Sunday, August 29, 2010

On being like God (2)

Those who've known me for awhile already know: I like to trace things back to their roots. When it comes to the view that we should be like God, it has a long history ... and the Talmud takes it in an interesting direction. See if the thoughts here sound familiar to you:
But [the meaning of walking after the Lord your God is] to walk after the attributes of the Holy One, blessed be He. As He clothes the naked, for it is written: "And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife coats of skin, and clothed them," (Gen 3:21) so do thou also clothe the naked. The Holy One, blessed be He, visited the sick, for it is written: "And the Lord appeared unto him by the oaks of Mamre," (Gen 18:1 ... while Abraham was recovering from surgery) so do thou also visit the sick. The Holy One, blessed be He, comforted mourners, for it is written: "And it came to pass after the death of Abraham, that God blessed Isaac his son," (Gen 25:11) so do thou also comfort mourners. The Holy one, blessed be He, buried the dead, for it is written: "And He buried him in the valley," (Deut 34:6) so do thou also bury the dead. (Sotah 14a).

The ground rules seem to be to copy an action of God that was described in the Torah. Several of the things described in this collection were already described centuries earlier by Jesus in the teaching the Last Judgment:
For I was hungry, and you fed me; I was thirsty, and you gave me drink:, I was a stranger, and you took me in: Naked, and you clothed me: I was sick, and you visited me; I was in prison, and you came unto me. (Matthew 25:35-36)

The Talmud was kind enough to trace the source of some of these as imitations of God: visiting the sick and clothing the naked.

Possible sources for the others are:
  • God fed the hungry: "Who fed you in the wilderness with manna" (Deut 8:16)
  • God gave drink to the thirsty: "who brought forth water out of the rock" (Deut 8:15)
  • God took in the stranger: "I have also established my covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land of their pilgrimage, wherein they were strangers." (Exodus 6:4)
  • God visited the prisoner: "But the LORD was with Joseph, and showed him mercy, and gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison" (Gen 39:21)
That is to say, that it is possible that Jesus meant the teaching on the Last Judgment to recognize the principle to imitate God: to be merciful, as He is merciful.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

On being like God

Part of what it means to be human is to be like God. From the first mention of man in the Bible, before we are formed God has chosen to make us in the image of God, in the likeness of God. This is not an isolated passage, either; the theme continues throughout the whole of the Bible.

The Law of Moses calls the people to be holy because the LORD God is holy. It calls people to observe a day of peace and rest because God observed a day of peace and rest. God's actions establish a pattern for our actions; we acknowledge that imitation even in our calendars, which still recognize a seven-day week and a weekend.

Jesus calls us to be perfect because our Father in heaven is perfect, and to love both our friends and our enemies because God's love extends to all mankind, the just and the unjust, even to the evil. He tells a parable where the master's forgiveness should lead the servant to forgive as well. He even speaks of being born again of God's spirit, and becoming children of God. And Christ tells us that as he has loved us, so we are to love each other.*

John's letter also speaks of us being the children of God, and again that our character flows from God within us: God loves us first, and so we love each other.

In Paul's letters, he also echoes Christ on loving each other as God loves us, forgiving each other as God forgave us. He calls us to be imitators of God. It is not too bold or presumptuous to imitate God; in fact, it is part of what it means to be human. Regaining that image of God is a core part of our redemption.

The question, if we want to be like God, is then: What is God like?

* This goes beyond how we usually understand "What Would Jesus Do?" slogans. Those slogans picture us going about our daily lives and when a moral question comes up or when a temptation arises, then it calls us to ask ourselves "What would Jesus do?" But this kind of "bailout morality" would not call us to transform our work week into 7 days, or try to establish justice throughout the land. This "image of God" way of being like God does more than scratch the surface or guide us when we are unsure. It gives us a new direction for certainty, a new goal for transforming the structure of our lives, a new set of possibilities for how to pursue the good.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Of Hammurabi, Gilgamesh, and Abraham

I'd like to start by putting two ancient writings on the table before I explain why:

196. If a man put out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out.
200. If a man knock out the teeth of his equal, his teeth shall be knocked out.
201. If he knock out the teeth of a freed man, he shall pay one-third of a gold mina.
(from the Code of Hammurabi, around 1800 B.C.)

An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth ... (Exodus 21:24; Leviticus 24:20; Deuteronomy 19:21)

The Code of Hammurabi predates Moses by centuries, by any chronology I've ever heard. I don't want to make too much of the similarities between the ancient Babylonian Code of Hammurabi and the laws passed down in the Torah. I suspect the various peoples of that place and that era shared a sense of justice, and likewise shared a sense that these commands were handed down by God (or gods, as the case may be). If some would see this as proof positive that the Hebrew legal code was not, after all, handed to Moses in its entirety on Mount Sinai, that is not for me to argue.

One more thing before I get to my actual point.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is an early Babylonian record of a great flood. Even allowing an early date for the book of Genesis around the time worked out in chronologies for the exodus from Egypt, still the Epic of Gilgamesh is earlier. Even Answers in Genesis (a conservative Christian website, to say the least) acknowledges, "Comparing the flood stories in the Gilgamesh Epic and Genesis, one is impressed with the numerous similarities between the two accounts." Many scholars believe that the Hebrew account is largely borrowed from the earlier Babylonian account. Others say that the two accounts both preserve the memory of the same event.

Again, my point is not whether Noah is a rework of Gilgamesh.

I'll get to the point now.

It's interesting, I think, that the Hebrew legal code may show a Babylonian influence. It is interesting again that the Hebrew account of the flood bears such a striking resemblance to the older Babylonian story.

Why is it that Babylon keeps coming up? At other places scholars research possible similarities to other cultures like the Greeks or Persians. The older stuff -- Babylonian.

It's possible that it's just coincidence; we can research similarities between the Hebrews and the Babylonians because the Babylonian records exist for us to make that comparison; the best records we have of those more ancient times are Babylonian. Possible -- but there's no particular reason the Hebrew writings should resemble them quite that closely unless there was some cultural influence.

It's possible that, if we did a proper study of all the ancient legal codes and all the ancient flood accounts, we might find that the Hebrew records resembled something else more than the Babylonian accounts. And that's a more serious possibility, though still a tall order to fill, given the close similarities.

But there is another possibility I'd like to mention. What if the Hebrews received part of their legal code, and part of their memories of the ancient world and the dawn of human history, from ancestors who came from Babylon? What if there was an early migration of a people from Babylon to the land that later became the homeland of the Hebrews?

They went forth from Ur of the Chaldeans, to go into the land of Canaan. (Genesis 11:31, speaking of the family of Abraham's migration from Babylon)

I would not by any stretch call this conclusive. I would want to spend a year poring over ancient legal codes and flood accounts before I used words as strong as "tentative" with something like this. But it is an intriguing possibility: the repeated similarities between Hebrew sacred writings and earlier Babylonian writings may provide an independent line of argument that the ancestors of the Hebrews spent some time in Babylon.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

A paternity test for Abraham

Our knowledge of DNA keeps getting a stronger connection to ethnic studies and human ethnic history. I'd like to go on record hoping that someone, at some point, gets permission to run a DNA analysis on the human remains that are in the tomb said to belong to Abraham and Sarah. There are also tombs in other places reputed to belong to Jacob and to Ishmael. In some cases, of course, more than one site has been proposed for the tombs, with one site having more ancient attestation than the other. But if a DNA test could be done in a non-destructive way on remains that old, I'd be interested in the results. The cultures of that region are very geneaology-conscious, but the history has also been turbulent. Have these cultures succeeded in keeping track of their patriarchs?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Infinite God and the Book of Psalms

God is infinite. Limitless. Boundless.

This means that our best efforts to understand God will always fall short. It also means that it is always possible for us to grow in understanding. We cannot reach the limits of knowing God. Our human minds are not up to the job. All the world could be filled with books and still not have exhausted the mystery of God, or the love of God, or the mercy of God.

In the Bible, the Book of Psalms is a case in point. As a collection of poetry, the Book of Psalms has beauty and depth and richness. And even though it contains so many songs, it keeps sending out the call to "sing a new song". In a way, the Book of Psalms will never be complete. Technically, sure, it has so many psalms and that's all. In that sense it has been complete down through the ages. But nearly every day someone in the world writes a new song to praise God. They are living out the Bible just as surely as the one who feeds the hungry and visits his neighbor. The Bible is a living book because our God is a living God. God's mercies are new every morning; it follows that there is always something more.

Our hymnals have one thing right: the Psalms and the hymns we still sing are, in a very real sense, part of the same work.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Christian reaction to the Ground Zero Mosque?

I have, in the main, seen two reaction to the Ground Zero Mosque. The conservatives, generally more security-minded than liberals, are aware of the triumphalist message this sends to people who endorsed, applauded, or otherwise expressed sympathies with the 9/11 attacks against America, a group that reportedly includes the intended imam of the proposed mosque. The liberals, generally more multi-cultural minded than conservatives, want to send a welcoming message -- one that makes it clear that such attacks are not necessary because we in America mean no harm to the Muslim world, and that we can overlook the people who sympathize with that type of attack in order to welcome the Muslim community at large.

Both of those political responses have components of Christian thought in them. The liberals have tended towards love for enemies (though possibly at the expense of love for neighbor, if the neighbors are the thousands of families who lost loved ones to terrorist attacks that day, or simply people who do not feel safe with a religious leader who reportedly expressed some sympathies with those attacks setting up camp a stone's throw away). The conservatives have tended towards love for neighbor (though, as far as I can tell, without any recognition that love for enemies should factor into the thinking, or that American Muslim communities include many people who do not, at the present time, endorse attacking America and have not joined the call for open military jihad against us).

It's tempting to get wrapped up in the political and secular end of the question. If I had been a Muslim, good conscience would forbid me to ever set foot in the Ground Zero Mosque because it would give the appearance of endorsing terrorist attacks. This does not seem to be a concern in the Muslim community. I can't imagine Germans building a business-as-usual government building next to the remains of Auschwitz, or the U.S. building a "military technology" museum at Hiroshima. So I do think that, regardless of our own personal reactions to the mosque, we need to notice the lack of that kind of outcry in the Muslim community. What happened at Ground Zero should make them want to reject that site for "business as usual" for their own reasons, if they do not intend to endorse what happened there. It is one thing to debate whether the New Yorkers have a right to object; but like Sherlock Holmes and the dog barking in the night, it is easy to overlook what you're not hearing. A group opposed to what happened there would not want to build a mosque there if they saw that place as the ultimate shame of their religion, that their co-religionists perpetrated such an outrage against humanity. A group that was solidly opposed to what happened there would have its own people screaming out in protest at the choice of the site. The Muslim community knows how to do a protest; why is this passing in relative silence?

But it is at times like this, when the political stakes look to be very high, that it is tempting to stay on that level. As far as the U.S. reaction goes, none of it is surprising. After all, "liberal" and "conservative" are primarily political or ideological identifications, not religious ones and not specifically Christian ones. So the risk is, when the political and ideological stakes are that high, that we lose our specifically Christian identities. We cease being primarily followers of Christ and end up becoming partisans tossed about by every wind of current events. As Christians, we love our neighbors -- and want to keep them safe, and want to heal their wounds. As Christians, we love our enemies -- not just the "safe" ones who don't sympathize with terrorists, either. Most of the political groups are already missing one or the other of those. But the missing piece: as Christians, we proclaim Jesus as the true way to God. No one who takes Jesus' words to heart can endorse a terrorist attack; it is impossible.

Friends, if we really want everyone to live together in peace, the name of Christ is the only thing that will do it. Secularism and goodwill aren't actually strong enough for the job. And regardless of whether we are granted times of peace or not, the love of God in Christ is our message. The politically-minded will see this as hopelessly naive. I suppose we're even; I see faith in politics as hopelessly naive. There is no political answer for how to turn a terrorist into a friend; terrorists either die or become oppressors, unless they have a change of heart so that their hatred dies. Christ is that change of heart. We fail to recognize that at our own risk.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

The Anne Rice Meme?

For those who missed it, recently Anne Rice publicly announced that she was renouncing Christianity but not Christ. She equated Christianity with being anti-gay, anti-feminist, anti-artificial birth control [er, she was Roman Catholic], anti-Democrat, anti-science, anti-secular humanism, and anti-life. While it's easy to note that she's off the mark and probably just angry, the second part is what I want to ask you all about. I expect we all know the feeling of being angry -- justifiably angry -- about things in the church or the state of Christianity. (The exceptions, I think, are people who have in the last few years converted from one group to another; they haven't spotted the problems with their new group yet, or had the time to become annoyed with the problems.)

Some people pull an Anne Rice and make a big show of storming out the door, lobbing dramatic accusations over the shoulder on the way out. (Who knows, it may do some good; God has used odder things to make a positive difference.) I've recently posted why I don't take that route of giving up on Christianity. So how about a meme, for those who are familiar with the frustrations:
  1. Name 3 things that really annoy you about church in general.
  2. Name 3 reasons why you stay.
Here are mine:

Name 3 things that really annoy you about church in general
1. The cruelty and vindictiveness of some of the arguments between groups
2. The arrogance of people who are sure that all the good is on their particular side of an argument
3. The way church authority has worked out to stifling discussion about what is right, and has basically meant toeing the party line wherever you may happen to be.

Name 3 reasons why you stay
1. Jesus
2. God is trying to bless us
3. God is trying to let us be a blessing to the world

Anyone who has frustrations is invited to respond with what they are and why they stay.

The world needs explaining

Recently I put together this letter, which I intend to give my son before he leaves home when he is grown. With this week's Anne Rice news, it seems timely to post it here also.

Dear (name edited):

When you were little you asked a ton of questions. When I'd get worn out, I'd tell you, "I know the world needs explaining -- but not all today."

But now you're getting older. You have to have questions - but you don't ask them so much anymore. I wonder if you sense that there are no good answers to some of them.

Today I wish I could explain the Christian faith to you. Not just that but the state of Christianity also. There are so many divisions, so many arguments. There are so many accusations and counter-accusations between the different groups. So many different groups.

I'm going to name a general rule here about the things that divide us: nearly everyone believes something that just isn't so. It may be just a little something here or there, or it may be a central belief of theirs.

Usually if you look at a group and you find the one thing they believe that nobody else does -- that's usually it.

Do I think the church we go to is perfect? No.
Do I think there's a better one out there? No, not really.
Do I think it's worth it? The following-Jesus part is worth it. Sticking together with other people who follow Jesus is worth it. The rest? Not so much.

If you go to another Christian group they'll tell you right away two things: First, that where you came from, the one thing they believe that nobody else does - that is wrong. They may be right about that. And they'll also tell you that the one thing they believe and nobody else does is absolutely correct. They're probably wrong about that.

They may also tell you that you're not really a Christian unless you believe that one particular thing. Unless they're talking about something Jesus taught directly exactly with his own words, or something that Jesus did, they're probably wrong about that too.

I wish I could hand you a better world. I think we can do better. On the one hand I know this world was already messed up before I got here. On the other hand, that's a lame excuse.

I am doing what I can to make things better.
Sometimes I e-mail the pastor when he teaches things that aren't in the Bible.
Sometimes I skip singing songs that do the same.
One or twice I've even walked out on a sermon, when it's particularly against the teachings of Jesus.

These are small things and I hope to do more.
I have a blog; I try to write things that will help. I try to write things that will change how things are. I try to write things that will help other people see how it could be better.

Mostly I try to follow Jesus and hope I'm not making too big a mess of it.

I have ambitious plans. I'm not going to give up easily. But I have no idea if it'll make any difference. I'm writing some new liturgies; I hope they are things that both liturgical and free church groups could both use. (I hope they're things that any Christian anywhere could use.) I'm trying to map out all the differences in the Christian churches in a way that each person can see the other's side. I know it's too ambitious. I don't really have delusions of grandeur -- I just know that I have to try.

And so it comes to this: I try because I won't give up on Jesus. He's why I'm in this. He's what makes it worthwhile for me. He's why I don't give up. As far as I can tell, he's the best hope this world has, and his teachings are the best and most beautiful guide for building a life worth living.

And it also comes to this: I need your help. At your age I can ask only one thing of you: please don't give up.

It is really easy to give up on the institutional church. But the only people who have to give up on it are those who put faith in it, when that's not exactly what we're supposed to put our faith in.

But I don't want you to give up -- because Jesus' promises will give you so much hope in life. His teachings about right and wrong will protect you from so much pain and trouble and heartache. What he said about forgiving us can make all the difference after we've done something stupid or after someone we love has done something stupid. And the promises he has made of his love and of the good he plans for us can really help you keep your head on straight when things are rough.

The reason I don't want you to give up is that I want all those good things for you.

And be a rebel when you can. I will be disappointed to hear if you never skip singing a horrible song or never walk out on a messed up sermon.

Just remember, it never was about the institution. It's about us loving each other. It's about making our lives worthwhile. It's about God saying that this world has good in it and he's not giving up. It's about giving other people that same hope that we have: that God is good, that he forgives, that he raises the dead to new life.