Thursday, June 28, 2012

New eyes for reading the Bible: Judgement

Last Judgement, Triptych
Last Judgement, Triptych (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
What had been intended as one post has been split into a brief series. You don't have to read the rest of the series to get anything out of the post you are about to read, but it would probably help. My connection to these views and why I am writing them are also covered there.

I don't plan to go into any kind of theology about judgment in Christianity, as it's been covered before. And the starting premise is a continuation of the aforementioned post split into different parts, in which the imagery of God as Prophetic Authority is being used to explain what we could roughly compare to the concept of karma. That is, for the all the focus on what God is or isn't going to do to people, a more interesting and potentially useful way of looking at it is that judgement, resulting in a blessing or a curse, is about what people are bringing upon themselves.

The trick here is to put aside the Prophetic Authority image when you do so, or else you get into questions of theodicy. Now if you like that kind of thing, go for it. But otherwise, when thinking of God's judgement in the Bible, de-personalize it and think of it like a law, a law of cause and effect, a law of karma.

This I think helps relieve a good bit of the uncomfortable and often unnecessary discomfort with the way judgment is interpreted by contemporary readers, and it takes a lot of the wind out of the sales of the kind of fundamentalists who revel in a stern and punishing God and who get a thrill in vicariously judging others in the name of God. God isn't sitting on a throne passing judgement; rather, the universe manifests as an aspect of God, with certain natural "laws" or rules of cause and effect. Those who don't understand them or care about them are going to have more problems as they face the consequences of their ignorance or disregard. It can also be compared to being out of harmony with the Tao.

This next change in perspective can be added to the one above or practiced separately. In the tradition of the Desert Mother and Fathers of the early Church, and likely additional groups Christian and otherwise, there is a practice that I am going to co-opt and modify here. The enemies of the Bible, the Pharaoh of Exodus, the ancient Kings of Canaan, and others are taken to represent unvirtuous thoughts and feelings such as terror, hatred, greed, indifference to the suffering of others, and so on.

In other words, God is called upon as a warrior who will free us from the bondage of such tyrants ruling our hearts and minds. The light of God will dispel such darkness that keeps us in a narrow and defensive state of consciousness. That kind of thing. The trick to this is, ironically, is to see the image of God as warrior as involving strength, not violence.

If you think of these images as being about God having a violent nature, it still bring violence into the heart and mind of the person reading the Bible. And one set of disturbing thoughts or feelings (vengeance, spite, gloating, etc.) simply replaces another. Moreover, the terror, hatred, greed, and the like soon return, to be countered again with vengeance and gloating and similar experiences. In fact, that pattern can be seen repeatedly in the Psalms. The Psalmists frequently ask God for revenge and violence, expressing a recognizable human reaction to dire circumstances to which even modern readers can relate, but ultimately peace only comes by trusting in God.

The Wrath of God

Then there is the wrath. Now, I've written about the wrath thing before, but this is a little different. Or at least sufficiently different.

Now, you could just generically lump wrath in with the whole karmic retribution of judgement, but that doesn't give it much depth. Try interpreting the wrath of God in one or both of the following ways: 1) as the burning shame or torment of our own conscience, or, 2) as the purification of the heart and mind from the "evil" thoughts and feeling described above. Seeing it as karmic consequence, the pain of conscience, and a form of purification at all once would be even better.

In this view, God does not choose up sides and eternally reward or punish one side or the other. My impression is that the arguments for that view, when exposed to the relevant historical, cultural, and linguistic contexts from which the texts of the bible come, aren't that strong anyway. In the view being offered here, wrath is not an angry rage but a wrathful form of compassion.

While the warrior tribes that eventually adopted a unifying set of mytho-poetic ancestor stories and became known as the Hebrew would not have necessarily seen the calls for God's aid in battle as strictly a spiritual matter, there is also reason to doubt that they would have separated the spiritual from the political and the physical when it came to sin and enemies. In other words, the wicked people would have embodied and represented wickedness itself. So even if we do see these things as distinct, we can still interpret the passages (such as those in the Psalms) about evil people in both the sense of actual people and evil itself.

To do this, in cases where wrath is invoked to utterly destroy some wicked person or group of people, take the reference to refer either to some selfish, greedy, uncaring, or hateful quality in oneself that is being vanquished, or, take it to refer to those qualities in those horrible sounding people. In the latter instance or in cases where wrath is clearly invoked to correct or rebuke, then use either the karmic view or shaming/purifying view mentioned above, with the assumption that wrath is always about saving people.

Remember that for many ancients the view was collective, not individualistic, so a useful image to keep in mind in pruning a plant. A plant that is sick or dying can sometimes be revived by removing all dead and dying branches, even it it cut back to a small portion of its size before pruning. While this image in a collectivist sense might tended at times toward seeing individual people as being clipped and burned, the same imagery can be used in an individualistic framework as well to refer to the brown and brittle parts of our own selves that we cling to and which keep new growth from starting. In fact, Jesus seems to be making such references himself in the Gospels (his analogy of pruning vines, his references to plucking off offensive parts, etc.)

When it comes to wrath, there might be more of a case for seeing wrath as a warning and a wake-up call to a healing process involving shame and purification, especially with references such as heaping hot coals on the heads of wrong-doers (Psalm 11:6), to heap such coals by treating those who have harmed you well (Romans 21:9), using hot coals to purify the unclean (Isaiah 6:7), and asking God to shame ones enemies while using violent imagery (see for example Psalm 6:10; Psalm 35:4, Psalm 40:15-16; Psalm 70:2-3; Psalm 71:13; Psalm 78:66; Psalm 83:13-17; Psalm 86:17; Psalm 129:5). This would also explain the Psalmists talking about being tried in the fire and the requests for God's wrath and testing to be over.

 Therefore, in the translation offered here the wrath of God is both a necessary consequence (as karmic punishment) and call to conscience. The torment comes from unacknowledged ("unconfessed") disturbed thoughts and feelings and the harmful actions that spring from them ("sins").

Now, one can get into the source and meaning of these thoughts, feelings, and memories, and talk about one's original mind/heart being hidden by ignorance and delusion (as in Buddhism) or about the false sense of separation caused by the confusion of the lesser self (somewhat Buddhist, also used in contemplative Christianity), or you can speculate about the unconscious mind, or whatever. But here the emphasis is on the poetic description of the suffering caused by such unresolved pain and confusion.  The suffering can be compared to wound that is infected and must be cleaned. The sin is the wound, and the wrath is the cleaning.

While this may be generally useful and provocative when reading the Bible, it becomes especially interesting when one considers how all of this this plays out in the Gospels when trying to appreciate the narrative of Jesus Christ.

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