Sunday, March 30, 2008

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.


AaronHerschel said...

Who wouldn't agree to "justice" and "compassion?" The arguments arise when we begin discussing what these words actually mean, and how to apply them.

This is why stories and parables are better than commandments. Honor thy Mother and Father, unless you're Isaac, in which case watch out for Dad's "camping trips." Thou Shalt Not Kill, unless thou happeneth to be God, or haveth a special dispensation from God, like Joshua viz the Canaanites. I'm obviously being a bit flippant here, but I do believe it's only in the stories that the ambiguity and complexity of our ethical choices is made apparent.

For example, here's a story I heard a while ago. I'm not sure if it's actually a Bible verse, and I'm sure I've altered it in my memory, but it hardly matters; stories have their own integrity.

So... in the days of Moses, a Jewish man was discovered gathering sticks on the Sabbath. Since he had violated the Sabbath prohibition on work, the man was instantly set upon, bound, and carried bodily to Moses' tent for judgement. Moses (as was his way) went off to consult with God and, when he returned, he pronounced God's judgement. The guilty man would be stoned to death within the hour.

Now, I find it hard to accept that there's no irony intended in this story. In binding the guilty man and carrying him to Moses, the inital group of Jews had already committed the same crime as their prisoner. Further, executing God's sentence, i.e. hurling seriously heavy stones at this poor guy, who was probably just collecting firewood, would therefore make the entire community guilty.

In such a situation, what do you do? Do you support God's version of justice, or your own sense of compassion? Do you obey the spoken Word, or the written Law? Do you pick up a stone?

Mike Smith and Rami Shapiro said...

This is Rami. Agree that "justice" and "compassion" are not action plans or behaviorally defined. We have to continually refine what we mean by these terms, and that changes over time, and our wrangling can get nasty if we aren't careful. "Love your neighbor" sounds good, but it gets even better as we deepen our understanding of love and our broaden our understanding of neighbor, but there is no guarantee that we will do either.

An interesting question to explore would be this: How can we argue over meanings without violence?

Your story about the man, the sticks, the stoning, and the Sabbath is from the Torah, Numbers 15:32-36. And your point is both true and well taken. I certainly don't condone the actions of the people or believe in the god who ordered and sanctioned it. This is yet another example of people using gods to further their control over other people.

But I have a different question to ask: How is this text any different from any other story or parable in the Bible? Maybe the problem is this: the entire Bible is an anthology of parables that we misread as history, ethics, and even science.

If we took the Bible as story we would use as a catalyst to our own thinking, and not seek to imitate the ideas or behaviors of the characters.

Hamlet is a great story from which we can learn much, but no one outside the story dies because of it. Don't you agree poor Yorik?

AaronHerschel said...

I'm sorry, but I think the irony in the story is intentional. The Torah doesn't necessarily condone the community's behavior, anymore than Stanley Kubrick endoreses wearing a cowboy hat while riding an atomic bomb. If we read it ironically, then the possibilities for interpretation become much more interesting.

Perhaps, for example, the story is about the contradiction between justice and law, or a warning that slavic dedication to Law threatens the well-being of the community. Or perhaps its a challenge to oral law, which (as the story obliquely demonstrates) may change with each utterance, and an affirmation of written law, which curbs the fickleness of orality and, further, democratizes interpretation.

Under this last reading, the story is far from being an endorsement of the misuse of power. Rather it tells us to distrust the ways power is employed and authority invoked. We are told by our rulers to throw stones at the other in the name of God, but if we check the recorded word, we know not to obey.