Sunday, May 3, 2009

The changing tone of (God as presented in) the Bible

I first saw this verse in the film Into Great Silence, a documentary video about life among a group of Carthusian monks...
And, behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake:

And after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.

1 Kings 19:11-12
In the New International Version "still small voice" is translated as "gentle whisper".

Take four water bottles. Pour out differing amount of water from each and have the same person blow their breath equally over the top of each bottle. Now take the bottles and freeze them and repeat the experiment. Now crush them and repeat the experiment. The same gentle breath produces wildly different tones depending on the condition of each bottle.

The gentle breath is the Divine. The bottles are individual people. The tones are how people experience the Divine. So some here a loud a violent sound, others a proud and judgmental sound, others mocking a echo. But it isn't the wind that is different, it is the condition of the bottle. In other words, it isn't the Divine that produces these differences, but the state of the individual. The state of the mind, of the heart. Thus some perceive the Divine in one way, and some in another, depending on how well the Divine resonates within them. An obstructed or damaged vessel will not be able to produce a pure sound. And this does not reflect an imperfection in the individual, per se, but rather a limitation in being fully open to the Divine. By the time the sound filters through the doubt, self-centeredness and delusion, if it is heard at all it may sound harsh, or terrible, or shrill. So it's more about losing the obstructions rather than gaining perfection.

This can be expanded to suggest that "the soul" is the lens or perspective through which we experience God, which explains the calls in Judaism and early Christianity to heal or sooth the soul, and it generates some interesting ways to understand terms such as Kingdom of God, Heaven and Hell.

This lens is the aspect of ourselves with which we consciously experience the Divine. It's another way of describing what is discussed above in terms of perception and reception. A wounded soul would be like the damaged vessel through which the Divine may sound harsh, terrible, etc. So healing or soothing the soul would refer to clearing and calming this lens - the depth of the heart. Hence a healed or soothed soul can truly hear/experience the Divine in a more complete, wholesome, and virtuous way.

As mentioned this also has interesting implications for concepts such as the Kingdom of God, Heaven, and Hell, especially as states of being. In Buddhism it is said that the world of suffering and delusion and the world of bliss and perfection are not two separate world but one world. In one state (of delusion) the world is a place of suffering, while in another state (of perfection, or freedom from delusion) is a place of bliss. In one view we only see the worst of ourselves and others, while in another we experience their true wonder and beauty as well as our own, hidden from our normal sight. Which isn't a denial of the horrible things people may do, but rather an insight that this is a tragic aberration born of ignorance of our true natures, a condition which is gradually irresistibly being transformed and overcome.

(The following was added months later as an addendum...)

To elaborate then, if you have vengeance in your heart, you will want a God of terrible retribution. Maybe a neighboring culture speaks of such a deity, so you borrow that and add it to your own religion. The Old Testament itself as well as Biblical scholars point to such influences from other cultures in the region. These influences are thought to be responsible for the most repugnant of the images and passages in these part of scripture.

Then there are prophetic passages which imply that our actions have consequences. In this case, it isn't that God is threatening anyone, but saying "Hey, if you do X then Y will come to pass." Sometimes Y is literal and sometimes Y is metaphorical or figurative. But they are warning for our own benefit. Many of the claims for bullying or intimidation in the OT are of this variety. In some cases, God is proactive. In the story of Babel, people like to look at elements like "God had to go down to see the tower" and ask how that makes sense for an omnipresent being. Which of course misses the point - the story isn't a blow for blow recap but a warning about the dangers of vanity. In this case, it is a story that is as relevant today as ever. The people were trying to build a tower to get to God, i.e., to use their cleverness, technology, and other mental gifts to find God. Just like some people today think they can use science to either prove or disprove God, as if God could be contained in human conceptions or formulas. He destroys the tower and scatters the people for their own good. The story also suggests that one language or culture doesn't have a stranglehold on knowing God.

Closely related to this is the most direct point of the lesson about the heart that I mentioned above - in other words, the message is, if you think or act like that, God will (appear to be) like this. Some interpret the scariest pat of the New Testament - the Book of Revelations, in this fashion with the latter perspective. Humans who are ignorant and deluded and sinful will feel they are pitted against God and like God is giving them tribulations and punishments. Because they cannot forgive or open their heart they give in to unreal fantasies and terrors, but in their actions based on such paranoia and distortion they are truly capable of bringing destruction and devastation and a very real hell on earth. Those who surrender their delusion and suffering and enter the Kingdom see the world in a completely new and different way as per the end of Revelations. [See How to Believe in God (Whether or Not You Believe in Religion) for a more complete view of this interpretation.]

And yes, in the place of or in addition to all of this there are those who see the Bible as an ongoing dialogue, a conversation between humans and God, and that as culture's mature the visions of God that are acceptable also changes.


  1. Please, pardon me if I am reading too much or peering too deeply.

    Suffering seems to occur when those who are not The Way claim to have the one and only objective view of The Way.

    I have been surprised by the joy I am finding as I stop looking at the ugliness of my actions and beliefs missing the mark and instead strive to see the beauty in others as they press on toward their high calling.

    I grow in awareness at the peace in my soul that comes from being other-focused, beholding the noble, the lovely, the Philippians 4:8 I see in them.

    As I grow in this awareness of the true self, the self that seems to only emerge from focusing my energies for others, I find my walk through life keeps getting better and better, so much so, I'm beginning to feel as though each step is the very first step I've taken in this journey of The Way.

    Thank you for this posting of yours, it was a balm to my soul. :)

  2. Yes, but we can so easily be distracted. For me the test is not looking at the angelic but the demonic. Can I still see the grace of God? Can I still see Buddha-nature? If the demonic is the false and the illusory, then can I see through that to the true reality of the Divine?

    Everyone can identify as being one with the saint or the rainbow, but can we also identify with the scoundrel or the landfill? This is where seeing the noble and the lovely, seeing their potential for greatness, is so hard for me. I struggle seeing with sacred perception.

    Thank you for visiting and leaving such a thoughtful reply!


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