Sunday, February 23, 2014

Teenage Sunday School: David, Bathsheba, and the commandment nobody takes seriously

This lesson worked out well in a classroom containing early teenagers and late pre-teens. They were already familiar with the ten commandments, and with the story of David and Bathsheba.

Opener: The Ten Commandments

The class should be well familiar with the ten commandments by now. At the leader's discretion, either start by seeing how many they can remember without looking, and/or turn to Exodus 20 and read them together briefly. List them on the board for future reference during the lesson. Try to keep this portion of the lesson to 10-15 minutes.

David and Bathsheba

Tell the class that, while reading the next story, they should look for how many of the ten commandments are broken. Read through the story of David and Bathsheba together as a class (2 Samuel 11).

Questions and discussion
  1. Which of the ten commandments were broken? Name as many as you can. (Make sure they notice at least coveting the neighbor's wife, adultery, and murder. Let them figure out as much as they can on their own. Before moving on to the next question, point out how the commandments that were broken got more and more serious as the story progressed, and the chain of events kept going from bad to worse.)
  2. At the beginning of the story, what was the very first commandment that was broken? 
  3. If David had not coveted his neighbor's wife, would the other commandments have been broken?
  4. After David and Bathsheba committed adultery, what would it have taken to stop things before taking a life? 
  5. Backing up one: before David and Bathsheba committed adultery, what would it have taken to stop the whole horrible chain of events from starting? 
  6. So, when was the easiest time to have stopped that whole disaster?

Make sure they either reach the conclusion themselves or help them along as needed: We may not always see "do not covet" as a serious commandment because it seems like a small thing. But "coveting" is where adultery starts, "coveting" is where stealing starts. And in David's case, it didn't stop there. All kinds of evil came from not stopping a thing when it was small enough to stop.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The more things change, the more things stay the same (Ethics of debate)

Only ignorant or obstinate persons would refuse to admit this proof taken from Scripture. (Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, Part II Chapter V.)
How often have we heard that same thought, that only the ignorant or obstinate would disagree? We hear it in politics, religion, all kinds of public debate. It is an easy trap for us to fall into. Here Maimonides declares himself the winner of an argument, appealing to Scripture (as he understood it) and maintaining that the only possible reasons for continuing in disagreement were serious personal defects in those who disagreed. The view he had just "proved", by the way:
Scripture supports the theory that the spheres [where the sun, moon, stars, and planets move, according to the primitive astronomy of his day] are animate and intellectual, i.e. capable of comprehending things; that they are not, as ignorant persons believe, inanimate masses like fire and earth ... (Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, Part II Chapter V.)
It's a little too easy to look back and feel the superiority of our own age when it comes to knowledge, and to think that we could never make a mistake like that. We're not likely to think that the sun (or its 'sphere') is intelligent. That was an innocent mistake of his day where they simply did not know better. But we often make the the other type of mistake that Maimonides makes, the less innocent one: resorting to insults and name-calling, and assuming that in any disagreement there must be something wrong with people who disagree with us.

I've noticed that each person genuinely tends to view himself or herself as infallible for practical purposes. While we acknowledge in theory that we are imperfect, we tend to regard personal mistakes as unusual and extraordinary things that don't apply under typical circumstances. We can't see our own mistakes, otherwise we probably wouldn't be making them. It is far too easy to suppose that we're not making any mistakes. So when we talk to others, it is far too easy to judge them by whether they are like us. Unconsciously, we use ourselves as the standard by which all other people should be measured. (If you don't believe that, I'd invite you to read debates, polemics, or editorials for a few nights.) By "right" people typically mean "agreeing with me"; by "good" people often mean "sharing my values". It follows that someone who disagrees is wrong, and must be ignorant or evil. ("Ignorant or obstinate", in Maimonides' words.) We arrive at arrogance through self-centeredness and self-congratulation, and, from there, we fall into the sin of contempt for other people.

There is also a more widespread version where the same happens on the cultural level. Typically, people can see that problem in other cultures, but not their own. People who think they see it in their own culture are frequently thinking of another sub-culture, one they personally dislike and do not identify with, rather than the one they personally identify with, which -- again, in their minds -- is the vanguard of good and right.

The escape from this trap, I'd suggest, is cultivating love for other people. All of them, indifferent to the group to which they belong. On the one hand we would be much slower, then, to fall into the trap of not giving them a fair hearing, or showing them contempt. On the other hand, we might also have a better sense that the goal of life is not to prove ourselves right. Seek truth all you like, but when we stoop to claiming that "Only ignorant and obstinate persons would refuse to admit" a point? That's not the voice of seeking truth, but the voice of needing to be right. When it becomes more about needing to be right than about the truth, that's when we're most likely to be wrong.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Controversies: Can we know God?

This post does not have the format of prior posts in the "Controversies" series, since I am not yet well-enough versed in both sides of the argument. But I have now found an author who firmly takes the stand of "No, we cannot know God" -- enough that I can at least sketch out the supporting points and what the two sides of the debate might be.

Side 1: Can We Know God? No.

My notes here are largely based on the views of Maimonides as presented at length in his Guide for the Perplexed. I realize Maimonides is not a voice within the Christian tradition. (I do not know to what extent the view that "You cannot know God" is within the Christian tradition. If I gain more insight into that, another post could address that.) Maimonides came from a Jewish background but had a viewpoint that was at times more based on Aristotle and the philosophers than on Moses. His basic arguments for God's unknowability are:
  • God is not comparable to us or to anything in creation in any true sense. 
  • His essence is beyond our direct knowledge and beyond our comprehension. 
  • God does not have attributes, as attributes would make him subject to accident, potentiality, divisibility, and all kinds of imperfection.
  • Since we do not know God, any positive statements about God are likely wrong. 
  • Even approximately-true positive statements may be offensive to God as falling so far short of the truth. 
  • God does not have relationships with creatures: he is not subject to outside influence.
  • The closest we can come to a true understanding of God is negative knowledge, that is: knowing what God is not.
These statements are defended at length by Maimonides based on generally-accepted philosophical axioms and theorems of his day.

Side 2: Can We Know God: Yes.

My notes here are largely based on generally-accepted premises within Christianity. Specifically:
  • When God made us in his image, there is some true comparability there -- not by our pretension but by God's grace, and not of the type that puts us on the level of God, but of the type that can make understanding possible.
  • God has spoken in many and various ways through the prophets of old, so that it is not necessary for us to pierce through the mysteries of eternity in order to know something true of him. 
  • God has established covenant relationships with his people, so that it is possible for us to relate to him in predictable ways, not based on any outside influence we might have over God but based on his freely given promise. 
  • God has revealed himself more directly in Jesus of Nazareth, with the character of the Divine Being in human form.
  • God has sent his Holy Spirit, to live within us and guide us.
There is some variety within the Christian tradition on how we understand these and the relative weight we place on each. But in general the Christian tradition holds that God's revelation is real and therefore our knowledge of God is real.

General Comment on the Controversy

The writings of Maimonides about the unknowability of God are sterile: logical, but without humanity, without warmth, and without much relationship to this world. (This is something Maimonides would likely see as an asset, not a defect.) His view of God as unknowable has transferred its character onto his own writings. To an extent, the view that we cannot know God is a view that disowns Scripture as a guide. Or as Maimonides says, "The adherence to the literal sense of the Holy Writ is the source of all this error ..." (Guide for the Perplexed, closing notes of Section I: Chapter XLII, where specifically he may have had in mind "errors" such as thinking that God has attributes.) Or as Pascal, a leading Christian philosopher, noted: "The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is not the God of the philosophers."

From a logical point of view, Maimonides' arguments sometimes run along these lines:
  1. A comparison between us and God will at some point fail because God is so far beyond us. 
  2. Therefore the comparison is false. 
  3. Therefore the comparison should be discounted entirely. 
I would say that the error comes in thinking that because the comparison's usefulness is limited, therefore it is entirely false and useless. God's limitlessness, when rightly understood, both causes us to admire him and draws us in deeper that we might gain in depth also.

A view of God shapes our view of everything else. If we suppose that God does not give much value to this world, then neither do we. If we suppose that God does not give much value to people, again, neither do we. If we believe that God himself values kindness and compassion -- even love -- it gives us a very different view of the world. At the ultimate end of a view like that, we find the idea that our eternal fate may rest on seeing someone thirsty and giving them a drink. The idea that God is unknowable is based to some extent on the premise that he is indifferent to the world and its people, and that to be otherwise would be a defect. Those of us who follow Jesus have a very different view of what would be a defect in God.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Immovable, enduring mercy: Christ's call to follow

"His mercy endures forever." 
1 Chronicles 16:34
1 Chronicles 16:41
2 Chronicles 5:13
2 Chronicles 7:3
2 Chronicles 7:6
2 Chronicles 20:21
Ezra 3:11
Psalm 106:1
Psalm 107:1
Psalm 118:1,2,3,4,29
Psalm 136:1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12,13,14,15,16,17,18,19,20,21,22,23,24,25,26
Jeremiah 33:11
If God does not change, if his mercy endures forever, if His grace towards the world is established in the act of creation, if emotion is not a defect but a perfection, if God's emotion is not subject to outside influence but is firmly established and decided immovably -- founded on his very nature and essence -- then we have a sure foundation on which to stand. We base our hope in God's unchanging nature, his mercy which endures forever -- which has shown itself in this world in Jesus.

But if God is for the redemption of his creation -- each of us -- then what does that mean for us when we set ourselves against someone? When we decide we despise someone, do we find ourselves at odds with God's purposes to redeem? Are we free to determine ourselves to be enemies of another person? Are we entitled to hold a grudge?

We can be eager to look for times when God was angry, because it justifies our anger. When it comes to God, even God's anger towards us is directed towards justice and redemption, to wake us from our foolishness and short-sightedness, from our proud and self-serving and destructive ways. Our own anger is not that noble. For every time we justify our anger by an appeal to God, how often have we justified our own forgiveness or kindness or patience by an appeal to God? The difference speaks volumes of whether we seek to be like God, or whether we seek to use God to justify ourselves.

God calls us to take up that same determination to redeem that we find in him:
"Turn the other cheek"
"Bless those who curse you"
"Return good for evil"
The reason darkness seems to be gaining the upper hand right now is because our light is not shining. If we repaid good for evil, there would always be as much good as there is evil. The reason there is more cursing than blessing right now is that we do not bless those who curse us. If we did, there would always be as much blessing as there is cursing.

We are called to take up mercy and redemption as immovably as God. We cannot afford to think of this in a shallow way, as if mere optimism will win the day. The battlefield is no place for wishers and dreamers and untrained children. St. Paul compared us to soldiers -- someone who has dedicated himself to a cause, who has given serious training to his endurance, who has practiced those hardships that can be expected, who has learned to tackle an obstacle course.

What does a spiritual obstacle course look like? Pretty much like our everyday lives, I'd expect. I could use some more training on how not to stumble on some obstacles.