Fame: A Contingency Plan for Eternal Life

Heretic’s Creed is intended to be blog about theology and the historical/linguistic context of religious texts and viewpoints.  However, once in a while I get an itch to write about the more personal aspect of religion in my life.  I have decided to dedicate a post in Heretic’s Creed to this purpose from time-to-time.  This is the first installment of said posts.  

I often marvel at my own desires.  Things I regard as meaningless, shallow and utterly without value inexplicably remain an emotional catalyst of my behavior.  Though I refute them intellectually, I carry many irrational secret longings. 

One such guilty desire is fame.  Very simply, I want to be known.  Preferably as a novelist, but I’m not picky as long as it’s positive.  This urge has possessed me since I was a small child.  My history is littered with half-finished books, demo discs of flamed-out bands, and bit parts in college plays.  I even tried to write a rap song once.  It didn’t go well.  

This wouldn’t be a problem if I could keep my pipe dreams in their proper, non-emotive locations.  I hear myself say, time and time again, “I am a pragmatist.  I chose a career that is beneficial to society.  I chase my dreams in my free time, and if they don’t pan out, well, I will have 40 years of human service to hang my hat on.”  This is, without question, a true statement, however, I am emotionally incapable of accepting it.  The way I feel about myself, and the way I relate to others is affected more by my foolish dreams than my rational plans.

Example:  I have a friend who was a successful rock musician for about 10 years.  His band was signed to a moderately large label and he made a living recording music and touring.  Furthermore, he is incredibly kind, humble and fun to be around.  There is not a more “deserving” person in the world.  But when I see his albums on the shelves or his picture in a magazine I am 10% happy for him and 90% inconsolably depressed and unabashedly envious.   

I have been examining my response to my friend’s fame.  I can honestly say it is no ill will toward him, fortunately.  My response is purely internal and self-absorbed.  Seeing his fame reminds me of my lack-there-of.  Digging further, I have been trying to trace the origins of my need for recognition.  I am a modestly well-adjusted, tax-paying citizen, so what is the root of this anomaly in my self-concept?    

Doubt.    

What I thought was purely a psychological problem is, in truth, at least partially a spiritual problem.  When I assess my motivations earnestly, I discover I am truly a pragmatist after all.  Fame is my eternal life contingency plan.

If I am wrong about humans continuing a postmortem existence in some fashion, then creating a legacy on Earth is the only means of attaining immortality.  Granted, it’s a poor substitute for eternal life as described by the Judeo/Christian/Islamic traditions, or even in comparison to reincarnation of the Buddhist or Hindu variety.  It barely even beats out the ancient polytheists’ concepts of Dis or Hades.  But it’s better than nothing.  I guess you could say I am diversifying my immortal portfolio. 

So if there is no continuation of life-after-death and our consciousness ceases to be, the only people to live on are those that create a lasting impression in some way.  I think this is why it stresses me out when I think about my failures to achieve notability.  My safety net isn’t hung yet, so if I die anytime soon, I will return to dust and be forgotten.   

The knee-jerk response is to say “well you family and friends will remember you!”  But I am looking at the big picture.  To live on past a few meager generations of direct associates, I would have to create memorable imprints in those I have never interacted with.  If you write a riveting book, revolutionize public policy, or touch the hearts of the masses with music, a record of your existence will continue to influence the human experience for as long man exists.  

That’s what keeps me writing.  That’s also what wakes me up at night in all-consuming panic.  I want to continue to exist.  In consciousness or in memory.  I want to live.  

Posted on July 11, 2014 .

“Everything Happens for a Reason” Lacks Solid Reasoning

“Everything happens for a reason” is a common saying I find particularly irritating.  I admit, my annoyance with this particular axiom is, in part, due to it’s rampant popularity and general overuse.  Putting aside my personal bias against philosophical cliches, this point-of-view is still troubling.  The problem is, this fatalistic maxim deflects responsibility away from the individual, and into some nebulous abyss of “destiny”.

I understand this phrase is a knee-jerk response to personal difficulties.  It is not intended to be employed as a dogmatic life credo, nor is it a consummate theological concept, subject to deconstructionist dismantling.  One could even say it is a harmless aphorism people use for their own comfort.  But I would venture to say this cute little adage is both theologically inaccurate and ethically corrosive.

The concept seems perfectly at home nestled into the theological framework of Calvinism.  If you ascribe to such Calvinist doctrines as predestination, or irresistible grace, perhaps you can accept this saying without being inconsistent in your logic.  My problem is, I believe these ideas are out of line with a profoundly gracious deity.  If God is simply a giant micromanager in the sky, or some tragedian playwright using us as his thespians, then perhaps it is reasonable to say “everything happens for a reason” but for our sake, I hope that’s not the true nature of God.  

The most pressing problem with this viewpoint is obvious.  Would a loving God facilitate the murder of a child?  The loss of limbs to meningitis?  Torture in a POW camp?  If God is perfect, and more-over perfectly good, which most major religions espouse, how could He make something atrocious happen?  If you follow this concept to its logical conclusion, it would mean A) individuals who perpetuate terrible ethical infractions can’t be held responsible for their actions, and B) it’s “planned” for victims of such infractions to endure terrible pain and sorrow.  While you could make a plausible argument the suffering party is predetermined to be positively shaped by this event (which is another debate altogether) I can see no reasonable way a loving, supremely benevolent being could write into his plan for one of His children to commit a mortifying act.  This would make Him, at the very least, an accomplice to the evil act and therefore would render his “perfect goodness” null and void.   

The typical response to this theological paradox is God allows bad things to happen but does not make them happen.  If this is the case then we at least have some modicum of free will, because God is not guiding our actions toward one another, but simply allowing them to take place.  Therefore, when a person commits a terrible act they are doing so by their own volition, and consequently are responsible for their actions.  If you accept this premise, it inevitably debunks the idea that everything happens for a reason.

This brings me to another aspect I find troubling about this saying.  It excuses people from laboring to improve their world.  If everything, including violence, pain, illness, and misery is part of a grand plan, what is the motivation for a human being to intervene?  The sociological implications are harrowing.  Fatalism naturally decreases altruism, and altruism is the central message of Christianity.    

Ultimately, my biggest criticism of the belief that everything happens for a reason, is it passes off our responsibility to be the living Body of Christ.  It allows us to shift our duties back onto God, which is nothing short of a tragedy.  I believe we have been empowered to be living vessels of radical compassion.  We are called to use every ounce of our talent, creativity, and free-will to improve and enrich the lives of those around us.  This is our greatest burden, and our greatest joy.

I don't think everything happens for a reason. We are the masters of our own destiny, and consciousness is our most precious rift.  We are responsible for the suffering and misery in this world, but more importantly, we are responsible for it’s healing. 

Posted on July 11, 2014 .

The Figurative Conquest of Canaan

Joshua 8: 24-25

 HYPERLINK "http://bible.cc/joshua/8-24.htm" 24When Israel had finished killing all the men of Ai in the fields and in the desert where they had chased them, and when every one of them had been put to the sword, all the Israelites returned to Ai and killed those who were in it.  HYPERLINK "http://bible.cc/joshua/8-25.htm" 25Twelve thousand men and women fell that day—all the people of Ai. 

1 Samuel 15: 2-3

 HYPERLINK "http://bible.cc/1_samuel/15-2.htm" 2This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt.  HYPERLINK "http://bible.cc/1_samuel/15-3.htm" 3Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroya everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’”

These two passages of the Bible nearly made me an atheist.  Back when I was a Christian Fundamentalist, I just ignored them.  When I was an Christian Apologist I tried to explain their literal accuracy while still believing in God’s goodness.  Eventually I arrived at the position that they can neither be ignored nor rationally defended as literally true if I still wanted to sleep at night.  Thus, I teetered on the precipice of atheism, as I could not marry the Gospel of Jesus Christ with the murder of women and children.  

While my faith was on life-support, I happen to pose this moral quandary to a friend of mine (who happens to be a highly heretical pastor).  He led me to some research related to this very subject, which, in affect, salvaged my theism (or salvaged my salvation if I were of the Evangelical persuasion).  

If you are opposed to approaching the Bible as a book built on the beautiful threads of myth and metaphor, you may want to close your eyes for this part.  Then again, if you are reading a blog called Heretic’s Creed perhaps you already knew I might wander in this direction.  

It turns out there is very little archaeological evidence for a literal conquest of Canaan.*  

Per the Biblical account, the Israelites were held captive in Egypt for a substantial period of time, before being led by Moses, on a mass exodus from the clutches of Pharaoh.  They wandered in the wilderness for many years, but were eventually led by a dynamic military leader named Joshua, to countless conquests over the various city-states of Canaan (Modern day Israel/Palestine/Lebanon).  The conquests continued under the administration of several “judges” who established the foundations of what would become the Kingdom of Israel/Judah.  

Now, without a doubt, the Kingdom of Israel/Judah was a very real part of history.  There are numerous extra-biblical sources and archaeological findings to support this.  However, how they came to be is a matter of debate.  

The trouble with taking the Biblical account of the conquest of Canaan literally starts with the lack o extra-Biblical literary or historical sources.  There is almost no mention of “Israel” or “Israelites” until they are well established in Canaan.  True, the Merneptah Stele (an Egyptian stone tablet mentioning the Israelites by name) indicates they were large enough to be known by King Merneptah, but that particular piece is dated around 1200BC, well into the “Judges” period.  If the Israelites as a people had truly existed in captivity in Egypt (not to mention their supposed dealings with Egypt during the Patriarchal period, particularly the story of Joseph toward the end of Genesis), there would undoubtedly be mention prior to 1200BC.  

Additionally, there is the problem of the excavations of the Canaanite city-states supposedly violently conquered by the Israelites.  The archaeological record does not bear the typical demarkations of a razed city.  Battles of the size described in Joshua and Judges would leave broken weapons, skeletal remains with grievous injuries , burned buildings, etc., which would demonstrate to archaeologists that mass warfare took place.  These type of findings have validated the conquests of Alexander, Cyrus, and many others.  The evidence found at the Canaanite sites however, would suggest that those cities had a gradual decline, into irrelevance, poverty and ambiguity.  This is a very different tale than the one told by the Bible.  

If we know that the Israelites were a very real people, who established a Kingdom in Canaan but there is little evidence for their military dominance early on, and virtually no mention of them until 1200 BC, then how did they rise to prominence?  Where did they come from?  

Many scholars ascribed to the hypothesis that the Israelites didn’t conquer the Canaanites.  They were the Canaanites.  Let me explain:  There is evidence to support the fact that large groups of people left the Canaanite city states around the time that Israel was having its various “conquests”.  It appears likely that groups of disenfranchised Canaanites, for reasons as yet unknown, left in droves and created their own communities.  These fledgling groups of ex-Canaanites are the people that became the Israelites.  The holy land was taken not by a bloody conquest by one group over another, but instead by a cultural cleaving, which left the infrastructure of the Canaanites crippled.  

So the next logical question is this:  If God didn’t really tell the Israelites to kill all the Canaanites, why would they say that He did?  And, assuming the scholars are correct, doesn’t that mean the Bible is “wrong” and therefore no longer “infallible” (somer prefer to term “inerrant” instead)?  

In response to the first question; no one really knows exactly why the story was written the way it was.  But an examination of the culture and writing style of that time period can help bring better understanding to the subject.  

In the 12th century BC there were no fact check websites.  There weren’t sections in bookstores labeled “Fiction” and “Non-Fiction”.  There were only oral traditions, and later, scribes to write down what was said.  All “writing” of that day was myth.  People were not concerned with what was factual, they were concerned with what was meaningful.  The Israelites wanted to have a powerful, memorable, inspiring history that captured the pride they felt at separating themselves from their Canaanite, polytheistic roots.  So they spoke as they felt.  They didn’t care if people 3000 years later read their work and believed it to be literally true.  It captured their spirit, which is what any good mythos does.  

The second question is a tough one.  If you are a person that feels the Bible has to be literally inerrant to be valuable, then this is probably very upsetting news to you.  Without question, parts of the Bible are literally true and supported strongly by archaeological findings.  However, there are large portions that appear to be mythological in scope due to their lack of archaeological evidence or their scientific impossibility.  But I am strongly of the opinion that something does not have to be factual to be true.  

Is The Great Gatsby factual?  Did Gatsby, Nick and Daisy actually exist?  No, obviously.  But is their story any less “true”?  I would say it is one of the truest pieces of literature ever written because it’s themes and insights, about American ideals, about the 1920s, about humans, their dreams, feelings and behaviors, are all, without a doubt, true.  I think of many parts of the Bible in the same way.  It’s thematic reflections on human beings and their deity are inerrant, and that is infinitely more important than it’s factual reliability.  

But supposing the conquest of Canaan really is a myth, one could reasonably ask what we are supposed to learn from a story about a god who tells his followers to kill infants and mothers.  I think this particular part of the Bible says much more about the people who wrote it than the deity they worshipped.  The theology of humanity is not static.  Even within the Bible itself, the authors (or compilers) demonstrate a marked progression from an angry, ethnocentric, jealous god to a loving, patient, creator.  The gradual change is not in God’s behavior, but instead in how we perceive his behavior.  In another 1000 years we may understand the Bible in a completely new way that allows us greater insight into the nature of the mysterious, beautiful, enigmatic Yahweh.  

*The research I am referencing comes predominately from writings and interviews I have seen with scholars on the subject.  Among others, much of this information comes from John Dominic Crossan (New Testament Scholar), L. Michael White, Ph.d (University of Texas), Shaye J.D. Cohen, Ph.D (Harvard) and Michael Coogan, Ph.D (Harvard).  For an excellent and highly accessible synopsis of some of the research on this subject watch NOVA’s The Bible’s Buried Secrets.  

Posted on July 11, 2014 .

Dialogue vs Doctrine

Traditionally, the basis of religious community is allegiance to a set of doctrines, both theoretical and practical.  This isn’t true of every religion internationally, but it is true of most.  The irony is that to formalize religious doctrine is to kill the spirit of what you are trying to capture.  As many theologians have noted, religion is a deeply existential and subject experience.  Therefore creating a one-size-fits-all set of beliefs and practices, while wildly popular, is generally destructive.

Rigid doctrine is particularly prevalent in Christian circles.  For many congregations, church is nothing more than gathering together with people you agree with, to reinforce doctrine you already believe.  Perhaps that is why most church services are dreadfully boring.  

But there is another view of the utility of religious community.  Dialogue.  A diversity of opinion, shaping and reshaping one another, built on respectful discussion about the principles that drive us.  

To be sure, neither approach is without fault.  Doctrine-centric church is nothing more than gathering together to celebrate our own piety and solidify ourselves as “us” and those we disagree with as “them”. It is one-dimensional, petty, and ultimately divisive.  At a point, the more narrowly you define yourself the closer you are to creating a church that consists of the only person you agree with 100%: yourself.  

Conversely, the idea of church as a dialogue of ideals is far from perfect.  Discussion is time-consuming.  Communities can become protracted in discourse, and dialogue can be every bit as divisive as doctrine if done incorrectly.  If you are looking for efficiency, discussion on principled living is probably not for you.  Democracy is always messy.

While imperfect, I think the dialogue-focused approach has more value.  The differences between doctrine-driven and dialogue-driven religious communities are somewhat nuanced, but vitally important.

Doctrine is inherently concrete, where as dialogue is, by and large, abstract.  Without question, doctrine is easier and less unsettling.  Being clearly told what to do, and what to believe makes life much more peaceful.  But the cost of harmony is high.  Inevitably you will alienate good people who can contribute to your church in powerful ways if you can’t allow differing perspectives.      

Dialogue, in it’s abstraction, is inclusive if handled in an environment of mutual respect.  When a church holds loosely to principles it empowers a diverse body of people to reach the needs of others with a breadth that is impossible in a system built on rigid doctrine.  

An example; Church A says “our stance on sex is that it should only be a man and a woman who are married.  period.  no exceptions”.  Considering over 90% of people in America have at least one sexual relationship before they are married, this automatically narrows your audience considerably.  People in monogamous but unmarried relationships, gays, widows/widowers in love who choose not to remarry for financial reasons, are all sanctimoniously written off.  

Church B says “our stance is that people should strive for sexual lifestyles that are healthy, edifying, and rooted in love and commitment.” Now you have invited the vast majority of people to the table for a discussion.  

A common criticism is that being open-ended allows people to say “anything goes”.  I would argue that allowing people some autonomy in determining what sexual responsibility means creates longer lasting moral infrastructure in a person than simply following a rule.  Reading the biblical text, studying the culture and language, and discussing with others who are concerned with ethical living engenders a stronger affinity for principles because the individual has taken part in shaping them.  

 Another criticism is “people will justify whatever they feel like doing”.  It’s true, some will.  But if a group of people are willing to gather in their free time to discuss ethics, they are obviously concerned with doing what is right, and are much more likely to arrive at a principled existence than what they are being given credit for.  

Secondly, doctrine, by it’s nature, puts rules ahead of people.  Dialogue, however, is uniquely human.  

In Mark 2 Jesus and his disciples are walking in a wheat field, picking the grain and eating it as they pass through.  The Pharisees see what they are doing and criticize them for working on the Sabbath (as they are technically harvesting grain).  Jesus rebukes the rigid interpretation of Sabbath adherence, going on to state that the Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath.  This story is demonstrative of the problem with putting rules first; it can harm the people it is intended to help.  Moral codes are created for the sole purpose of helping people live healthy, productive lives.  They are not objectively good devoid of people.  If enforced inflexibly, morality becomes a hindrance to goodness.   

Open-ended principles, always subject to reexamination, allow for exceptions.  It also creates a setting where proper prioritization can take place.  In the example of Mark 2 the principle of charity for the hungry would take priority over the principle of resting on the Sabbath, because it is the most beneficial to the people involved in that particular situation.  

Religious community can be an empowering experience for almost anyone, but to allow fellowship to reach it’s full potential we must be willing to sacrifice.  We have to give up the power, and control that allows us to feel superior others.  If we can let go of the comfort of lifeless doctrine and embrace the living, breathing and yes, changing, nature of ethical dialogue, the waters of grace will flow, invasive and irresistible, over all things.  

Posted on July 11, 2014 .