Sunday, June 24, 2012

New eyes for reading the Bible: God

English: Bible in candlelight.
English: Bible in candlelight. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
This is one of those ideas, like my brief taxonomy of spirituality and religion, that I had a good while ago and then didn't get the chance to compose or finish composing. It is almost certainly true some of it has been forgotten or altered since the original inspiration.

A few points to make. This is not about a complex theological argument--it is not about debating theology in any way. It isn't about academic or left-brained discursive analysis. Nor is it about trying to get people to accept, convert to, or practice any form of Christianity. If you are overly argumentative or hyper-sensitive about religion, please refer back to these points if you feel the urge to complain.

I am not endorsing this perspective personally as something that I deeply believe, it just seems like a better/more interesting way to read the Bible. If you don't care for it, that's fine. I have no interest in arguing anyone into using this perspective. I am not endorsing Christianity or the Bible, nor am I trying to ignore or paint over the rough parts of either. But I do think if you are going to read the Bible, it's best to do so in a way that is going to make more sense to a modern audience and that challenges your comfortable (or uncomfortable) pre-conceptions.

So, this is basically a substitution system. Kind of like a translation, but without me actually reproducing the texts of the Bible with all of these changes awkwardly inserted. If you want to try this out, you'll have to remember or print the list and do the conversion mentally while you are reading something from the Bible or something from the Christian liturgy.

Oh, and while I develop things, you can just read the first descriptive paragraph of each major section entry in the series to get the basic translation. But you get much more if you read the rest. We begin by looking at God as Creator, God as Prophetic Authority, and God as Karma. But if you only pick one, try this first one...

God as the Creator

Try reading this as "the source or potentiality from which all energy and matter arises", especially if we are discussing God as "the Lord" or as "the Father".  In other words, read it as something beyond human comprehension or direct detection but whose effects can be observed in the manifestation of what we call existence, reality, etc. In more poetic terms, this also can be: "the invisible light by which all things can be seen", "the utter silence by which all things can be heard", "the unfelt presence by which all things can detected", "the inconceivable consciousness by which awareness and though are possible", and so on.   

In this sense, God is the unseen drive behind the origin of the universe, what are sometimes called natural laws, and the underlying quality behind the chain of complex chemical interactions described as life, known in poetic terms as "spirit" and "the spirit of life". This is especially interesting when reading something like Psalm 104, including the part where living beings are terrified when God hides his face (and they thus return to dust).

Now note that I say this is especially useful for "the Lord" and "the Father", as in God the Father. This definitely alters some of the meaning from how modern audiences tend to read it, with God as a "big guy in the sky" or a white-bearded king on a heavenly throne. As modern readers tend to be a little out of touch with ancient Jewish culture and symbolic imagery as well as with reading things in a poetic sense, this kind of reading of "the Lord" will almost certainly open things up a bit.

For example, it really forces one to deal with the personified and anthropomorphic elements rather than just assume a direct meaning. This is especially true if one is used to thinking of God as an all-powerful super-person who directly controls and micro-manages every single thing that happens anywhere like a puppeteer. It is even more challenging if you assume this version of God is depicted in a completely accurate way in Biblical references, as if the depictions were eye-witness reports.

But what if some of these views are mixed with human imagination, incorrect or culturally distorted views, personal biases and assumptions, and other factors? What if some of these views were alterations made for political purposes and struggles over power? Now you have to ask, "Why is the source of all of existence being portrayed in such and such a way when it is not directly detected or conceived of but only indirectly so?"

And furthermore, what if the image of the omnipotent micro-manager is added to the list of questionable portrayals? How exactly is the "power" of God expressed? Those who assume it can and is expressed in all possible ways have to answer to issues such as theodicy as well as why God once used such powers in a particular way but has ceased to do so. In what way is the expression of the manifestation of this "ineffable source" aspect of God through existence distinct in beings with advanced levels of self-awareness possessing a capacity for what is called a theory of mind?

For the God-can-do-anything crowd, the answer tends to be that God chooses to give people free will, that God allows certain things to happen, etc, and that these choices cannot be questioned because they only make sense to an omnipotent being. If one moves past that view of God, as suggested for this translation, then this kind of explanation has to be reconsidered. In fact, it would seem better to say that existence is itself a reflection of God's nature.

As for advanced sentient beings, it is in their capacity as such beings that they "become like gods" (see the story about a guy, a girl and some fruit) with a capacity for creation (of their own sense of reality, their own little universe in their heads), deep awareness of others, hence morality and immorality.

God as the Prophetic Authority

In this latter sense, humans become creators themselves, weaving personal, interpersonal, social, and cultural ideas together in their imaginations to create their sense and impression of reality. This worldview will tend to be similar to others with shared culture, history, and experiences, and this reinforces the sense of the fundamental correctness of such a perspective on what it means to be human and how life works.

Yet in doing so, in the human mind are born good and evil, right and wrong, better and worse, and so on. This creation reflects the ability to go beyond instinct for selfish and altruistic behavior. A new dimension of intention and agency is introduced. Additionally, there is added a new layer of perceptual filtering between humans and the natural state of existence.

This can be seen, for example, in the ignorance and cognitive dissonance of putting the priorities social, political, and economic ideologies ahead of ecological sustainability. This has a moral dimension and also a dimension of ignorance or blindness to reality.

Prophets are generally considered to be those who by their clearer connection to God can see through such ignorance and who warn others about the consequences of their actions. Of course, the role of the prophet itself can be abused for personal gain and ideological exploitation, but generally they are regarded as those who see what is endangering a community (lack of self-control, lack of concern for others, and so on) and call on the community, whether it is at the level of a village or an entire society, to change their behaviors to avert some set of undesirable or even disastrous consequences.

Common prophetic themes include honesty, gratitude, care for the poor and vulnerable, avoiding the influence of selfish and ignorant people, and so on. But how does this relate to God?

Well, the sentient mind in a sense separates itself from simplicity in perspective. Such a mind can become wrapped up in its own ideas and assumptions and become deaf to the natural rhythms and patterns of existence. Lost in itself, the mind can create many wonderful and terrible things with wonderful and terrible outcomes for anything and everyone within its reach.

While a prophet might, by an evolved recognition of and emotional attachment to a sense of awareness about the consequences of particular actions (i.e. by morality), seek to warn others about their behavior and remind them of their own moral awareness (i.e. their conscience), the more authority there is behind the prophet's pronouncements, the more power they will have.

God as Creator, as described above, would have ultimate authority as the root of existence, but then, that aspect of God is beyond contemplation and description. Hence the imagery of this source in a partially deified form (as opposed, to say, the more mysterious Tao). This semi-deified form, i.e. "the Lord" or "the Father", can then act as a visible representation of God as serve as a source of prophetic authority.

In more modern secular terms it would be a bit like saying, "This is how the universe works, and if you screw with the universe you are going to pay for it." Only in the language and imagery of the day, it came out more like, "This is how God has ordered things, and if you go against God's will, you are going to pay for it." It's kind of like karma.

God as Source of Karma

I deal with the actual comparisons of God and karma elsewhere. But it is interesting. If you talk to Western Buddhists, they will agree with the concept and reality of karma. Everything you think, say, and do leaves a residue, trace, or "seed" that influences what happens to you in the future, and so by cause and effect if you do harmful things this will lead to suffering. But if you personify the process, if there is some intelligent being who is doing the judging and the punishing or rewarding, it becomes very offensive and unacceptable to some of them. If it's some natural law of karma, good. If it's some deity, bad.

Now God as depicted here as source, as root of existence and spirit of life, is no mere deity or personified super-being. God cannot be limited to being a person or to being impersonal. However, to be relatable to the human mind it is described and envisioned in terms similar to a human mind. This is the God of Prophetic Authority, the semi-deified version of God mentioned above. This is generally how God is presented in the Bible, and as a flawed and limited image it is prone to inaccuracy and abuse by those claiming to speak on behalf of or in the name of God.

Yet it is true that you can also see in the Bible, especially in what Christians refer to as the Old Testament, that at least some Biblical authors (if not the population as a whole) understood God was not simply the semi-deified being approachable by the ordinary forms of perception of the human mind (extraordinary forms are not covered here). In other words, there is evidence that many prophets and psalmists and others who contributed to ancient Hebrew holy texts were consciously using the popular and familiar images of various deities, animistic beliefs, and so on from the periods and regions in which they lived in attempting to capture something of this more mysterious and essential God.

But, well... we still have to deal with God in the Prophetic Authority form in reading the Bible. That means what some may think of as karma being rendered as God threatening to punish, God judging, God blessing, and God condemning. There is probably no greater obstacle, ironically, to contemporary audiences in relating to or accepting the Biblical image of God than the ancient image of God as Prophetic Authority. What had made God more accessible then makes God much less accessible now.

However, in Leviticus (it isn't the all-awful book so many think it is!), God sets before the people a choice: a blessing or a curse. If you honor and follow the Law, you will be blessed. If you disregard the Law, you will be cursed. While some barbaric and bizarre sounding codes of conduct and punishments are found in Leviticus, and while those portions are not relevant to us today, the general theme is prophetic in the sense of avoiding things which will disrupt or endanger the community. Some of them are based on superstitions or notions of purity that made sense at that time but that we would puzzle over now, yet there are many parts that have to do with kindness, caring for the poor, and caring for the stranger.

In fact, the only real constants throughout the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament (which is given as the two great commandments of Judaism by Jesus in the New Testament) are to love and honor God and your fellow human beings with the same level of attention and seriousness as you regard yourself. (It is interesting to see God being nearly equated with humanity here, which is a crucial point for the following sections.). This is following the Law and choosing a blessing. Those who fail to do so are choosing a curse.

While people get hung up on the idea of God as jealous control freak because of the imagery used for the Prophetic Authority image, if you strip that image away and try to get at the bigger picture of what the prophet was concerned about, it is basically cause and effect. Now, again, some of the more detailed situations are period and culture specific, but the principle is still there. The focus we have today too often is on God doing all of this judging and punishing, which more petty and judgmental people, especially anti-spiritual folks and fundamentalists, seem to like.

From a karmic point of view, putting aside the Prophetic Authority image for a moment, the important point is about what people are bringing upon themselves. And those who are greedy, hateful, indifferent to suffering, violent, disrespectful, and ungrateful are, in a word, headed for judgement.

Because this was getting so long, the additional sections have been split into new posts and the title has been changed to reflect the fact that this is now a series. Check here for links to future sections.

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1 comment:

  1. Good comic showing the problems of relying on a deification of God that micro-manages the universe as a super-person rather than seeing the semi-deification of the God of Prophetic Authority as a means of making God more accessible to an ancient people.


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