Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Mike: Matthew 7:24-28

Aside from your (occasional) penchant to try and treat a metaphor as a subject for scientific inquiry, I think your "improvisational jazz" suggestion is useful. It certainly provides a metaphor of life and creation as experienced in any given moment. When my sense of humor kicks in, I sometimes imagine an encounter with God when all history has played out. He greets us and agrees to take a few questions. When we mention the various music metaphors, God exclaims: "Music! What music? Me, I'm a gardener!"

We've arrived at the final paragraph of the Sermon on the Mount. It reads: "Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on the that house, but it did not fall. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell--and great was the fall." Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes. (Matthew 7:24-28, NRSV)

A childhood chorus first imprinted the story on my mind. Repeating lines about the falling rain and the rising flood, coupled with appropriate body movements, led to a conclusion in which the wise man's house stood but the foolish man's house "came tumbling down." We were easily entertained in that era!

In the context of The Sermon on the Mount, Jesus' words constitute both warning and invitation. Listening to, digesting, attempting to structure life in accordance with his words matters. Many Christians over the centuries have taken the injunction to imply that the Sermon on the Mount is the literary core of Christianity. Those who do so, tend to read the remainder of the gospels and the rest of the New Testament in light of The Sermon on the Mount. In short, the sermon becomes a "canon within the canon."

It's worth recalling how counter-intuitive the sermon feels to most of us. In an era when many, perhaps most, believe safety is found in violence, even pre-emptive violence, the sermon speaks of loving an enemy, of doing unto others as we would have do unto us, and the like. At almost any point in the sermon, we find ourselves confronted by an alternative vision of personal and community life. Frankly, I find it requires a bit of a leap of faith to attempt to embrace and practice the sermon's core teachings.

With regard to the parable itself, it assumes a setting in which heavy rain and floods are rare enough to enourage short-cuts or complacency. The parable's images are heavy-handed, designed to contrast the stark difference between foolishness and wisdom. As I have noted before, it seems to me he draws upon the tradition of the two ways, in this case clothing it in talk of two ways of selecting a home site.

The Sermon on the Mount closes with a summary statement of the crowd's reaction to the entire speech. Christian scholars have invested a great deal of ink and paper in the attempt to understand the text's contrast between the scribes and Jesus approach to teaching. More often than not, they suggest the "scribes" tended to teach on the basis of an inherited tradition, relying on the authority of those cited. The same scholars suggest that Jesus, in contrast, spoke as one with a word from God, whether in a sense similar to that of earlier prophets or as the Messiah. Frankly, I doubt we can discern the gospel writer's intent at this historical distance, other than to say he believed Jesus taught with a authority his listeners found novel.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Rami: Response To Mike's 6/22 Post

You are right, Mike—metaphors are always risky. Especially when shared between friends who delight in tweaking each other’s metaphors. So, with all due respect, let the tweaking begin.

First, I love the symphonic metaphor. Second, I agree that there are various movements that flow through the piece to create dramatic point-counter point essential to the quality of the music.

I’m not so sure about the conductor. Who would this be? God, I assume, is the composer, and while the composer could also be the conductor, I assume that since you didn’t say that, you didn’t mean that. So maybe Jesus is the conductor. But Jesus, having left the symphony in the hands of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, makes for a poor conductor. So perhaps it is the Spirit who conducts.

Even if we could agree on who the conductor is, we still have the problem of the orchestra rebelling against the conductor’s direction. A good symphony follows the conductor’s lead. If they don’t, the orchestra devolves into chaos and the conductor is out of a job.

Maybe the problem is solved if we shift from symphonic music to improvisational jazz. As I understand it, jazz has a core theme off of which jazz musicians improvise riffs. The riffs cannot ignore the theme, but they may oppose it and offer contrast to it. Such music is often highly discordant, and that would make the metaphor all the more apt. It is also created on the spot. In this metaphor there is no conductor, and God the Composer only sets the theme and waits to see where the musicians will take it. Maybe this is why God refers to himself in Exodus as Ehyeh asher Ehyeh, I will be what I will be. Even God is surprised by where the music goes.

What I like most about the music metaphor (regardless of musical style) is the need for rests and the goal-lessness of play. Music without the silence of the rests is just noise. Organized religion (as opposed to mysticism) makes little room for silence, the deep silence that frees us from the fixed notations of theology and ritual. The music metaphor would allow us to honor the silence more.

As for the sheer joy of playing, unlike most things we humans do in life, getting to the end of a piece of music is never the goal. The play is the goal; the journey is the thing. Otherwise the best symphonies would be those that played the fastest, and the greatest composers would only write endings.

Mike: Response to Rami's 6/10 Post

I agree with all you say about the ambiguity of goodness, the ways in which we justify evil by appealing to a greater good, our tendency to develop narrow definitionsl of human community, and our bent toward selfishness. I even agree with your take on the golden rule.

Metaphors are always risky, but here's one I find useful. Think of the human story as a piece of music. All of the horrible themes we've identified comprise a major movement within the piece. At times the movement dominates, sometimes it recedes into the background, but it is always there. Still, it is not the only movement. There is another one, a second one, and it plays the great themes of an all-inclusive humanity, humility, sacrifice and deeply shared interests. The two movements play, contend, rise and fall--but they go on playing. Some of us hear one movement more clearly than the other; some of us hear only one theme. We often think we've mastered the music, though truth to tell no one ever really does. Still the music plays on, and neither theme is eliminated.

Now...in my view there is a Conductor who never ceases to try to bring the second movement to the forefront. This may well be the core difference between us. I don't know. In any case, though, I believe the Conductor is involved, though he operates within the limits set by the role he has assumed.

I choose to pay attention to the second movement, to allow its cadences and runs and pace and tone to become the music which is my life. I may well mishear a note, sing along off key, get out of beat--but so long as the second movement plays and so long as I try to listen, I ulitimately will be drawn back into the movement.

So I dare to sing or play or simply beat time to the second movement. So long as the second movement plays, I will not lose hope.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Rami: Response To Mike's 6/9 Post

I agree with you, Mike, we must choose. And we always choose the good and the right. Regardless of which side of an argument we are on, of which policy we back, or which side of a war we choose to fight, we always assume we are on the side of the good. The good excuses more evil that does evil itself. Slavery, oppression, genocide, torture are rarely done in the name of evil, but most often done in the name of good. The argument continues on CNN and Fox right up to this morning. Those who support torture do not do so because it is evil, but because, in their minds, it serves the greater good.

Given the ambiguity of goodness, let me respond to your guidelines, holding your second for last.

(1) Does the prophet’s teaching, or proposed action square with persons being created in the image of God? The challenge here is to hold on to the idea that our enemies are in fact created in the image of God. The first stage of evil is always to dehumanize those we wish to abuse. Once that is done, once we are convinced that the other is in fact not human, then we are willing to do unto others any horror we can imagine.

(3) Will the agenda, teaching or action contribute to the enhancement of human community or instead farther fracture it? Again the issue is our definition of “human community.” Once we define “us” as human and “them” as gooks, huns, nips, kikes, niggers, baby-killers, and the like we can excuse incredible evil perpetrated against them. And then there is the argument current during the days of American enslavement of Africans that it was in the best interest of the enslaved to be slaves. Better a Christian slave in America than a free pagan in Africa. There is no end to the power of humans to rationalize evil.

(4) Does the agenda, teaching, or action require some genuine sacrifice on my part, or does it mostly serve to protect my interests (economic, career, comfort zone, etc.). This works for you and thoughtful people like you, but most of us put “keeping what’s mine” at the top of our agenda. American foreign policy, regardless of the party in power, is about keeping what is ours and expanding what is ours often at the expense of others. This may bother you, but not the majority.

Now let me come back to your second point, Would I want to be on the receiving end of a given prophet's agenda? This is, of course, the Golden Rule, and at the risk of sounding Pollyannaish, I think this is the only guideline that might work. Would I like to be slaughtered? Would I like to tortured? Would I like to be abused or enslaved? At least on the level of personal ethics this works. And if people would hold to such an ethic our communal ethics might come to reflect this rule as well.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Mike: Response to Rami's 6/2 Post

Your take on the difficulties associated with false prophets, "fruits," God's will, and vigilance strikes a chord with me. At times I rather despair of our being able to discern false prophets. We have trouble enough sorting through our own self-deceptions! Your closing lament (if you will grant me the term) captures the contemporary challenge: "I don't know how we can protect ourselves against false prophets...there are prophets of one faith or sect who argue against those of another faith or sect but there is no way to tell which is the truer."

Your words remind me of an episode in the novel The Two Towers. Aragorn encounters a young nobleman who is confused and frightened by the competing claims of the time. The nobleman (I'm paraphrasing, not having the novel to hand)cries out: "How is a man to choose in such times as these?" Aragorn's reply (again, paraphrased from memory) braces him: "As he has ever chosen. Good and evil have not changed in a day."

The key point is: Nothing absolves us from the burden or responsibility of choosing. So, when it comes to false prophets, truth, right, wrong, and the like I may be confused but still I must choose, either deliberately or by default.

Given that cheery thought, here are the guidelines I follow. I draw on the Christian tradition, mix in a dash of what I hope is wisdom gleaned from experience, and leaven the whole thing with intentional humility (i.e. acknowledging that I will make mistakes and resolving to try to admit mistakes when they happen and rectify them as I can). Here are my guidelines.

(1) Does the "prophet," teaching, or proposed action square with persons being created in the image of God? If I follow up, will I find myself according others the freedom and responsiblity and dignity inherent in their being made in the image of God? It's surprising how many times this simple guideline leads me to choose not to enlist in a given "prophet's" agenda.

(2) Would I want to be on the receiving end of a given prophet's agenda? If not, I become very cautious about embracing such agendas.

(3) Will the agenda, teaching or action contribute to the enhancement of human community or instead farther fracture it? If division seems to be the likely result, I grow cautious.

(4) Does the agenda, teaching, or action require some genuine sacrifice on my part, or does it mostly serve to protect my interests (economic, career, comfort zone, etc.). I tend to be suspicious of anything that essentially promises to help me "keep what's mine."

Obviously, my decision making is more complicated than such a simple list implies, but still I find the four guidelines help challenge me to take seriously the matter of choice.

Equally obviously, I've not answered the common question: "But how can you know what is true and take actions accordingly." I'm not sure that's the best question, frankly, even if it does appeal to folk reared in the scientific era. Instead, I think aspiring to guide my actions on the basis of seeing God in others, putting myself in the other person's shoes, building community, and embracing sacrifice for the sake of others offers a more productive approach. Mind you, my approach does not provide surety of any kind! But it does preserve me from paralysis.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Rami: Response To Mike's 5/29 Post

There is so much in this section, Mike, and it is one of my favorite passages of the Bible, but it is also one of the most troubling.

"Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.”

Who are the false prophets? I have heard preachers claim that Jesus is referring to the Pharisees, but this is hardly convincing. When denouncing the Pharisees Jesus and the Gospel writers always refer to them as Pharisees not prophets. And the Pharisees would never refer to themselves as prophets. So who is Jesus talking about?

Some scholars suggest that this reference to prophets was added long after Jesus’ death and refers to Paul and his followers, but I don’t think we have to stretch so far. It is not difficult to read this passage as Jesus imagining the future of his teaching when teachers use him and his words to further their own ends. How can we protect ourselves against being fooled? “You will know them by their fruits.”

This sounds right on the surface, but it is far more difficult than it seems. Take the preachers of the Prosperity Gospel, for example, those who use the teachings of Jesus to line their own pockets with gold. Their fruits are their own riches, yet their followers see those fruits as proof of the authenticity of the teaching. In other words, when bad fruit is defined as good fruit it is impossible to tell one from the other.

This is true in every religion. The people are convinced, ala George Orwell, that war is peace, slavery is freedom, and falsehood is truth. And once they are, the wolf can abandon the sheep’s clothing and no one will know the difference.

Shortly after George W’s revelation of preemptive war, Larry King hosted a panel of Evangelical Pastors to talk about war in Christian terms. When asked to explain how justify preemptive war with Jesus’ teaching, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” one guest said that our soldiers were peacemakers because once they killed all our enemies there would be peace. No one challenged her. This was a wolf who no longer needed sheep’s clothing.

Jesus is warning us against placing our faith in human beings and human institutions. Jesus is warning us against the seduction of words and miracles. He tells us to look at the fruits. But what if we no longer know good from bad fruit?
“Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” But what is that will? Every religion claims to be doing God’s will. The rampant torture and abuse of thousands of innocent children in Ireland’s Catholic orphanages was no doubt done under the aegis of God’s will. The murder of the doctor in Kansas, the slaughter of Shias by Sunnis and Sunnis by Shias, the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, and the oppression of Palestinians in Israel’s occupied territories are all excused as God’s will.

False prophets are not without power. They “prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your power?” So, again, how are we to tell the true prophet from the false when the works of both are identical?

I agree, Mike, that we must remain vigilant, but according to what standard? Jesus may be able to say, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evil-doers," but the rest of us cannot be so sure. When the church (synagogue, mosque, temple, etc.) itself is the source of so much evil, in a world where church, state, and marketplace have educated us to the point where we can no longer distinguish grapes from thorns, and figs from thistles, the only option we have is radical doubt. Trust no one. Not even yourself.

Five centuries before Jesus the Buddha warned us against listening to teachers simply because they are called wise, or following books simply because they are old. He admonished us to test every idea against our own experience: to see for ourselves what is wise and true; to trust our capacity to find enlightenment for ourselves. He may have had too much faith in humanity, but the idea that we must test teachings against reality rather than accept them on faith and insist reality conform to ideology is a sound one.

The problem today, however, is that ideology is reality. There is no objective standard against which to make a sound judgment. I always come back to Micah 6:8, “You know what God requires, Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly,” but the truth is justice, mercy, and humility are so open to interpretation that this text, too, is no longer sufficient.

Bottom line: I don’t know how we can protect ourselves against false prophets. In fact the very label “false” may no longer be meaningful. There are prophets of one faith or sect who argue against those of another faith or sect but there is no way to tell which is the truer.