standing “outside” of it.

And, since I believe God is not an object from which one can stand apart, God is not something one can speak about. So, again, I am back to Lao Tzu, “The tao that can be named is not the Eternal Tao.” Any god we can name, define, and cram into a theology is not the Eternal God, or what Meister Eckhart calls the Godhead. We cannot talk about the Eternal God, we can only deal with our ideas about this God, no matter how strongly we insist we are doing otherwise.

For me, then, your position that the living God reveals himself most fully through the story of the Jews is not verifiable outside the claim itself. The fact that the Jewish Bible says the Jews are God’s chosen, is no more convincing than the fact that the Gospels claim Jesus is the Son of God. What else would they say? Sacred texts are held sacred by people who benefit from calling them sacred. There is no way around this.

Like you, I, too, am wary of tribalism, but all religion, in so far as it promotes in-groups and out-groups—Chosen and not chosen, saved and damned, believers and infidels—is tribal. Yet tribalism in and of itself need not always leads to conflict and war.

I think war is inevitable when tribalism embraces a zero-sum worldview: salvation is restricted to the few who do God’s will as the tribe defines it. Tribes within a polytheistic frame do not have this zero-sum problem. The gods of Canaan were not at war with the gods of its neighbors. War came with the Hebrews and their zero-sum God who commanded them to destroy the Canaanite gods and those devoted to them.

I also agree that the Second Commandment insists we take idolatry seriously, but I would then say, given the ineffable nature of the Godhead, all gods are idols reflecting the imagination and bias of their inventors. For me the Second Commandment is arguing for radical humility when it comes to theology and the idols theologians imagine and worship.

Saying all this does not, however, mean that all gods and religions are equal. I rank the quality of religions and gods by one criteria: the extent to which they bring people to an ever deepening commitment to justice and compassion for all beings.

Mike: Response to Rami's 3/29 Posting

Let's start with what I think is an error in your analysis of polytheism and monotheism: the assumption that both approaches are concerned with ideas about God.

From the outside looking in, it may appear that way. I suspect, though, that throughout history's long course most polytheists have believed their particular god(s) to be quite real. Not the philosophers, perhaps, but the everyday followers. For example, a Norseman making sacrifice to Thor did not think of Thor as an idea but as a red haired, hammer-wielding, belt-wearing god who could provide tangible assistance. Ancient fertility gods attracted worshipers not because they represented the annual renewal of nature but because people thought them real beings who might ensure a harvest or bring about the birth of a child. People did not sacrifice to ideas but to "gods."

Monotheists by and large do not worship an idea of God. They instead believe themselves called to devote themselves to the one living God. The majority throughout history have assumed God to be actively concerned for the creation, the people he has drawn to himself, and for the rest of humanity as well. To varying degrees, they also have believed they need God in order to become what God created them to be.

I think you would suggest that in both cases the gods or God worshiped are constructs of the human mind. My personal position is "yes and no." The living God reveals himself in any number of ways. I think he most fully reveals himself through the story of a particular people with roots deep in Middle East history and through the "ripples" which spread out from that history. We differ on the fundamental question of the nature of God. At the same time, no one can deny our tendency to package God in ways amenable to our cultures, sub-cultures, professional disciplines, or personal tastes. Unfortunately, some of these packages amount to little more than tribalism written large--hence religious wars and persecution.

All of which leads me back to the matter of idols. After all, what is an idol other than a religious package of some sort? The second commandment seems to insist that we take idolatry seriously, that idolatry has short and long lasting consequences. I'll look forward to your take on the matter.

Rami: Response to Mike's 3/28 Posting

Here’s an odd thought: What if polytheism is better suited for our times than monotheism?

Monotheism isn’t just the belief in one abstract godhead; rather each monotheistic religion believes that its idea of God is the one true idea of God. The inherent exclusivity of monotheism makes it competitive and even violent, and thus, as Constantine realized, a far better tool for empire building than polytheism, which, by allowing for the legitimacy of many gods and ideas about God, has no need to defeat other gods or impose one homogeneous religious system.

Monotheists do better in a homogeneous world, but the 21st Century is anything but homogeneous, and it may be that polytheists are better suited for navigating the plethora of gods, truths, and realities that make up our postmodern global village than monotheists will ever be.

Abrahamic monotheists try to get around this problem through what might be called the Abrahamic Fiction: the idea that Jews, Christians, and Moslems worship the same God. Again, God, as we humans understand God, always exists within a theological frame. What we call God is simply our ideas and claims about God; and the theological claims of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are mutually incompatible. If any one of these religions is True, the other two are false.

The only way to prove which religion is true is global jihad. By definition, the True God always wins. Since this is inconvenient to say the least, most of us postpone this war to the mythic future, though all too many of us are currently working to make that future a reality here and now.

Polytheism doesn’t have this problem. Live and let live, believe and let believe, is its creed. This is much more suited to life in the global village than monotheism’s begrudging: your wrong and your damned, but I won’t kill you; I’ll let God deal with you later.

So, whereas the Second Commandment may have been a practical tool for consolidating the diverse Jewish tribes and their gods, it may be the wrong policy for our time. Perhaps we need a different revelation: “You shall recognize all gods as Me for I am Infinite and cannot be reduced to one form or idea or religion or theology. I manifest as all form even as I transcend all form.” Or as the 4000-year-old Rig Veda of the Hindus puts it, Ekam Sat Viprah Bahuda Vadanti: “Truth is One. Different people call it by different names.”

Friday, March 28, 2008

Mike on the Second Commandment

The story continues. God through Moses says, "You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments." (NIV)

I agree. The commandment requires a great deal of unpacking. I'll stick with verses 3-4 in this installment.

The first thing that strikes me is the magnitude of the task God sets himself. He intends to wean the Israelites from the normative religious assumption of the day: polytheism. To put it another way, God sets out to teach them the discipline (or art)of monotheism.

Step one in what will prove to be a long process is to lead the people to unlearn an old habit and practice a new one. Rami's translation captures the idea: "You shall not recognize the gods of others in My presence." Since God is present with them always, this amounts to saying: "Now that I am with you, you must stop treating other gods as, well, God."

The commandment does not address their feelings. They may well go on feeling as if other gods are real, have powers potentially useful or dangerous, and that a wise person prefers not to offend them. God starts with actions.

This nearly always surprises us. Yet any competent spiritual director recognizes the formation technique. Actions usually precede theory. We learn to pray not by mastering a theory of prayer but by praying, often to patterns created by others.

Changing metaphors, we learn to play a piano by setting aside freelance fingering techniques in favor of practicing set finger techniques. Music theory comes later, if at all. Imagine the Isrealites in the wilderness as would-be pianists of varied talent, none of whom have heard a master pianist play, all of whom have had their potential corrupted by exposure only to the technique available in the ancient Egyptian music scene. God must wean them from bad technique in order to teach them how to make his kind of music.

In the commandment, God establishes a practice routine for his people-in-the-making. They will find it hard going. When I was young, I took piano lessons. Many a time, I skipped or shortened practice in order to go and do something I already knew how to do (read a book, play baseball, watch television). In short, while my idols or gods were fairly petty, they still had quite a grip on me. So it was for the Israelites, and so it is for us in our time. The second portion of the commandment begins to address this problem.

Rami on the Second Commandment

According to the Hebrew Bible, the second of the Ten Commandments reads this way:

“You shall not recognize the gods of others in My presence. You shall not make yourself a carved image nor any likeness of that which in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the water beneath the earth. You shall not prostrate yourself to them nor worship them, for I am Hashem, your God— a jealous God, Who visits the sin of fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations, for My enemies, but Who shows kindness for thousands [of generations] to those who love Me and observe My commandments” (Exodus 20:3-6).

This is going to require a lot of unpacking, but before we get into that, I want to offer a general comment on how I understand the entire notion of “You shall not.”

As you know I don’t believe in a self-conscious god who stands apart from the universe and directs things. I believe that God and the universe are one; the universe is God the way a wave is the ocean. So the image of a commanding God is not compelling, and I take it to reflect the limits of the author's imagination rather than any truth about God. I believe that the author of this commandment discovered something very profound, but could only express it in the language of command.
And I think we can get a better feel for what was discovered if we freely translate "You shall not" as “You are capable of living without.”

Read this way, the Second Commandment says: “You can live without any image of God whatsoever. You can stand in direct relation with What Is and not get mislead by ideas about What Is. When you stand alone, free from idols, creeds, dogmas, and beliefs, you stand in direct relation to That Which Is.”

To be with God without idols and images is to be surrendered of self. The “I” and the “Thou” are both surrendered to the infinite One Who Is All. This is what happens during meditation. As I sit in silence, the “I” that sits is silenced as well. There is no “me” sitting at all. When the “I” returns, when my egoic mind reappears, it does so lighter than before. It no longer holds as tightly to the idolatry of self. But, lightly held or not, there is still idolatry. That is to say, when the ego returns its brings its images of god with it.

What I need to do is remind myself that these idols are not God, but only ego-projected images of God. The key is not to live without idols, but to not mistake the idol for God. Look at that opening line again, “You shall not recognize the gods of others in My presence.” Why does Torah say “in My presence”? Why not just say, “You shall not recognize other gods”?

The reason is this: When we are in the presence of God, that is when we are surrendered into the One Who Is All, there is no “I” to recognize anything and no idols to be recognized. This is like a person who shines a penlight outside in the bright noonday sun. The light is on, but you cannot see it, you cannot recognize it as separate from the greater light of the sun. When I stand in the Light of God, I and all things become transparent; I and all things are revealed to be God, the One and Only Thing.

But I don’t always live transparent in the noonday light of God. Sometimes I imagine myself to be in the shadows, and there my penlight works just fine. In the darkness the lesser lights of humanity’s pantheon of gods and goddesses may be very useful, but only if we realize they are the Named and not the Eternal Tao. So when I am in the dark, I have no problem calling out to Jesus, Krishna, Ganesh, Allah, Yah, Durga, Kuan Yin, or any other image and using that image to spread a little light. I just don't want to cling to that image when the darkness has passed, and I stand again in the noonday brightness of God.

There is much more to say about this, and about what it means that God is jealous and visits the sins of the fathers upon the children, but let me stop here and get your take on things.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Rami: Response to Mike 3/26, Story and Truth

I love the fact that you introduce the idea of story here, and raising it along with the question of what is truth is vital.

A central function of the ego is to take the facts of its existence and weave them into a narrative that provides it with purpose and meaning. A story is “true” in so far as it provides purpose and meaning, and “false” if it does not.

Obviously “true” and “false” in this context are necessarily subjective. Christianity is true for you in that it provides you with a compelling narrative that gives purpose and meaning to your life. Other religions are less true or perhaps even false in that their respective narratives are personally less compelling, purposeful, and meaningful.

In my own case, there is no one compelling religious narrative. There are parts of many religions that I find meaningful and which provide me with purpose, and I sew these together in a patchwork narrative that speaks to me, but not necessarily anyone else. The thread that holds my quilt together is panentheism, the notion that God is both source and substance of all reality.

The value of story is its gift of myth and metaphor. When you note that God speaks creation into being I assume you take this figuratively. God doesn’t “speak” the way you and I do, but there is something about the nature of speech that lent itself as a metaphor to the mystery the author of this passage of Torah was trying to articulate. Our job is not do defend a flat literalism that insists God has vocal cords and speaks Hebrew; our job is to explore the nature of speech to see what meaning we can glean from the metaphor.

For me the giving of the Ten Commandments is a story. The question I ask is not, “Did it happen as the Torah says,” but “What meaning can I find in the story itself.” In this we are in perfect agreement: “lay aside other matters, and listen to the story. Imagination may well be God's surest path to one's deepest self.”

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Mike: Response to Rami on Christianity, Panentheism, Etc.

I want to add a little more to our conversation about Panentheism and Christianity.

I had written that were I not a Christian I might well be a panentheist. You mention two possible interpretations of my meaning. I had a third in mind: I choose Christianity because I find it persuasive in light of Incarnation, the story of God's interactions with the ancient people of God and the Church, and personal experience. Panentheism seems to me to be the great "other option." If Christianity is not "true" (and we probably need to spend some time defining the term), Panentheism is the next most likely candidate.

It seems possible to me that a key insight of panentheism (God is in all and all rests in God)may be subsumed within a Christian understanding of reality. Paul may well have held a similar hope with regard to Stocism. Hopefully, we'll see how all this plays out in subsequent conversations.

Christianity, over the course of its history, has cast a rather wide net. To my way of thinking, the Christian tradition provides room enough in which to think carefully and assimilate insights from any era, even the emerging era (whatever that may come to mean). Humility, of course, requires me to confess that I may be wrong. Still I operate on that basis.

"Story" is our meeting ground, at least so far. God speaks creation into existence, the Word becomes flesh--the power of story to make something new, to reveal what has been hidden, to provoke bone-deep change in a person or a community, to reveal what may be known of God is close to the heart of Christianity. It's also the link between Christianity and other religions, insofar as I can tell. When in doubt, lay aside other matters, and listen to the story. Imagination may well be God's surest path to one's deepest self.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Rami: Response to Mike's 3/24 Posting

I understand your hesitation about panentheism, though I find the statement “Were I not a Christian, I probably would be (a panentheist)” to be quite interesting.

I won’t belabor the point, but are you saying that if you didn’t know better as a Christian you would be fooled into taking the next best but still false position of panentheism? Or are you saying that because you are a Christian you cannot accept panentheism even though you suspect it’s true?

I ask this because I wrestle with this kind of thing all the time. As a Jew there is much I am supposed to accept that as a thinking, postmodern human being I cannot accept. I have rejected such notions as Chosen People, Israel as the Holy Land, and the exclusivity of God’s revelation in the Hebrew Scripture. I let truth (as I understand it) trump tradition every time. I suspect you do as well, but you may be better at making room for truth in your tradition than I am in mine. To be blunt, I am tired of making Judaism say things that I believe to be true but which the classical Jewish sages would reject. I would rather just say what I believe to be true and let Judaism fend for itself.

OK, on to something else.

I, too, am surprised (pleasantly) that while we seem to start from different places we end up with very similar positions. I say “seem to start” because there is much less to our differences than our word choices might suggest.

While I call the Exodus a parable and you call it history, we both approach the text as story, and ask the same question: What does it mean to us today? Whether we call the text history or parable matters less than how we use it, and because we use it more as a guide to psycho-spiritual truth than historical fact we come to some very similar conclusions.

Given your statements about panentheism and Taoism, let me suggest two books to you (and to our readers) that you might find interesting. You may have read these already, but they were new to me. The first is Sallie McFague’s The Body of God which argues that panentheism is the deepest understanding of Christian incarnationalism. The second is Christ The Eternal Tao by Hieromonk Damascene which reveals the deep affinity between Taoism and the teachings of Jesus.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Mike: Response to Rami's 3/24 Posting

"Wholly Other" means God is beyond our grasp, greater than anything we can conceive. Insofar as I can tell, we agree.

I am not a panentheist. Were I not a Christian, I probably would be. At least two factors keep me from taking the step. First, both testaments stress we must not confuse God with the creation. God may be glimpsed and even experienced through creation, but he is more than, even other than, his creation. Creation is sacred but not divine. Second, the Incarnation pushes me to say God is known best through personality and relationship (as opposed, say, to creation per se or even through a sacred text). So...I think you probably are right. We differ on this matter.

That being true, I find it interesting that we arrive at similar conclusions. Take your point about the "te." In place of "the way of Tao," I probably would say "the way of Christ" or "the Way of God" or "the Way of Holy Spirit." As we come to know what can be known of God, and insofar as we act in harmony with what we know, we become partners with God in the world. Mercy, grace, patience, overflowing love, forgiveness and the like are the traits and tasks of such partners.

We start from different places with regard to the Exodus. I see Exodus as history (at long distance), which may be interpeted as parable or allegory or perhaps even type. Paying attention to history, though, sets limits on the range of possible interpretations. I would have no problem asking: "What does the story of Miriam say to us about our own hearts?" The answer is that Miriam's story reveals our complexity, that strange blend of love, ambition, pettiness, and nobility found within each of us. Strangely enough, even so we may become partners with God as he reshapes humanity and the world.

Rami: Response to Mike's 3/22 Posting

I want to comment on your notion that God is “wholly other.” If you mean that God is wholly other than anything we can conceive, then I agree. This is again the Hindu teaching of Neti Neti: Not This, Not That. But if you mean to say that God is wholly separate then I disagree.

I am a panentheist (pan/all en/in theos/god), a nondualist. For me all reality rests in God, as God. This is how I understand the Hebrew term HaMakom, The Place, one of the Names of God in the rabbinic tradition. God is the Place in which all life happens. God is the field out of which the universe grows, in which it lives, and to which it returns. Or, if you prefer, God is that “in which we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). God is both immanent and incarnate as the world and transcendent in that God is greater than the world. I am pretty certain you see things differently, and that will come up for us over and over again.

I love your phrase, “God is beyond all handling,” and as you imply God is beyond all knowing as well. In Exodus 33:22 we learn that God cannot be seen Face to face. That means we cannot know God fully and directly, because the god we would know would be an idol of our own imagining. As Lao Tzu writes in the Tao Te Ching, “The Tao that can be named is not the Eternal Tao.” Again, neti neti, any god we can imagine is not the Eternal God. But we can know what Lao Tzu calls the te, the way of Tao as we human’s come to know it when we act in harmony with it. It is the te of God that God reveals to Moses: mercy, grace, patience, overflowing love, abundant trustworthiness, and forgiveness (Exodus 34:6).

So how does God act in the world? I would suggest that God doesn’t act in the world, but rather as the world. Again this is what I mean by God incarnate as nature and nature being God’s Body. When we deeply and truly understand God’s Body, which includes our bodies, we discover its te. And, if we choose to act in harmony with God’s te, we liberate others and ourselves from tyrannies of all kinds.

I see the Exodus as parable rather than history. God, Moses, Pharaoh, etc. are aspects of myself. Pharaoh is my tendency to enslave and be enslaved; God is my capacity to end that slavery; and Moses is the means by which I can do so. If I follow the te of God, the way of mercy, grace, forgiveness, etc., I can free myself from bondage and end the bondage in which I have enslaved others.

This is God acting in history not as Other but as you and me. This is why the story requires human agents: Shifra and Puah, the midwives; Yochabed and Miriam, Moses’ mother and sister; the Pharaoh’s daughter and Zipporah Moses’ wife; and Moses himself. Each of these people tapped into and lived the te of God, and in so doing brought liberation closer to reality. God doesn’t intervene in history, but godliness unfolds in history.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Mike on the First Commandment

Agreed! Let's start with Exodus 20:2.

The verse sets the overarching parameter within which all following verses should be interpeted--namely, the kind of God who is dealing with the Israelites.

Rami's point about HaShem dovetails nicely with a long-standing Christian insight (Augustine, Thomas, etc.): God the creator of space-time transcends space-time. God has no past or future; God dwells in an eternal present. For God all moments are the moment at hand. If nothing else, the verse drives home how different God is from us or from anything in our experience. God indeed is wholly other. The commandment does not call us to handle God carefully, it asserts that God is beyond all handling.

All of which raises a question: How might we possibly know such a God? The answer lies in a phrase: "who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery."

God transcends space-time, but he may choose to operate within it. After all, it is his creation. While the Israelities (or us, for that matter) must never fall into the trap of thinking they grasp God, neither are they left adrift without a hint as to the nature of God. They are to look to what God has done in a specific portion of space-time: the actions of God which combine to make what we may call "the Exodus event."

We learn something about God by pondering what God does. What might the ancient people of God have learned from the Exodus event?

(1) God's penchant for acting in history--The God of the Exodus is not an absentee divinity, or even a present but disengaged one. This God gets his hands dirty, working in the history of real people. He starts not with a final product but with the materials to hand, even a people mired in the actuality and mentality of slavery. If ever they are tempted to act as if their God is indifferent or disconnected, let them remember the Exodus. God makes history the arena in which we most often meet and start to know him.

(2)God's determination to eradicate the slave mentality--he has taken them from "the narrow places" into a wide open wilderness. All kinds of possibilities now open to them. It's exhiliarting. It's frightening. That's how life is going to be for God's free people. Whatever else we may say, God is in the liberation business. Let those who would enslave others beware. Just as important, let his own people beware of falling back into any form of slavery.

So...God has chosen to make history significant for his people. He will act in history to reveal himself to them, potentially freeing them from false concepts of God and themselves, as well as forming them into a new kind of people. The commandments which follow continue God's formation work.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Rami on the First Commandment

OK. I don’t want to get sidetracked either, and I suspect that our perspectives will become clearer as we progress. But I do appreciate hearing what you had to say about the issues I raised.

Before taking up the first bit of text, though, let me remind our readers that our conversation is not meant to be scholarly or academic. We are two persons of faith sharing with one another, and with you by means of your comments, what meaning we find in the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount. OK, let’s begin.

The Jewish numbering of the Ten Commandments differs from the Christian, though we ultimately deal with the entire text of Exodus 20:2-14. Whereas you begin with the command against idolatry, we begin with the affirmation of God that precedes it. So, if it is OK with you, let’s start with Exodus 20:2, and then move on to the issue of idolatry.

20:2 says, “I am HaShem, your God, Who has taken you out of Eretz Mitzrayim, from the house of slavery.” I left some of the text untranslated because these words are key to understanding the inner meaning of this commandment, and the conventional English translations don’t do them justice.

“HaShem,” The Name, is one of two standard euphemisms for the Four-Letter Name of God: Y-H-V-H. The other is “Adonai,” Lord. Most Bibles prefer Lord, but this is very misleading. Notions of God as King and Lord promote a patriarchal, hierarchical, and military bias that has more to do with the political structure of the time the text was written (or translated), than it does with the nature of God.

At the Burning Bush (Exodus 3:14), when Moses asks God’s Name, which is to say when Moses asks God to reveal the true nature of divinity, God replies, “Ehyeh asher Ehyeh,” mistakenly translated as “I am that I am.” “I am” implies that God is static, fixed, unchanging, whereas “Ehyeh,” which literally means “I will be” reveals God as dynamic, fluid, changing. God cannot be fixed in form or concept. In other words, whatever your theology, the only thing you can certain of is that God is not that.

The Hindus have a wonderful Sanskrit phrase for this: “Neti Neti; Not this, Not that.” Whatever you think God is— God isn’t. God cannot be reduced to ideas about God. Which of course leads us to the second commandment regarding idols. But let’s wait on that for a moment and continue with our current text.

In the first commandment God says, “I am the Unfixed, the Unconditioned, and the Unconditional. I am the Always Becoming; I am Change. I brought you out of Eretz Mitzrayim.” Eretz Mitzrayim, the Land of Egypt, is a pun in Hebrew that means “the narrow places.” God not only liberated us from Egypt in the past, God frees us from the narrow places of our lives in the present. God is the power that liberates us from the bondage of certainty, fixed forms, fixed ideas, etc., but only if we have enough faith in God not to define God. The First Commandment as I understand it is the challenge of Neti Neti: to free ourselves from all ideas about God that we might experience the liberating power of God.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Mike: Rami's 3/18 Response

Perhaps I misconstrued your point (not an uncommon occurance when communicating via print). I thought you wanted us to share the perspective each of us would bring to the task of dealing with the biblical text, specifically the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount. This is nothing more than fair, with regard to our readers. They now have an opportunity to evaluate our individual conclusions in light of our stated assumptions.

It seems to me the first two posts accomplished the goal. Unpacking, evaluating, and even refining our assumptions in an extended preface is beyond the scope of our current task. I'll not deny it might be great fun, even intellectually stimulating, yet remain in the end a diversion from the main job.

I suggest we move on and start to deal with particular texts. That will be quite enough task for one book. Other biblical texts are best reserved for our next project!

Our perspectives, then, will interact as we deal with particulars rather than generalities. No doubt, we'll be drawn into debates from time to time, resolving some and leaving others standing, subject to the judgment of our readers. We might even change one another's minds on occasion.

That being said, I'll provide a summary response to some of your questions and concerns.

1. God inspired the writers, but God never overrode their humanity. In practical terms, this means all scripture accounts reflect the culture, language, politics, economics, science, ethical perpsective(s), etc. of the author's day. To put it quaintly, God seems to have been willing to run the risk of collaborating with fully human authors, accepting the inevitable risks of such a relationship. To put it theologically, God refused the benefits of straight dictation in favor of preserving human freedom. The result is mixed. God shines clearly through in some texts, less so in others, and scarcely at all in many places.

2. When it comes to the Bible, I choose (there's really no other way to put it) to operate within the confines of the canon. That's my scholarly and faith-based position. A significant number of biblical scholars from the last third of the 20th century take much the same position.

3. The danger of Jesus becoming a kind of Rorschach blot is very real, always has been for that matter. Knowing a bit of the history of interpretation may help us guard against the tendency, but it cannot entirely remove the problem. Some disciplines help. For example, interpreting Jesus' actions and words in the context of first century thelogical, political, and sociological currents helps rein in the tendency.

4. I do not distinquish between the God of the Old and New Testaments. The role of particular stories in each, though, may change when interpreted in light of Jesus. Stories which may once have been thought prescriptive now become warnings to the people of God: "Once you thought this was what God wanted you to do or think--you got it wrong--remember the story, and never forget."

It should be interesting to see how or if our different starting places actually influence interpretation.

Rami: Response of Mike 1/18

I understand that Christians believe that the Holy Spirit inspires the Bible, but that doesn’t tell me what you believe. Officially Jews believe that God dictated the Torah to Moses by God on Mount Sinai, but I don’t believe that. So, if you believe the Bible is inspired by the Holy Spirit, I would like to know that, and how you think that worked.

I am also wondering about your personal standard of interpreting the Bible in light of Jesus. Given all the conflicting studies on the life and teaching of Jesus, I suspect that Jesus has become a Rorschach blot where we project the Jesus we want into the text. So I need to know whom you think Jesus is before I can understand your standard.

And then there is the problem of using the canonical Gospels. Is the Jesus of Matthew, say, the same as the Jesus of John? And, given what we know about the evolution of the Gospels and how they have changed over time, can you really trust them? And then there is the question of discounting the noncanonical gospels, especially the Gospel of Thomas and even the hypothetical Q Gospel. As a pastor you may have to limit yourself to the Official Text on Sunday, but as a scholar you are not so constrained.

In a sense we are both wrestling with the same problem: What to do with all the violence and hate in the Hebrew and Greek Bibles. I understand and envy your ability to dismiss the violence in the Hebrew Bible by assuming that Jesus would reject the violent God who visits such destruction on humanity. I do the same thing when I say these texts reflect the Voice of Fear. But I suspect that you have a problem that my more humanistic approach avoids.

Because I claim the Bible is a human document, I can explain the Bible’s violence, misogyny, homophobia, etc. as reflecting the mores of its time. I can note these as historical artifacts and ignore them as ethical or moral guidelines for the present. But if I argue, as you seem to do, that the Holy Spirit inspired these texts, I have to ask “Why?” Why teach me about Noah and a god willing to destroy almost all life on earth, when the real God would never do that? Or would he?

If Jesus is your standard you have to deal with the Little Apocalypse in Mark 13. Jesus says, “in those days there will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, no, and never will be” (Mark 13:19). So Jesus’ God is as mad as Noah’s. And then there is the Book of Revelation that paints a picture of Jesus himself as a bloodthirsty warrior. If the Holy Spirit inspired these teachings, then the mad God of the Hebrew Bible is still wrecking havoc in the New Testament.

So, help me out here: If Jesus is your standard, paint me a picture of this Jesus and show me how you manage to escape the other images of him that don’t fit your picture.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Mike: First Thoughts

Fair enough! What do I think about the Bible and God?

The Bible is a human/divine book. Christians generally believe Holy Spirit inspired and guided its various authors, so that whatever they produced may be used to turn us to God. Scripture's deepest purpose, therefore, is to help God form us into his kind of people. It is a tool in God's hands. Christians must take care never to confuse the tool with God, lest they turn the Bible into an idol.

Second, the Bible must be interpreted and applied. This implies the need for some standard or standards of interpretation. Some Christian groups look primarily to the teaching tradition of the Church. Others vest considerable authority in church structures, such as councils of bishops. Those in the free church tradition tend to give enormous weight to individual interpretation, tempered by interaction with other believers. Many prefer to attempt to interpret scripture in light of scripture.

Personally, I attempt to interpret all of scripture in light of what we know of Jesus. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are my primary texts, my canon within the canon. This enables me to disregard scriptures that clearly violate the teaching and spirit of Jesus. Stoning disobedient children, slaughtering conquered people, vengence in all its forms, and the like go by the wayside. They do not meet the Jesus test.

As for God, I find him best revealed in Jesus. In Jesus we see who God is and what he does, at least to the extent possible for mortals. The God revealed is one who takes a highly personal, love-driven interest in all creation, including us. He takes risks--selecting and shaping a group of former slaves into his people, Incarnation, entrusting his work in the world to all too fallible humans. He chooses to limit himself lest he overwhelm us and compel our allegiance, for he will settle for nothing less than our voluntary love.

The Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount, then, are best seen as God's vision for his people, individually and collectively. Grappling with them and, even more, trying to put them into practice push our spiritual development. Through them God says, "This is the kind of life I created you to have and the kind of life you can have. This is my kind of life. Join me in living it."

Monday, March 17, 2008

Rami: First Thoughts

Before we get into the actual texts of the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount, it might be helpful to both of us, and to those who are reading and participating in this conversation with us, to know where each of us stands regarding the Bible.

For me the Bible is a human document. It is not so much God’s revelation to humanity, as humanity’s seeking out of God and godliness. Because the Bible is a human document it reflects the best and the worst of what we are capable. When it reflects the best, I believe the author is in touch with God and revealing godliness by speaking in what I call the Voice of Love. When it reflects the worst, I believe the author is out of touch with God, and speaking to the needs of ego in what I call the Voice of Fear. When reading the Bible we must identify which Voice we are hearing. When we hear the Voice of Love we should do our best to follow its advice. When we hear the Voice of Fear we should own that shadow side of our personality but avoid what the Bible commands in that Voice.

For example, when the Bible says, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18); or “Love the stranger” (Leviticus 19:34) it is speaking in the Voice of Love, and we would be wise to heed its wisdom. When the very same Bible commands us to massacre every man, woman, child, and cow of Amalek (1 Samuel 15:1-2), however, it is speaking in the Voice of Fear, and we must recognize our human capacity for genocide even as we renounce all acts of genocide.

Saying this raises the question, “What is God?” I imagine we will deal with that when we get to the first of the Ten Commandments, but suffice it to say, that I believe God is Reality. God is the One Thing from which and in which all things arise and fall. In this I follow the apostle Paul who says that it is in God that we live, move, and have our being (Acts 17:28). You are I and all things are manifestations of the One Thing I call God.

Given this notion of God, I understand God’s commands as analogous to an ocean’s current, or the grain of wood. If you wish to be in harmony with the ocean you move with the current. If you wish to cut wood well, you cut with the grain. You can move against the current and cut against the grain, but in the end this will prove ineffective.

The Voice of Love reveals the grain of God or the current of godliness. If you want to live well, if you want to live in harmony with Life and the One Who manifests it, this is the way to live. What are the consequences for violating these commands? Needless suffering, confusion, pain, anger, greed, ignorance, and violence both to yourself and the world as a whole.

So rather than read these commandments as the barkings of a Cosmic Drill Sergeant, I understand them as revelations: “You are capable of living without idols, lies, or covetousness; you are capable of honoring your parents and remembering the Sabbath.” The Ten Commandments are challenges to live in harmony with the current of godliness rather than demands of an aloof and commanding god.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Numbering the Commandments

One of things we ought to clarify from the very beginning is the numbering of the Ten Commandments. While all versions of the Aseret haDibrot (The Ten Words), as The Ten Commandments are called in Judaism, are based on Exodus 20:2-17 and its variant in Deuteronomy 5: 6-18, there are different ways of listing them.

In Judaism, Exodus 20:2 is the First Commandment whereas it's considered a preface in Christianity. Judaism then links verses 2 through 6 together to make the Second Commandment. As I understand it, most Protestants, with the notable exception of Lutherans, consider either verse 3 by itself or combine verses 2 and 3 as the First Commandment. Roman Catholics and Lutherans take verses 2-6 to be the first commandment and then divide verse 17 into two parts so that 17a “ You shall not covet your neighbor's house” becomes the Ninth Commandment and 17b “You shall not covet your neighbors wife” becomes the Tenth.

If it is all the same with you, Mike, I would like to work with the older numbering system of the Jews first because it is older and second because it the one with which I am the most familiar and I suck at math and will be certain to make a mistake if we change the numbers. You, being far more erudite than I, should have no problem with this system.

Just to be clear to our readers the list I am suggesting is this:

First Commandment (Exodus 20:2): I am YHVH Your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.

Second Commandment (Exodus 20:3-6): You shall have no other gods beside Me. You shall not make for yourself any graven image, nor any manner of likeness, of any thing that is heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them, nor serve them, for I, YHVH Your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation.

Third Commandment (Exodus 20:7): You shall not take the Name of YHVH Your God in vain; for YHVH will not hold him guiltless that takes His Name in vain.

Fourth Commandment (Exodus 20:8-11): Remember the Sabbath, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a Sabbath unto YHVH Your God, in it you shall not do any manner of work, you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your man-servant, nor your maid-servant, nor your cattle, nor the stranger that is within your gates; for in six days YHVH made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested on the seventh day. Wherefore YHVH blessed the Sabbath day, and made it holy.

Fifth Commandment (Exodus 20:12): Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which YHVH God gives you.

Sixth Commandment (Exodus 20:13): You shall not murder.

Seventh Commandment (Exodus 20:13): You shall not commit adultery.

Eighth Commandment (Exodus 20:13): You shall not steal.

Ninth Commandment (Exodus 20:13): You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

Tenth Commandment (Exodus 20:14): You shall not covet your neighbor's house, nor his wife, his man-servant, his maid-servant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is your neighbor's.