The Third Joseph

Anyone who has ever been to many Sunday School classes has heard of the first great Joseph of the Bible, how he was favored by his father to the jealousy of his brothers, about his coat of many colors, how he was sold into slavery and wound up a high ranking official in Egypt. His poor treatment became the salvation of his family when the land was hit by a famine and they needed food. Joseph moved his people to Egypt, cared for them, and they grew into a large population there. Through all of his trials, he remained true to his faith. Joseph was a good man.

The second Joseph was the husband of Mary. Again, Sunday School or paying any attention at all to the nativity story as it is recited each December would give some appreciation for the role of Joseph as the earthly father of Jesus. He was a carpenter, and apparently very devout in his faith. When confronted with the pregnancy of his betrothed bride, he did not make a spectacle, but under the allowance of the contemporary Jewish law, he was going to quietly divorce her, to save his reputation, obviously, as well as hers. He was advised against that course in a dream, and he chose well in maintaining the marriage. Joseph was a good man.

The third Joseph is one of the few peripheral characters mentioned in all four of the gospel accounts. He was Joseph of Arimathea. Exactly where Arimathea was is unknown, but it was said to be in Judea. Joseph was wealthy, a member of the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin, and at least secretly a disciple of Jesus. It was said that he did not consent to the actions of the Jews in their plot against Jesus, that he was awaiting the kingdom of heaven. Legend has it that he was a tin merchant and traveled to England, where after the resurrection, he returned and built a church, perhaps in the vicinity of Glastonbury. In some Arthurian legends, he was said to have been the first keeper of the Holy Grail, the nature and existence of which has been discussed and debated in many forums. None of these legends can be historically attested or substantiated. Each gospel account, though, identifies him as the man who requested the body of the slain Messiah from Pilate, and laid it in a new tomb that he had apparently prepared for himself or his family. John says he did this with Nicodemus, who brought embalming resins, spices, and materials for the burial.

There are several significant things to note about Joseph of Arimathea. First, although he was wealthy, he was a disciple. This calls to mind the discussion that Jesus had with the rich young ruler, as he is often called, in Luke 18. The young man was devout in his faith, having kept the law well from his youth, and wanted to know what else he must do to receive eternal life. Jesus knew he had something that would stand between him and making that life-changing decision: his wealth. He told him to sell all he had and give to the poor, and then come and follow him. Joseph of Arimathea was also devoted to his faith, maintained his wealth, and he still was a disciple. His wealth was not keeping him from following the Christ.

But according to John, he kept his devotion to Jesus a secret, for fear of the Jews. As a member of the Sanhedrin, he was in a position where his influence could make a difference. To openly proclaim his faith in Jesus may have led to his ouster. Nicodemus was apparently of similar persuasion, and we know that between Jesus’s initial discussion with Nicodemus and his work with Joseph after the crucifixion, he had also tried to be a voice of reason, as the Pharisees were beginning to plot against Jesus when he attended the Sukkot feast days in Jerusalem.

Neither Joseph nor Nicodemus were open about their allegiance to Jesus. But then, at that time, not even Jesus was completely open about his teaching and identity, the fact of which is attested by the challenge of his disbelieving brothers in the opening of John 7. But his time had not yet come. From the record, it became apparent that the time did come for both of these men to reveal their discipleship. When the Sanhedrin enlisted the aid of the Roman occupiers to kill a righteous man, they let their loyalty be known, albeit after the deed had been accomplished.

It was after Jesus’s death that Joseph took courage to appear before Pilate and request the body. Mark says that Pilate was surprised that Jesus was already dead, so perhaps in order to prevent his followers from rescuing him, he had the death confirmed by a centurion. When the fact was established, he allowed Joseph to proceed.

Joseph freely gave some very important gifts to his teacher: He provided the resting place where Jesus would be laid, awaiting his reawakening at the appointed time, observing the Sabbath, as his Father had instituted. Jesus rested from his labor of earthly ministry, even as his Father had rested from his labor of creation. Joseph bought the linen shroud that would cover his master’s beaten and brutalized body. He could have walked away, kept his discipleship a secret, continued as a member of the Council, and his life would have been as rich as before. But his soul would have been impoverished beyond imagination. No, he made his decision, he stood tall, and he did what perhaps none of Jesus’s other followers could have done at that time.

But while the dignity afforded by the borrowed tomb was worthy of a great man, and the new linen to wrap the body was far more than would have been used for an executed criminal, Joseph gave Jesus gifts far greater than these tokens. What he did, he did not do out of any sense of obligation. He gave his love and offered honor and glory to the man, the Master, the Teacher who had turned the world upside down, and taught the people to look outward and upward instead of inward.

Joseph of Arimathea did not bury a dream that day: he planted the dormant seed of hope. That hope would rise in only a few short hours, burning away the darkness of what must have been the darkest, longest Sabbath of all, the day that Jesus slept. It must have been interminable for those who loved the one called Immanuel, those who believed in the promised Messiah, those who had given up all they had for the Christ. Doubt crept into their thoughts: although they knew Jesus said he would live again, nature was a hard teacher to ignore. They may have been preparing themselves for darker days ahead as the forces of evil had won this pivotal battle, and those forces no doubt rejoiced in their hollow victory.

But hope was on its way. And darkness would never win.

What happened to Joseph of Arimathea after that is unknown. The legends place him far away from Jerusalem. What he did, where he went are all lost to history. But we know he loved Jesus enough to risk his position, his life, and livelihood. He will be mentioned in passing by many as the donor of the tomb where Jesus was buried. But for those who take the time to think about the man and his actions, they know the truth. Joseph was a good man.

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The Golden Rule and the Failure of Human Relations

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Sermon on the Mount, lately.  The record we have in Matthew must be highly abridged:  I can’t imagine anyone giving such a short address.  The three chapters as we read it are easily consumed in only a few minutes, but even at that, the pithy sayings may take a lifetime to comprehend.

Following his temptation in the desert by the devil himself, Jesus heard that his cousin John had been arrested, probably for some kind of subversive activity–which was really because he condemned Herod’s unlawful marriage to his brother’s wife.  Jesus went to live in Capernaum by the sea.  From that time, he began preaching repentance, which was what John taught before him, both teaching that the kingdom of heaven was at hand.  He called his first disciples, and went about teaching openly in the synagogues, healing people, teaching all the time, and in doing so, he built an army of a following from areas as far apart as the Ten Cities, Jerusalem, other parts of Judaea, and from beyond the Jordan.  He saw the crowds, and took the opportunity to teach them.  It’s interesting to me that unlike today’s preachers who must rise above their listeners, stand and project, Jesus went up on the hillside and sat down and began to teach.  Perhaps that was common among the teachers of the day, but it seems odd.  With a massive crowd, Jesus must have had to talk with some volume to be heard, but the typical preacher delivery that seems to require yelling to make a point does not seem to be in play here.  No, Jesus sat down, he opened his mouth, and taught them.

Here, as he was coming into his own, Jesus was strong and confident.  He had grown up in the working class, the earthly son of a carpenter.  He would be strong and powerfully built, not the slight, pale, milk-toast of a man that was so common in the renaissance depictions.  No, Jesus was a man of passion, not sad, beatific smiles.  He was educated in Hebrew law and prophecy, he could read and write and think and reason.   His closest friends were working men.  He walked among hated members of society: tax collectors and prostitutes.  He went to parties, he had dear friends that he cried with, he found joy in the trust and love he saw in children.  He was compassionate, and driven to heal the world of its diseases, whether physical or spiritual.  He was the kind of man you wouldn’t mind talking to, or having a meal with.  He was every man, and yet no man was his match.

What did he teach them?  He taught them how to live, how to get along with others, how to project a clear, pure motive of righteousness.   It was revolutionary, but not in the militant sense.  He revolutionized their concepts of human relations, so tainted by centuries of rabbinic commentary and selfishness, with their layer upon multiplied layers of laws and prohibitions, the keeping of which was sure to engender righteousness.

Jesus opened this first great lesson with what we call the beatitudes, a beautiful set of juxtapositions that set the stage for the mental and spiritual exercise he was about to unleash on the world.  He revised their understanding of many of the commands they had faithfully (or not) adhered to since the days of Moses.  He showed them where their lives were shallow and their understanding flawed.  He constantly sent them looking inside themselves, questioning their motives, their reasons for their external displays of righteousness.  He spoke of the need for deep honest prayer.  He taught them about the futility of anxiety and the untold benefits of trusting God.

I have been thinking about that verse in chapter 7, verse 12, which is only 22 words long in the ESV, and how much impact they could have, if we only let them.  It is, of course, the “Golden Rule,” which we have shortened and corrupted into the tersely prosaic aphorism, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  It’s roughly equivalent in the text, but Jesus says it a lot better, and says a lot more with only a few extra words:  “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”€

Of course, the verses preceding the delivery of the Golden Rule were foundational to the Rule itself.  Chapter 7 begins with the warning on judging, that if it is done, it must be done with a righteous standard.  The humorous image of the plank in the eye is a wonderful use of hyperbole to demonstrate that we should deal with our own issues before we turn our judgmental attention on another.

As he moves towards the Rule itself, he discusses the nature of God’s providence:  Jesus tells his listeners that all they must do is ask for the things they need.  Like a good father, he gives his children what they need, not perverting their request, not giving something useless like a stone for bread (reminiscent of the temptation scene?) or harmful like a serpent instead of a fish.  No, God provides what is needed, and what is beneficial.

Verse 12 is a conclusion drawn from the preceding lines of argument.  If you want others to judge you fairly, judge them fairly as well.  If you want to be supplied with what you need, be generous in your dealings with others.  It doesn’t take an expert in sociology to see the logic here.

So, intellectually, we understand the principle.  For two millennia, Christians of one brand or another have touted the benefits of the Golden Rule.  But humankind is a lot better at preaching than practicing.  Why would I make such a sweeping pronouncement?  Because virtually every human conflict has been a violation of the principle.  In Matthew 22, when Jesus was asked about the greatest commandment, He responded by citing Deuteronomy 6:5, “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” He followed that by quoting from Leviticus 19:18, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.” He underscored the value of these commandments by noting that all the law and prophets were hinged on these commandments.  The Golden Rule is a crystallization of these.

Why does this define human conflict?  Pick a war, any war.  Sure, there are libraries filled with the analysis of geopolitical arguments that justify the mobilization of soldier against soldier, eye for eye, death for death, evil for evil.  The American Revolution, which we rationalize as the triumph of the virtues of liberty over detached, disinterested tyranny, was as much a bloody civil war between the revolutionaries and their loyalist neighbors—a conflict borne of the unwillingness to consider the others’ views and allegiances.  The American War Between the States was fought over the unjust practice of human slavery, along with a suite of economic and political injustices.  World War I was fought in response to German imperialism; World War II was fought in response to Japanese imperialism and a resurrected German imperialism fueled by the punitive actions taken against the vanquished Germany after the first War to End All Wars.

And those are only four examples at the global level.  At the individual level, conflicts occur in much the same way.  One man robs another because he wants something he does not have, whether money or goods.  The one who robs may have been driven to his action by being oppressed by yet another person or system that fails to consider the well-being of all.  Human failure leads to conflict.  The Golden Rule leads to peace.

In each case, the Golden Rule would ask, “How do I wish to be treated?  Do I relish the idea of being enslaved, having my home, my livelihood, and security shattered by an invading person, power or force?  Do I appreciate oppression in any form?”  The answer, again, is obvious.  If we do not wish to be brutalized, we must learn to be content.

Or better yet, we must learn to work together, nation with nation, man with man, husband with wife, brother with sister, parent with child, enemy with enemy, neighbor with neighbor, friend with friend.

But the interactions are not only among people.  The Golden Rule pertains to humanity’s relations with none other than God.  The first great commandment says that people should love God.  Why?  Because he models the behavior he wants us to demonstrate, namely, he loved us first.  That’s what John says.  God supplies our needs, but we have nothing that that he truly needs, only something that he wants:  he wants our love and respect, displayed in gratitude and obedience.

“But I don’t want to obey anyone!  I am my own person and my own standard!” some may claim.  And they would miss the point.  God never asks anything of us that doesn’t ultimately reap a benefit.  The Golden Rule is no exception.  It brings peace, harmony, understanding, all from an ancient perspective but borne out in modern day models of cooperation theory.  Twentieth century social and behavioral sciences merely confirmed the wisdom of the rule that Jesus proposed that men live by, which was a reaffirmation of even older truth.  Truth is truth, wisdom is wisdom, good is good.

I have said nothing here that is not obvious and inherent in the 22 words of Matthew 7:12.  But because we read those words, commit them to memory but do not truly apply them conscientiously, considerately, and constantly, conflicts continue.  We relegate fundamental truth to the dustbin of hackneyed platitude, and we are the poorer for it.  How many of the world’s problems could be eliminated by following this one simple rule, the value of which seems to elude so many, from the greatest to the least?

Perhaps we neglect the Golden Rule because of its simplicity.  Something so simple must not be effective.  And yet, when we are cold, we cover ourselves with blankets.  When we are hungry, we fill our stomachs with food.  These are simple rules of survival.  But so is the Golden Rule.  It’s not just for school rooms and playgrounds.  It’s for board rooms and battlegrounds.  It eliminates the concept of advantage over another by bringing the effect home.  If I wish to be treated with dignity and respect, I must treat others with dignity and respect.

But how does this apply to economics?  Can the Golden Rule translate into an economic standard?  Only if we can embrace the concept of being content with “enough.”  Unless I abandon the idea that I am more important than you and I deserve more of the world’s benefits and goods than you deserve, I will never play by the rules that bring peace.  Unless I understand and embrace the fundamental equality of all people, and do what I can to lift another up, I will not achieve the prize of that greater “Gold.”

So is seeking a world that lives by the Golden Rule a lost cause?  Is it a legendary treasure lost for eons, its reputation built more from the gossamer web of romantic idealism than reality?  We will never know how far 22 words can take us unless we take it upon ourselves to learn them, embrace them, teach them, and live them.  I may never be rich as determined by a monetary scale.  But I can wrap myself in that greater gold and find peace with others, and peace of mind.  Those are things that money can’t buy.

Of Strait Gates and Narrow Ways

Keep it in the Straight and Narrow.  We’ve all heard this phrase.  Obviously, it’s a reference to the gates and the ways mentioned in Matthew 7:13-14.

“13 Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat:

“14  Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.” (KJV)

In more modern terms, this reads,

“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.  For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (ESV)

This certainly makes more sense to 21st century minds.  But what is it all about?

Whenever I think of this passage, I am reminded of the 1984 adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s novel, The Razor’s Edge.  In this film, the unlikely hero, Larry Darrell, portrayed in counter-type by none other than Bill Murray, has lived a life of privilege in the burgeoning economic wonderland at the dawn of the 20th century in the United States.  In the First World War, he served as an ambulance driver and became disillusioned with life as he knew it.  He chose the life of an expatriate, seeking something that was missing from his life.  While working in a coal mine somewhere in Britain, he was introduced to the Upanishads, the philosophical foundation of the Hindu religion, by a paradoxically philosophical miner, who instilled in him the notion that he must travel to India to find meaning.  Larry went to the Himalayas and entered a monastery where he was saddled with menial tasks along with his contemplations.  When he was sent by the lama to an open-sided shelter high in the mountains to meditate, he carried with him a stack of books.  There, with nothing between him and death by exposure but a tiny fire, he quickly reached the end of his fuel and was forced to begin burning his books.  And then, he learned the lama’s intended message: only so much can be learned from books.  When he returned to the monastery to announce that it was time for him to leave, Larry related to the teacher, “Isn’t it true, it’s easier to be a holy man on top of a mountain?” The lama observed in return, “You are closer than you think. The path to salvation is narrow and as difficult to walk as on a razor’s edge.”

That film was released while I was in college.  Although it got horrible reviews, I watched it and was deeply moved by that scene.  It became a theme for my life, not to be a holy man on a mountain, but to be the right kind of man in society.  I still remember the chills I experienced when I heard those lines.

But is that the idea that Jesus was teaching in this saying from Matthew 7?  That salvation is hard?  What about what he said in Matthew 11: 28-30?  “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.   For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (ESV)  If salvation is truly hard, then Jesus contradicted himself.

So, let’s think about this whole narrow/broad dichotomy.  First off, “straight” is a corruption of “strait.”  “Straight” means something that is not crooked.  “Strait” means that something is narrow, and may carry with it the ideas of rigor and difficulty.  So, many have taken this passage to mean that the way of salvation is difficult.  Its narrowness must mean that it is hedged about by many rules and laws.  The fact that there will be few that find it suggests exclusivity.  The broad gate and way that lead to destruction suggest to some easy travel.  No restrictions.  No difficulties.  These are the conventional, traditional explanations of the teaching.

But Jesus was unorthodox.  That’s right, he didn’t go with the flow.  “Orthodox” means right, true, or straight thinking or belief.  It’s often times what we’ve been handed down to do or to believe.  It isn’t always wrong, but without questioning it, without understanding it, how do we know if it’s right?  From the very beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus turned the world upside down.  Consider the logic of several of the beatitudes in Matthew 5.  “Blessed/Happy are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven….Blessed/Happy are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth….Blessed/Happy are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…Blessed/Happy are you when others revile you….rejoice and be glad for great is your reward in heaven….”  These things are counter-intuitive.  If you had been a listener, gathered with so many others on that hillside, and someone sat down and started talking apparent non-sense like this, you would either get up and walk away, or maybe wait a little while for an explanation.  How could the “poor in spirit” receive the kingdom of heaven?  Wouldn’t you need to be “rich in spirit”, as demonstrated by your righteous deeds?  How could the meek inherit the earth?  If one would conquer, throw off the chains of servitude to a cruel world power, boldness would be necessary.  Jesus must not know what he’s talking about.

But continuing throughout the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus repeatedly reversed or at least revised a lot of their traditions and thinking.  Sayings constructed as “You have heard it said…But I say…” occur six times in chapter five, if I counted correctly.  He warned them that their righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees—the ultimate examples of righteous law-keeping—if they would enter the kingdom of heaven.  External actions were no longer to be the measure of behavior: the heart must be right as well.  The old ways of eye for eye and tooth for tooth led only to escalation of hostilities.  Love must be for all, including your enemies, and not only for those who love you back.  Humility exalts in God’s eyes, not great public shows of righteousness and superficial piety.  Judging should begin with ourselves before we turn an eye on others, and a righteous standard must be used, with mercy if we would receive mercy.  Proactive goodness reaps goodness in return, so don’t wait for another to treat you well.  Rather, love your neighbor, because all of the law and prophets revolved around love.

So much of Jesus’s message that day was forcing his listeners to turn their thoughts around.  The discussion of gates and ways is no different.  If I were hiking a trail or driving a car, the easier path, the one with better pavement, the path of least resistance is usually the safer one, the one that leads at least to an easier life.  If I were entering a walled city in Jesus’s time, I would do so by day when the larger gates were opened for easy admission, enter with the traffic of commerce, so that I would not be confused with a person of bad intentions, sneaking around looking for the private entries, trying to slip in unannounced.

But Jesus says that his listeners should enter by the strait (narrow) gate, and only a few would find it.  Those who would enter in to the way leading to life must actively search for the entrance.  Following along with what everyone else is doing keeps you in the mainstream.  It’s easy to find, but it may not be where you want to go.  The broad gate and its subsequent way are easier.  You don’t need to think.  Autopilot or cruise control is fine.  How many times have I been driving on the interstate, keeping up with traffic, and I miss my exit?  It happens.  We get lulled into a rhythm, a rhythm of life, and we forget to search for the right exit.  Or the right entrance as the case may be.

Why should anyone purposely decide to take the harder path?  Well, why do men climb mountains?  With mountains, it’s “because they are there.”  With hard roads, and narrow gates, there may be a similar motive.  They are challenging, and some people love challenges.  We need to conquer our fears, our inadequacies, our weaknesses.  The way is narrow, and maybe it’s difficult to navigate.  But like with mountains, there are those who are willing to subjugate their fears and weaknesses and go forward.  Maybe it’s a steep path that climbs to greater heights.  The risk of falling is certainly there, but the reward, the view from the top, would be worth it.  The broad gate and its broad way beyond it are easy to find, easy to follow…and easy to get lost on.

He then goes on to suggest that entry through either gate is just the beginning of the journey, and not the destination.  Another conundrum.  One would usually think that we enter a gate at the end of journey.  But not this one.  These are ways of life.  We choose our gate, we choose our path, and we press on.  The narrow way, the more difficult one leads to life.  The broad and easy one leads to destruction.

What makes the narrow way “difficult” and the broad way “easy”?  Maybe Jesus is referring to the ways of righteousness that men designed and the way of righteousness that he was teaching.  He did not give a lot of commands in this sermon.  He explained behaviors.  He showed the wrong way to think or act, but then he showed them how to do the right thing.  We humans are a crafty lot: we can devise more ways of getting around doing the right thing than should be humanly or mathematically possible.  We are prodigious like that.  Doing the right thing may not be the easy route.  It goes against our natural tendencies to look out for ourselves.  That may be the narrow gate through which we travel.  Doing any number of wrong things is easy.  It takes little will, and a lot less concern.

Can we make a case for the practice of righteousness, living a righteous life, being the narrow gate or the narrow way?  If we consider verse 12, judiciously placed immediately before the discussion of gates and ways, and what we have come to call popularly the Golden Rule, it just might make sense:  “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”  Doing good, living a life of goodness, becoming love and kindness—all of these fulfill the law.  Self-centeredness, revenge, self-promotion are all easy, and they fall within the natural tendency for many people.  Further, in Matthew 22:35-40, when Jesus was asked by the lawyer about the great commandment, Jesus responded that loving God completely was first, and loving your neighbor was a close second.  So then is love the narrow gate?  It must be part of it.  Does love lead to life?  Is apathy the broad gate, and indifference the way to destruction?  All of these ideas are connected.

Is the “life” mentioned here only referring to heaven and the “destruction” referring to hell?  There is no doubt that these images draw attention to the eternal state.  But in a real sense, righteousness may improve one’s life even in the here and now.  Think about the teaching on adultery.  In Matthew 5: 27-28, Jesus reminds his audience of the seventh commandment, then reveals that any man who even looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.  Which of the two great commandments would I break in doing so?  Of course, God said don’t do it, so the first is violated because failing to keep God’s command fails to show love for him.  By objectifying the woman after whom I lust, I will have failed to show her the love, respect, and honor due any human being.  By keeping the heart in tune, my life is richer and less complicated, and so is hers.  It’s a win-win.  Now, is it hard to keep that baser instinct in check?  Absolutely.  Would it be easier to go with the flow?  Yes.  But what would the outcome be?  In virtually every situation of adultery I have ever heard of, the result is some level of destruction:  destruction of character, trust, love, self-esteem, family—in a word, life.  We make a little piece of hell on earth when we fail to do the right thing, when we seek only our momentary and/or selfish gratification.

So, do rules help us keep in the strait and narrow?  Sure.  The traditional emphasis has been to mind your p’s and q’s.  Be careful to observe all of the rules and laws, because that is all that’s keeping you in the narrow way.  It’s a sheer drop-off to either side.  Pretty frightening, if there’s nothing there to catch you.  We may be too busy balancing to enjoy the trail.  But if we focus on the two great commandments that Jesus cited, we may not need a lot of very specific rules.  Jesus’s message in the Sermon on the Mount was one of correcting the heart.  Righteous life is not imposed from outside, it cannot be legislated.  It must come from within.  If we truly subjugate the emphasis on self in deference to the good of others, we’ll do what’s right because it’s the right thing to do. We’ll honor God out of love, not fear.  We’ll love our neighbors, and seek their good, not take advantage of them for selfish gain.  It is entirely possible that focusing more on rules and law-keeping may divert us into the heavier traffic flow of that broad way.  Jesus warned the Pharisees of this when he reminded them of their responsibility to the weightier matters of the Law.  They were masters of detail, but failures when it came to motive, and motive emanates from the heart.  Maybe the broad way is broad enough to let us bring all of our baggage of whatever origin, even religion.  Doing the right thing is harder, especially when the easy way is so enticing.  But challenges will make us stronger, wiser, and more determined to keep on.

Until we get to the end of the road, there is nothing that says we can’t turn back.  Anyone on the narrow road may grow tired, and sit down to rest.  But sitting still is falling behind.  Others may look back, like Lot’s wife, and pay a price for their too-fond retrospection.  And others may take a short cut and wind up on the broad way.  That would be a sad and tragic mistake, but it’s a choice we each make each and every day.  On that broad way, there’s also nothing that says the road is only one-way.  At any point, before we reach the journey’s end, we can get off that easy path and seek the way of life.  Every fork in the road has an option for the road less traveled.  It’s harder going, but it’s peaceful.  And the view from the top will be amazing.

The Unnecessary Consequences of Necessary Inferences

Disclaimer:  The following essay is the blogging equivalent of “thinking out loud.”  I do not claim to have all truth, but I do have a mind, and I like to think about what I believe and why I believe it.  While I know that many will disagree with my conclusions, this is not an invitation to debate.  Remember, it’s called the World Wide Web for a reason.  If you want to post a differing view, I respect that.  But please do it in your own forum and in a civil manner.

Alexander Campbell was a brilliant man.  He and his father Thomas had a vision of Christian unity that they pressed toward unrelentingly.  Alexander was educated, and was trained in logic and proposed and promulgated a particular methodical, even Baconian way of understanding the Bible.  He felt that it should be approached as a rational, scientific undertaking, that careful dissection would supply all that was necessary for reestablishing an “ancient order” of church structure and function with the goal of uniting the many denominations into a unified body of believers.  He accepted direct scriptural commands and examples of early actions as necessary and fitting for re-visioning the primitive institution in modern times.  He came to understand that inferences were necessary at times, but that inferences were merely human interpretations that should never be used as tests of fellowship, even as Thomas declared in the sixth and thirteenth propositions of his Declaration and Address, the document that likely marked the official beginning of the Campbell portion of the Restoration Movement, sort of analogous to the famous “shot heard round the world.”

Proposition 6

That although inferences and deductions from scripture premises, when fairly inferred, may be truly called the doctrine of God’s holy word: yet are they not formally binding upon the consciences of christians farther than they perceive the connection, and evidently see that they are so; for their faith must not stand in the wisdom of men; but in the power and veracity of God–therefore no such deductions can be made terms of communion, but do properly belong to the after and progressive edification of the church. Hence it is evident that no such deductions or inferential truths ought to have any place in the church’s confession.

Proposition 13

Lastly. That if any circumstantials indispensably necessary to the observance of divine ordinances be not found upon the page of express revelation, such, and such only, as are absolutely necessary for this purpose, should be adopted, under the title of human expedients, without any pretence to a more sacred origin–so that any subsequent alteration or difference in the observance of these things might produce no contention nor division in the church.

Now, I realize that any who deny the 19th century origin of the Stone-Campbell movement and its descendants in the churches of Christ will dismiss such important documents of its founders as being merely human constructs.  But Thomas and Alexander saw with greater clarity than today’s leaders the danger in elevating human opinion and interpretation to the level of law.  In Proposition 7, Thomas sees that the dependence on human inference could lead to the development of a practically Gnostic system of admission to fellowship including only those who have achieved a requisite body of knowledge, far beyond the primitive test of communion.

Proposition 7

That although doctrinal exhibitions of the great system of divine truths, and defensive testimonies in opposition to prevailing errors, be highly expedient; and the more full and explicit they be, for those purposes, the better; yet, as these must be in a great measure the effect of human reasoning, and of course must contain many inferential truths, they ought not to be made terms of christian communion: unless we suppose, what is contrary to fact, that none have a right to the communion of the church, but such as possess a very clear and decisive judgment; or are come to a very high degree of doctrinal information; whereas the church from the beginning did, and ever will, consist of little children and young men, as well as fathers.

Again, deny the source as you will, but these men were visionary far beyond the limited lens of any of today’s leaders who are proponents of a formulaic method of understanding scripture.

We cannot visit the Declaration and Address without touching on the most salient point leading to the often quoted (but rarely practiced), “Where the Scriptures speak, we speak; where the Scriptures are silent, we are silent.”

Proposition 5

That with respect to the commands and ordinances of our Lord Jesus Christ, where the scriptures are silent, as to the express time or manner of performance, if any such there be; no human authority has power to interfere, in order to supply the supposed deficiency, by making laws for the church; nor can any thing more be required of christians in such cases, but only that they so observe these commands and ordinances, as will evidently answer the declared and obvious end of their institution. Much less has any human authority power to impose new commands or ordinances upon the church, which our Lord Jesus Christ has not enjoined. Nothing ought to be received into the faith or worship of the church; or be made a term of communion amongst christians, that is not as old as the New Testament.

Here, Thomas notes most forcefully that nothing may be added that interferes with or adds to what amounts to the test of communion.  He continues that no changes to worship should be made, which, by reason of the “expediency” clause in Proposition 13, may actually be modified, as long as those inferred expedients are not elevated to a test of communion.  Where the proponent of a legalistic view would elevate a “necessary inference” to the level of a test of fellowship, they actually violate this philosophical premise by acting contrary to the stipulation citing, “Much less has any human authority power to impose new commands or ordinances upon the church.” In other words, by inserting an inferred command where none explicitly exists, an interpreted opinion becomes tantamount to law and a test of faith.

That being said, a closer consideration of the Command, Example, Necessary Inference (CENI) hermeneutic or method of interpretation reveals that the method has been elevated to such a level of esteem that the thing itself is practically seen and defended as being divinely inspired.  Its Baconian origins are clearly evident to anyone who even marginally considers it structure and function.  The Campbells, indeed its earliest proponents among the churches of Christ, saw it as an important tool that revealed truth, but was flawed from the perspective of its potential to allow inference to become too important, and indeed equal to the force of command.

This “scientific” approach as it is currently practiced no longer shares much with its logical, methodical predecessor.  For example, the practice of CENI has evolved into a system in which accepted propositions and current practices are not subject to scrutiny.  In science, all things are subject to objective scrutiny.  Any hypothesis or even theory may be objectively tested by attempting its falsification.  If an investigation fails to support a hypothesis, i.e., if it is disproven by objective falsification, then the hypothesis is rejected or revised.  That a current interpretation may be revised or even rejected in light of new understanding is unheard of in the practice of CENI.  We have attained all knowledge, all understanding, and we have flawlessly recaptured the functional essence of 1st century Christianity.

That such a divergence of opinion or practice is not only possible but inevitable with the application of human reason and preference is foreign to the practice of science.  In science, the simplest solution is (usually) the best, according to the rule of parsimony.  In practice, where human preference and interpretation are employed as in the case of the strict application of CENI, division and plurality are the rule.

The disciple of CENI would suggest that command, example and inference are the most natural way of communication.  Indeed, explicit commands are undeniable in their force of communication.  However, examples may or may not be germane to a specific concern, and the potential for misapplying and narrowing an example-based doctrine increases in probability with the illogical, even irrational rejection of equally present, equally defensible positions.

A classic example of this scenario deals with meeting and observance of the Lord’s Supper.  We know from the gospel of John, chapter 20, that the first day was significant, since it was specifically noted that they disciples were together eight days after the resurrection, and Thomas had his famous interaction.  However, in Acts 2:42 and 46, the earliest disciples met daily, with similar expressions of “breaking bread” in each place.  Some would parse this to mean the Lord’s Supper in the first instance, and the partaking of a common meal in the second.  The language does not support this.  A daily meeting and observance is abandoned in favor of the example in Acts 20:7 when disciples met on the first day of the week to break bread.  This example is accepted and practiced, while actually condemning those who would adopt a daily observance.  (Far be it from me to point out that those who practiced daily observance would of necessity also practice Sunday observance.  But apparently over-frequency is ill-advised, even though Jesus himself commended the practice of the memorial with a vague mention of “as often as” you partake.)

So is there other evidence supporting a Sunday (only) observance?  From the second century, Ignatius of Antioch said in his letter to the Magnesians, “If, therefore, those who were brought up in the ancient order of things have come to the possession of a new hope, no longer observing the Sabbath, but living in the observance of the Lord’s Day, on which also our life has sprung up again by Him and by His death – whom some deny, by which mystery we have obtained faith…” In addition, the Didache 14:1 (dated to between AD 50 and 120) specifies Sunday for Lord’s Supper. Of course, these are not canonical, but since they are within a century of apostolic influence, they seem quite consistent on the issue.  Thus, a Sunday observance seems to be the early norm.  But given the example of Acts 2, there may have been latitude.  At any rate, based on these data I could not condemn a group if they chose, in good conscience to meet and observe the Supper daily.  I would hope they would honor the competing view, espoused by equally conscientious practitioners who are devoted to a weekly observance.

An important question we need to consider deals not with scriptural context, but rather cultural and historical context.  In Acts 2, the new church was localized in Jerusalem.  We do not know how many of the first converts immediately dispersed from Jerusalem, but we do know that the main body appears to have remained there.  Thus, there was an immediate emergence of a new community composed of individuals with a new bond: discipleship to Christ.  Having all come from Judaism, they shared a common background, but having thrown off the shackles of Pharisaical domination, they faced an uncertain future.  They clung to each other for support.  They shared their goods, they shared their lives, they shared their faith.  They lived communally.  Daily meeting would have been natural and comfortable.

With the ongoing Diaspora, the early Christians were treated as a sect of the Jews, which was a fair assessment since in the earliest days, they were indeed “renegade” Jews.  By Roman practice, residents of occupied lands were dispersed, so the newly minted “Jewish sect” was also subject to expatriation.  The church was dispersed.  New churches formed with Gentile converts finally being accepted and welcomed.  Missionary ventures expanded the borders of the church’s influence.  People from all walks of life, slave and free, Jew and Gentile, were thrust into an association that a century before would have been unheard of.  Slaves, especially those from villas and farms farther from the cities, were not at liberty to freely meet on a daily basis.  But in ancient Rome, the “eighth day” was considered a market day.  So, by this reasoning, in far-flung reaches of the Empire where many slaves were converting to the new faith with its promise of liberty, they may have been gathering each eighth day—or first day—as they ventured into the towns and cities for market day.  This offered a ready venue for a gathered worship and/or convocation.  It is possible, then, that the practice was born of necessity, and not by strict command or instruction to the contrary.  Certainly, this is speculative.  But if such a consideration sheds light on the practice, we owe it to the cause of peaceful interaction to try and understand what we may.

The most divisive issue related to this entire CENI scheme is that of “necessary inference.”  Now, it is obvious that we all practice inference in our everyday lives.  In fact, my children bring home assignments from school in which they must draw appropriate inferences from a reading as a means of developing reading comprehension skills.  We all infer.  However, the issue is not with inference itself, but with the binding of inferred commands.  Inference is a way of knowing, not a means of legislating actions or behaviors.  It has its place in analyzing and understanding text, but by its very nature, it is invariably subjective in its application.  The Campbells saw its dangers.  Too many today do not.

The binding of “necessary” inferences leads to multiple interpretations on virtually any issue and to conflicts over what amounts to matters of opinion.  Dogmatic acceptance of one position and rejection of another is common with the application of binding inference in matters of faith and fellowship.  It is interesting to note that all of the branches of the churches of Christ with which I am familiar hold firmly to the centrality of the gospel as being the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, although some probably more fully than others.  There is a tendency to expand this focal message to include all aspects of church structure, governance, and worship practices as being of equal importance to the history and teachings of Jesus as he related his message of reconciliation and relationship with God.

Undoubtedly, however, within the churches, inference has been the source and root of virtually all divisions.  What is an “expedient” and what is an “addition”?  Whose inference is superior?  One group accepts the construction of a fellowship hall and kitchen to the disapproval of another, citing the condemnation of the Corinthian abuses of the Lord’s Supper in I Corinthians 11, despite the fact that early churches met in homes, which undoubtedly had facilities for cooking and eating.  One considers cooperation among churches to be expedient to its universal mission of evangelism, while another condemns it as a violation of church autonomy.  One group sees corporate outreach to victims of disaster as an acceptable display of Christian mercy citing passages such as Galatians 6:10 to do good to all, and especially to those of the household of faith, while another forbids any use of treasury funds for aid to non-members.  All of these issues spring from disagreements over interpreted inferences, and the elevation of these inferences to the level of command, making them tests of fellowship, and their practitioners subject to eternal condemnation.  Any deviation from accepted party practices are considered to be equal to “a different gospel” as found in Galatians 1.  However, peripheral practices, aids, and expediencies are not the Gospel, at least not according to Paul who “…decided to know nothing among you [the Corinthian Christians] except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2:2)

Many of these issues spring from the application of a governing practice inherited from Presbyterianism and other Calvinist traditions known as the Regulative Principle, or more aptly, the Law of Silence.  According to this concept, anything not commanded, exemplified, or necessarily inferred from scripture must be judiciously avoided, as Thomas Campbell established in the Declaration and Address.  However, any such consideration is subject to the same kind of potentially fallible human interpretation.  The Law of Silence is supported by the example of Nadab and Abihu in Leviticus 10, who “innovated” to offer “strange” or unauthorized fire.  They actually were violating a specific command NOT to offer unauthorized incense found in Exodus 30:9, but silence, whether actually in play or not, always trumps specificity.  Uzzah, in II Samuel 6, went beyond his commission without authority, and paid the ultimate price for attempting to right the teetering Ark of the Covenant when the oxen pulling its cart stumbled.  Uzzah actually violated the specific directives regarding the transport of the Ark in Numbers 4:5-15, and touched the holy object, which had been prohibited on pain of death.  The Hebrew writer mentions in Chapter 4 of that letter that God said nothing about priests from the tribe of Judah, from which Jesus descended and would serve as a priest after the pre-Mosaic order of Melchizedek, but the law had been given placing the priestly duties under the auspices of the descendants of Aaron in the tribe of Levi (Numbers 3:6).  No other prohibition needed to be leveled with the priestly obligation already having been specifically given to the tribe of Levi.  To do anything else would have comprised violation of specific command, not addition to law.  The proto-Gnostic heresy denying the incarnation of Christ was decried in II John 7, which is contradicted by four Gospel accounts and secular historians, but all aspects of church polity and practice are included in the injunction forbidding “going ahead” or “beyond” “the teaching of Christ” in II John 9, clearly misusing its contextual application.  The curses to be visited upon those who add or take away from the words of the book of the Revelation in chapter 22 of that writing are applied to all of scripture, regardless of the fact that the intent applied to that missive, only, and there had actually been no complete collection of a New Testament canon at that point.  Context is preached, but applied selectively to support established positions.

In Romans 4, that learned, informed writer discusses in detail the finer points of law-keeping, and notes that where there is no law, there is no transgression.  Thus, if a law exists, whether a positively stated command, or whether a prohibition against something, the law could be transgressed, or the line could be crossed.  But if there is no line in the first place, it is impossible to cross one.  Paul apparently quotes a common theme of advocates of complete liberty in both I Corinthians chapters 6 and 10 that “All things are lawful”, which he does not explicitly deny, but then rebuts the argument with the counterpoint that not all things are useful or edifying.  I like what he said about not being dominated by anything, too.  We can be slaves to anything—even dogmas like the invisible law of silence.

The idea that all things are lawful, but not necessarily useful or edifying is an important one and one on which much of the issue hangs.  In Romans 14, the discussion of liberty and offense revolves around the right of some to keep various holidays, likely the reference was to the keeping of Jewish feasts, and the eating of meat.  Now, it seems that we may have elements that offend both former Jews and new Gentile converts: Gentiles may have been offended over the Jews keeping of feasts, and the Jews may have had difficulty with food that was offered to an idol or maybe that was not prepared by Kosher methods.  It may be that new Gentile converts placed too much emphasis on the idol aspect, and felt that there was undue significance in the consumption of anything with any association to their former pagan practices.  It is not explicit either from there or from I Corinthians 8 as to the specific offense, but that some were offended by eating meat, especially if that meat were offered to an idol.  Paul says that since the idol is nothing, offering meat to it really has no significance, and the food could easily be consumed with thanksgiving because it is just food.  But, if it causes offenses, the one who is at liberty to consume such meat should refrain in order to spare the weaker brother from stumbling, causing him to violate his conscience, and if anything is done contrary to one’s faith, that person has essentially sinned, placing the offense against one’s own self or conscience.  Now, even though eating any meat might be useful for nourishment, it may be that doing so would cause stumbling or the development of a rift or dissension or division, which from all evidence, fails to meet God’s approval.

So, what does this mean in practical terms today?  If any person is genuinely offended by some practice, we should not practice it or impose it on him.  If that is the case, then someone is likely to be offended by virtually anything, so we could potentially be restricted to a bare minimum of direct commands that cannot be denied.  That is ultimately unfulfilling for everyone.  Many of these issues, then, can be classified as matters of opinion, over which we are not to quarrel (Romans 14:1).  We must be sensitive to the others’ sensibilities, but not judgmental.  We have liberty—“all things are lawful”— but not to enslave others to our views, which would fail to edify.

So, how can we all get along?  If I am unhappy with the restrictions placed on me by the brothers who live by the code of silence, and they disapprove of the practice that I may find eminently edifying, we are at an impasse.  I cannot be fulfilled because of their consciences.  Perhaps the key here is the stumbling clause.  If I force someone to partake against his will, he stumbles.  One who sees liberty in all, sins if he imposes his practice on a legalist and causes him to violate his faith—that is the frequent interpretation.  However, the converse is also true.  A legalist who imposes restrictions (although none may exist) where another sees liberty also sins because the one who lives with greater liberty must now violate his faith by curtailing his freedom.  We face a paradox, since both believe they are arguing from the position of strength and the opponent from weakness, and yet, we are required to be considerate of the weaker brother.  Therein is a major point: by not conceding anything in such a matter of opinion, and demanding we get our own way, we violate the spirit of unity, mercy, compassion and concern that we are required to live by.

So what happens if we cannot agree?  Perhaps a physical separation would be in order, but not a spiritual one.  If I disapprove of your actions against which there are no direct restrictions, which you in good conscience exercise by right of your liberty, not forcing them on me, I should avoid those actions.  I should associate with others who believe as I do so that we can edify each other, not constantly tear each other down.  By doing this, we reduce direct conflict.  But if this is the way we choose to avoid conflict, we must do so realizing that we are unified at our foundation by the Gospel.  I should be able to call anyone my brother or sister who serves the same Master through the same Gospel.  Matters of opinion should not divide us spiritually, we should not judge another’s eternal disposition by our own interpreted standards, because to elevate opinion and inference to the level of Gospel is simply not taught anywhere in scripture (Romans 14:1).

The irrational, illogical defense of a system that by its very nature leads to strife and division is indeed perplexing.  The Campbells’ vision of greater Christian unity has been inverted to a reality of bleak reductionism.  Biology tells us that cells may reach a critical minimum volume below which they are no longer competent to function.  The same is true of churches.  Perhaps there is an idea that these iterative divisions will lead to a perfectly pure group, that, like the ancient Greek concept of the atom, we can divide until we reach the indivisible; that by our tests of faith and fellowship we are pressing toward the minuscule force of Gideon’s triumphant army; that minority always makes right.  And perhaps we have reached a point where we have set ourselves on par with the Almighty and sit in judgment over the hearts, minds, motives, and actions of others.  Jesus warned us that we should be careful of this behavior in Matthew 7.  To paraphrase the Teacher, Don’t worry about the speck in another’s eye, when you are diminished in capacity and have worries enough dealing with the log in your own.

Given a choice between listening to Jesus, “the author and finisher of our faith,” and some modern day high priest of CENI, steeped in human tradition, rife with division, and breathing condemnation, in the words of the old spiritual, “give me Jesus.”

Mind Control and the Seeking Soul

(Caution: The following is decidedly theological in nature.  Sensitive readers may wish to avoid these contents.  Or not.  It’s up to you.  If you don’t mind thinking.)

Mind control is serious business.  From advertising, to politics, to religion, mind control is everywhere.  If you don’t believe me, flip on the television.  Commercial after commercial after commercial touts products that may or may not be new and improved and may or may not really be better than the competition.  One of my favorite commercials lately has been for one of the “As Seen On TV” type products which they make look like a boldly revolutionary invention.  People rave about how their backs and legs are so much improved, and their lives are ever so much better because of …a cushion.  That’s right, it’s a cushion.  Oh, sure it has some kind of gel gunk in it to mold properly to your posterior, but in the end (pun may have been intended), it’s a cushion.

Political parties are experts at mind control.  We just came off a banner year for political rhetoric and negative campaigning from all sides.  The conservatives are convinced that the liberals are in league with the devil himself, and the liberals paint their opponents with a sultry shade of Devil-May-Care Crimson, and spray them with Essence of Brimstone for added effect.  If you ever try to think for yourself, though, you get a headache, because trying to sort through the half-truths and distortions takes a Herculean effort, the constitution of Gibraltar, and the steely resolve of a bride-to-be at the annual wedding gown clearance.

The worst place to find mind control, and the place where it probably causes the most mental anguish and emotional pain is in the realm of religion.  Well, at least for those who are religious.  In order to make sure you stay faithful, you must adhere not only to the teachings of your sacred texts, you must also toe the party line with regard to your interpretation of that text, and how it applies to you.  If you should take a step back and try to get a wider view of the overall scheme of things, consider that your positions may be subject to multiple interpretations, and that there is a possibility of misinterpretation, you are immediately marked as a troublemaker, a rascal, a scalawag and a rapscallion.  We cannot be wrong, because our method of interpretation and understanding is infallible.  We defend our method with more intensity and fervor than we defend our faith.  Unless of course, our faith is in our method and not our Deity.  Never mind that the other guys down the street from whom your group split off 60 years ago use the same set of rules to achieve a diametrically opposed view.  We are right, because if we are wrong, that would admit that our Method came from fallible humans, and we know it descended from Heaven complete and perfect with our indisputably correct opinion pre-packaged.  See, it has the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval right on the label.

Here are some rules for mind control.  See if your religious leaders follow any of them.  If they don’t, you are either in a really agreeable sort of faith, or your leaders are so good at what they do that you don’t even recognize how much of your own free will has been compromised.

1.  Never allow the people to cool off.  Keep them stirred up and up in arms over some heresy or another.  Minds occupied with righteous indignation are less likely to wander into doubt and reflection.

2.  Never admit a fault or wrong.  We are the only ones to have achieved all truth, and to question the authority of one of the priestly caste is to question God himself.

3.  Never concede that there may be some good in your enemy.  Anyone who isn’t in lock- step with us is obviously against all that is Holy.

4.  Never leave room for alternatives.  Even though scriptures may say that different people will have different views over certain things, there is only one view, and it is ours.  Nobody else can have one, and certainly not this one.

5.  Never accept blame.  There are problems that arise among factions all the time.  Our side is always in the right, and all of those rebellious hordes are the ones to stir up trouble.

6.  Concentrate on one enemy at a time and blame him for everything that goes wrong.  We cannot be wrong, so only those others are responsible for any rifts that occur, and it is because they have wandered away from the path of righteousness.

7.  If you repeat anything frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it.  It is not necessary for you to think for yourselves, because our predecessors have done all the hard work for us.  Commit the traditional evidence to memory, and never investigate the answers for yourselves.  It will only cause you to question your faith and we will be forced to excommunicate you.

Do they sound familiar?  Yes?  Here’s the kicker: this list was adapted, the bold portions practically verbatim, from the OSS psychological profile of none other than Adolf Hitler.  Hitler lived by these rules.  He controlled people with them.  It worked.  At least for a while.

Now, I have just danced as close to Godwin’s Law as one might without crossing over.  I have called no one a Nazi, nor have I called anyone Hitler.  I have only noticed that the tactics of despots and pharisaical religious demagogues are strikingly similar.

But let us now consider the value of honest doubt, earnest investigation, and careful consideration of one’s faith and core beliefs.  Since I am unabashedly Christian, that is my point of reference.  I read the Bible.  I at least try to be a fair student of Church history, both primitive and more recent, especially with regard to my Stone-Campbell heritage.  After all, if we don’t know where we came from, we don’t know why we believe what we do.  Ideas had to originate somewhere.

As I consider a Biblical expression of doubt that is in no-wise singularly or eternally condemned, I think of the Apostle Thomas, and his incredulity regarding the resurrection of Christ.  He said that he would not believe unless he placed his hands in the nail-scars and wounds of his risen Teacher.  Jesus did not condemn him for it, and that pertained to the central theme of the Gospel, not some peripheral practice, the acceptance or denial of which has been elevated to the level of Gospel or maybe even higher.  The noble members of the synagogue at Berea were praised for their willingness to search the scriptures daily to confirm the teachings that had been provided to them.  Believers in some groups are encouraged to search the scriptures, but apparently only if the results of the investigation lead only to the reinforcement of accepted doctrine, or more likely, dogma.  Timothy was charged to give diligence to “rightly dividing” scripture.  But for some, the scriptures are so fractured and reassembled as proof texts to prove points of practice or distinction that the “rightly dividing” or “correctly handling” part has often been lost in the shuffle.  Contextual fidelity is secondary to drawing to a royal flush.

The extreme vehemence displayed by the most strident defenders of this sectarian orthodoxy is puzzling.  If humility is to be practiced by true followers of Jesus, then I have seen precious little from some quarters.  They are quick to condemn and slow to think, unless it is thinking about how to pronounce a stronger condemnation.  They parse words, injecting them with unintended meanings to trip their quarry.  Sometimes, I wonder if this inability to view an issue with objectivity is due to the fact that their phylacteries are too tight.

To people of faith, especially those for whom a genuine, personal faith is important and precious, review and reflection keep us questioning, searching for answers.  If those answers do not meet the test of the particular church’s confession, whether official or unofficial, either official or unofficial discipline likely awaits.  I know.  I have been preached “at” twice in one day.

But I have decided that I must be true to my faith and the evidence that I find, not the hackneyed, disjunct examples that anyone with a Bible and concordance can disprove with relative ease and efficiency.  I have a mind.  I can use it.  That, along with honest doubt, a seeking heart, and the will to exercise them is dangerous indeed to those who are comfortably ensconced in their traditions.

A wise friend once said, “Don’t rock the boat. Turn it over.”  In doing that, there are four possible outcomes:  1) You can climb back into the same boat you were in, and you have gained (and hopefully lost) nothing.  2) You can climb into another boat, but you better make sure it’s taking you in the right direction.  3)  There is always the danger that you may ultimately lose your faith and drown.  4) Or, you may have to swim against the current to get you back to cleaner, clearer water upstream.  Traditions and dogmas pollute the doctrines that we claim to revere.  If we could ever be honest and shed the embellishments that cheapen the faith with temporal distractions, making religion more entertainment than edification, or constrict the faith by hedging it in with an abundance of inferred regulations, then we may be able to truly experience  the grace we so long to enjoy.

If faith is inherited, unexamined, lackadaisical, or half-hearted or if faith is in a system rather than a Savior, these are all dangerously hollow and ultimately unsatisfying.  If you can’t kick the tires without the wheels falling off, keep looking.  The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for forty years before they entered the Promised Land.  Our seeker’s journey will not be in vain if it leads us to greater understanding and deeper, more genuine faith that we can live with as well as live in; a faith we can experience and demonstrate by subjugating the self for the good of others, by living and becoming love.  Then we will become truer reflections of God’s image, because God is love.  And in a very real sense, that’s what working out one’s salvation is all about.

Environmental Ethics: More than Birkenstocks and Granola Bars

I live in two very different worlds: in one world, I teach science, and I am expected to think, speak, and act in a certain way.  In the other world, I am a person of faith, and I am expected to think and act in a very different way.  Many people see the two worlds as constantly on a collision course, or at best, as some uneasy, unbalanced binary star, wobbling precariously and threatening every planet in their/its system.  But there are many aspects of these worlds that overlap, and provide more mutual support than many people will recognize.

For example, science dictates that observations, hypotheses and theories be carefully and objectively made, and are subject to review and revision.  I view matters of faith in no different light.  The unexamined faith is not worth holding.  If I have only blindly followed a philosophy or religion, how can I be sure I really believe it?  I believe the most valuable faith is the one that is explored from as many angles as possible.

Someone might say, “But faith, by its very nature, defies measure.  It is the evidence of the unseen.”  And yet, the exercise of that faith can be measured.  How we act toward others, what we do for others, and how we treat the natural world all speak volumes about what motivates us.

Consider the area of environmental ethics.  Some people read Genesis 1 and either consciously or sub-consciously focus mainly on a single verse, verse 28, which says, “And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”  They view this as an excuse, even a license to use and abuse, to pillage the Earth’s resources and pillory its living components, binding, shackling them to our narrow and anthropocentric whims and desires.

But as I read the chapter, I am struck by several other comments, that some might see as little more than filler statements, off-hand remarks, self-evident truths that require little reflection.  In verses 4, 10, 12, 18, 21, and 25, the various physical and biological aspects of this world are described very simply, in words that would ring true to a primitive people who would be exploring it and marveling at it: “And God saw that it was good.”But notice the assessment of the creation at its completion: in verse 31, “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.”  Each part is “good” in itself, but as a whole, this reality, this creation, this world is “very good.”  There is significance in that.  It speaks of harmony and flow, of integration, interaction, and interdependence. It speaks both of beauty and function.

And then there is the comment in chapter 2, verse 15, that seems to stand in stark contrast to the concept of dominion that some would support.  “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.”  Mankind was given a paradise with the stipulation that he “work [tend, care for] it and keep it.”  However, through selfish pursuits and the deceptive desire for greatness, humankind lost its perfection, and in so losing, lost its paradise.

Back to the idea of dominion, several years ago, in the now-defunct Nashville Banner, I read a letter from a well-meaning lady who could not understand the position of the “tree-hugger” crowd.  God gave us dominion, so we must be able to do anything we want and it will be well with us and for us.  I replied to her letter with comments much like I presented in the earlier discussion, that 1:28 presents a privilege, but 2:15 presents a responsibility.  When I taught Environmental Science at the Harpeth Hall School, we studied the creation stories of several of the world’s traditions to understand how different cultures saw their place in the natural world.  I asked the girls there if there was a conflict between the two verses.  In one of the wisest comments I have ever heard from any person of youth or years, one girl said, “The first verse tells what to do, the second tells how to do it.”  I don’t think I could have expressed it better.

But there are other subtle hints at an environmental ethic in the Old Testament.  For example, Deuteronomy 22:6 enjoins, “If you come across a bird’s nest in any tree or on the ground, with young ones or eggs and the mother sitting on the young or on the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young.”  Why is that important?  Why was it a law?  Because it requires the Israelites to provide for a replenishing of the resource, to allow the adults to continue to reproduce and act as the basis for the population’s recovery.  It is in essence the earliest discussion of what we today refer to as “sustainability.”

But there is even more said regarding sustainability.  In Leviticus 25:4, the Sabbath year is instituted: “…in the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a Sabbath to the LORD. You shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard.” Was this just a way of telling the Israelites to be frugal and store away for six years, and be ready for a famine at any time?  Was it a way to tell them to trust God for their provision?  Was it only a reminder of the constant replay of the pattern of sevens? Environmentally, it had the effect of allowing the land a chance to recover from intensive cultivation, to recharge its nutrients, and allow for continued productivity.

Humankind comprises the only species on Earth (that we know of) capable of reflective thought on its actions and impacts on its suroundings.  Other species merely affect the environment and respond to the changes without consciously weighing their actions.  We can see the damage we cause, and we can implement measures to mitigate our negative impacts.  Indeed, we have the responsibility to do it, based on the directive in Genesis 2:15. Although humankind lost its paradise, its responsibility only increased.  The charge for dominion does not only carry with it the right of harvest, but the responsibility of sustaining.

In Romans 8, all of creation is said to have been subjected to futility, being in bondage to corruption because of humankind’s fall, and that it eagerly awaits its return to a state of perfection, perhaps a demonstration of grace toward that which was once said to be “very good.”  In what I consider to be one of the greatest discussions of the miracle of nature, C.S. Lewis said,

“I spoke just now about the Latinity of Latin. It is more evident to us than it can have been to the Romans. The Englishness of English is audible only to those who know some other language as well. In the same way and for the same reason, only Supernaturalists really see Nature. You must go a little away from her, and then turn round, and look back. Then at last the true landscape will become visible. You must have tasted, however briefly, the pure water from beyond the world before you can be distinctly conscious of the hot, salty tang of Nature’s current. To treat her as God, or as Everything, is to lose the whole pith and pleasure of her. Come out, look back, and then you will see… the astonishing cataract of bears, babies, and bananas: this immoderate deluge of atoms, orchids, oranges, cancers, canaries, fleas, gases, tornadoes and toads. How could you have ever thought this was the ultimate reality? How could you ever have thought it was merely a stage-set for the moral drama of men and women. She is herself. Offer her neither worship nor contempt. Meet her and know her. If we are immortal, and if she is doomed (as the scientists tell us) to run down and die, we shall miss this half-shy and half-flamboyant creature, this ogress, this hoyden, this incorrigible fairy, this dumb witch. But the theologians tell us that she, like ourselves, is to be redeemed. The “vanity” to which she was subjected was her disease, not her essence. She will be cured, but cured in character: not tamed (Heaven forbid) nor sterilised. We shall still be able to recognise our old enemy, friend, playfellow and foster-mother, so perfected as to be not less, but more, herself. And that will be a merry meeting.” – C.S. Lewis, Miracles

We are tied to this Earth with bonds stronger than our dependence on its various consumables. Lewis rightly points out that we have conflicts with Nature, but she is our ally, and even our “foster-mother.”  How do we treat one who cares so deeply for us and loves us and provides freely for us?  We could be the ungrateful whelps, biting the hand that feeds us.  Or we could give back, the loving child caring for and returning the love that has been so freely shown us.

Religion instructs us to care for our world, that we are stewards minding a trust.  But that responsibility also requires that we learn, that we must know all that we can in order to be able to accomplish our task. And so, faith and science must work hand in hand.  Together, these two great forces from  seemingly disparate spheres of human endeavor must cooperate to achieve what neither alone can.  With feet firmly planted in both worlds, I call on both to listen and work together for a common good.  If we, by reason of suspicion or mistrust of the other fail to join hands in a common cause, we will have sealed our fate.  If we overcome the prejudices inherent in either side and take a broader view, the environment will prosper, faith will be strengthened, and understanding will build bridges for civil dialog.  We owe that to the Earth, to ourselves, and more importantly, to our children, who will inherit whatever world we make, whether one restored to near-Eden or a dismal Abaddon.  As for me, I hope it’s a good one.

Beginnings and Endings and Beginnings

There is a sacredness in being present at beginnings and endings.  These bookends of life, as well as other milestones mark the course of one’s days.  We have no control over when we are born.  Beginnings are pretty much out of our hands, much like the great beginning of this expansive place we call the universe.  We are born into its realities and complexities, and remain largely unaware of them until we are faced with some other beginning or ending: the end of childhood, the beginning of adulthood; the end of the single life, the beginning of marriage; the end of spiritual isolation, the beginning of a spiritual walk; the end of ignorance, the beginning of wisdom.

An indelibly etched beginning for me was the first time my father asked me for advice.  I was shocked, overwhelmed, and speechless.  Another beginning I remember was the very moment I realized that faith was not about fear, but is built on love in response to the love given to us first.

I remember the first time I really fell deeply in love, from first kiss to final embrace, and the years of pain that followed when that relationship fell apart.

I remember the moment I realized that I had likely found the woman I would one day marry.  It was not the giddy butterflies of infatuation I harbored – oh they had been around, make no mistake, and even return on occasion to make me feel young again.  It was a realization of and respect for my equal, yet opposite self, the one who could truly be my complement.

I was there for the birth of both of my children, and I recall their first cries.  I went with them to the nursery and spent time talking to them, getting to know them, introducing them to the wonder of life here in their first introduction to the great unknown.

I remember the beginning and ending of my many years as a student.  If truth be told, then that phase of my life has not truly ended.  What may have been the formal formative years may be over, but they only opened the world of learning to me, and I continue to assimilate, absorb facts, but more importantly understand.

The ending we all fear and indeed misunderstand the most is death, and not all deaths are equal.  I was at my mother’s side when she passed away, showered and encompassed with all of the love her family could bring, and it was rich, and it was warm, and deep and in the end peaceful.  She began the next adventure of experience for the human soul, as we began the experience of temporal life without her.

But for a child to die at the hands of a gunman whose mind is distorted with irrational thoughts, with pain, and rage is often more than we who take the time to care can bear.  To die young of neglect or by violence of any sort, as in war, being used as a pawn to further this political ideology, this goal or another makes the shortened life all the more tragic.  To die by one’s own hand, the victim of one’s own tortured mind is among the most tragic and misunderstood deaths of all.

All such endings seem like such sad things, but they are only passages from one reality to another.  Life is change, and to remain the same is to no longer truly live.  If we could view, and in some cases maybe even celebrate an ending as the beginning it truly is, we would see that there truly is no end, no cause for sorrow or anxiety.

Transitions are difficult.  Not one of us remembers the moment of his own birth, the shock of breathing cold air, the loss of security of being cradled and nurtured by one’s first great love.  It must have been difficult, indeed.  These transitions are portals to the unknown, leading to mysteries to be marveled at, and challenges to overcome.  We are knit and molded of stuff as old as the universe.  No matter what, our substance will go on.  Our spirits, our souls that spark, that drive, that animate us beyond the animal consciousness cannot be quenched, moving from reality to reality.  When we realize that, a new beginning will have sprung fresh from the ending marked by that realization.  We will have changed.  And it isn’t so frightening, after all.