The Law of God

My friend Ray and I have been having an interesting discussion on the Old Testament law. You see, the Christian gospel relies upon the OT law to establish the standard of sin. The basic elements of the Christian gospel are as follows:

  • God exists, has a personal interest in each of us humans, and also has a standard of behavior which He has prescribed for us, commonly known in the bible as the law (in Greek usually the word logos, and in Hebrew almost universally the word torah).
  • Because of the disobedience of Adam and Eve in violating the law of God, sin entered into mankind, and we fell. Sin is defined as missing the mark, i.e., meaning failing to meet the standard laid down by God, again the OT law.
  • Jesus Christ is the solution to this problem! God the Father decided to sacrifice his own son, Jesus, so that the OT law could be abolished, and we could enter into a relationship with God, free from the constraints of the law.

There you have it. Note that God must meet three requirements in order for this gospel to be true:

  1. He / She must exist. I actually do believe in God most of the time, more on this later.
  2. He / She must be capable of communicating with us humans, and care about our affairs. I refer to this as God being personal. This is not actually as trivial as it sounds. Many intelligent folks (including Thomas Jefferson, for example) have long believed in a God who exists, but is not capable of communicating with us. Christians generally ascribe all sorts of human-style emotions to God. (God is grieved by the state of moral decline in our country, etc.) Other religions frequently consider Christianity to be a form of idolatry for this reason. More on this later. Many physicists believe that if God does exist, He / She would be completely outside of our normal space / time. Thus, the likelihood of something that great having concern for us is not a trivial question, like I said. Nonetheless, Christians do believe generally that God has intimate concern and awareness of our every action, including our thoughts.
  3. He / She must have an opinion about human behavior and morality. I call this God being moral. This one is a big stretch, actually, but if you buy the general idea of God having a standard of behavior for us humans, then you have to deal with the core issue of this post, which is:

Does the law of the Old Testament qualify for something you would regard as divinely prescribed?

And this question is very important to Christianity because, again, the law is the standard which is raised by God in order to define the concept of sin. As Paul pointed out, without the law, there is no awareness of sin. Also, of course, the Old Testament is replete with praise and adulation for the law. (Many examples could be cited, but Psalm 119 pretty much says it all.) Thus, certainly, most conservative Christians would agree that the law as laid down in the Old Testament is the standard of God which defines the concept of sin.

Thus I propose to examine the Old Testament law and determine (at least in my own mind) whether it qualifies as a candidate for a divinely prescribed law. I will begin with the law of rape, which is contained largely in Deuteronomy 22. Here is the basic gist:

If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay her father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the young woman, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives. (Deuteronomy 22:28-29 NIV)

OK, let me get this straight. A man rapes a woman who is a virgin and not engaged. For this he has to pay her father 50 coins and then marry her? In other words, a woman is required to marry her rapist, and live with him for the rest of her life?

No wonder rape is not included in the proscriptions in the 10 commandments. In the Old Testament law, rape is simply not considered to be a very serious crime!

So there you have it. Do you consider this law of rape to be divinely prescribed? Would you live in a society in which this was the law?

As usual, comments are welcome.

Reasonable Christians

I met a reasonable Christian today. It was a bit weird, actually.

My wife wanted to visit a local Anglican church where my Christian friend Ray and his wife attend, and I thought: Sure, why not? So we went. There you have it. I actually set foot in a Christian church today. And I have no doubt that many of the Christians in that room would be offended by the things that I say on this blog (although I would certainly love it if they would read it).

Be that as it may, I was immediately drawn to a young woman when we arrived. You are probably thinking that this was due to my (admittedly) heterosexual nature. But, no, in this case, I was not attracted to this person in that way at all. For one thing, she was dressed in a very traditionally religious manner, which is about as sexually unattractive as it is humanly possible to be. And she had done absolutely nothing to make herself attractive, as that standard is described in our current culture. (Not that I find that necessarily attractive either: More on that later.) It was not that she could not have made herself attractive in our terms, had she tried. She simply did not care to try.

What drew me to this person was her absolute, visible and obvious rebellion against the direction of our modern culture. As soon as I started talking to her, she explained to me about how the Anglican church we were in was “officially a mission of the Anglican Church of Rwanda. You see, the Rwandans decided that America was an evil, secular, and godless place that was in need of evangelizing. So they planted this church.”

I still cannot tell if this statement was dripping with irony or not. If so, she delivered it very well, and very straight. She had me immediately.

I confessed that I was an extreme theological liberal, and told her about a bit of my journey. How I had made a terrible mistake: I decided to read the bible as a work of human literature, and put my faith on the shelf for a while. As a result, my belief systems traumatically collapsed and left me as you see me here: A spiritual wreck. Of course, the irony in my case was more obvious.

Interestingly, she understood. Turns out that she is studying the New Testament at a major university in Israel. (A very interesting place to decide to study the New Testament.) She said she had been through a similar journey. She was, as she put it: “Aware of the difficulties.” That is, she has a place at the conversation because she is at least familiar with the material concerning the origins of Christianity, the bible and the rest, and is not simply deluding herself, as many Christians do. The good news, she said, was: “You can make it through this to a better place.”

I did not get to continue the conversation past that point, although I would like to. Is it possible for a person who does not even believe in Hell, or the concept of sin (as in failing to meet the standard set out by God in His law) to be a Christian in some way? Perhaps it is, so long as it is clear that I am also a Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim. As well as an agnostic, and in times of deep despair, possibly even an atheist.

But the Christian might be the better part of me.

One thing my friend Ray pointed out to was the 10 commandments, as a part of the standard raised by God. Unfortunately, I was not persuaded by that very much. If I had to come up with a set of human laws to live by, I would have created a very different list than these. Especially when you put it in the context of the rest of the Old Testament law. Like the commandment against adultery. I would certainly not condone the form of marriage described in the law of Moses, which was, as I have pointed out frequently, polygamous, blatantly discriminatory against women, and fundamentally a form of slavery. I would have certainly added a commandment against rape. (Want to get your hair raised? Read the laws in the Old Testament on rape.) And I certainly would have added a law encouraging compassion and empathy towards every human, regardless of race, gender, age, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation. Which is obviously missing from the Old Testament law, as it is completely bigoted in favor of the children of Israel, and against the rest of the human race.

So there is the challenge: Can a man like me fit into a community of Christian believers? Not sure. I guess we’ll see.

More later.

Avi

I met a man in Israel in 2001. (Yes, I did actually travel to Israel in 2001, leaving very shortly after the air traffic restrictions were lifted following the events of September 11, 2001.) This man’s name was Avi. He had a profound and enduring impact on my life, although I only got to be with him for a few hours.

When I met Avi, he was 94 years old. He lived in the area around Jerusalem. He made hummus for a living. He had the perfect setup: He owned a well, a plot of chickpeas, a grove of olive trees, an orchard of lemon trees, a patch of garlic, a patch of sesame, and a large block of salt. (The salt, which he purchased, was the only part of the final product that Avi did not produce himself.)

I was taken to see Avi by my tour guide. He thought Avi was really an amazing fellow, and he was right.

When I met Avi, he was up a ladder in his olive grove. Remember that Avi was 94? Yeah. That’s amazing. I asked Avi why he was harvesting olives around 30 feet in the air at the age of 94. He replied: “Someone’s got to do it, and there’s no one but me.” (Technically, this was not true. Avi was surrounded by family. His sons, grandsons, and great grandsons were there with him on the hummus farm. But he never let anyone touch his olive trees except himself. They were over 2,000 years old, and they were his pets.

Avi was a Palestinian Christian. Whether by virtue of his being a Christian, or some other means that I could never figure out, Avi survived the expulsion of the Palestinians from the area known at the time as Palestine by the Brits in 1947 – 48. He remembered it though. Very, very well. He did not like to talk about it very much. He called it the Palestinian Holocaust.

Anyway, Avi practiced a traditional form of Christianity similar to Catholicism. Given the language and communication difficulties, I never really figured out the exact type of orthodox, traditional Christian that Avi was, but I quickly learned that Avi’s Christianity was very different from mine. He had a much more interesting and nuanced view of the bible than I did at the time, for example. He was intimately familiar with many other ancient texts, especially those of the early Christian writers (whom he regarded with equal reverence as the works of the New Testament).

The most interesting thing to me about Avi was his attitude about work and money. He got up at 4 a.m. every day except Sunday, and worked generally for about 5 hours until 9 a.m. During that period, Avi did everything that he needed to do to produce his daily quota of hummus. And hummus it was! Avi’s hummus was a work of art: Literally so delicious that it made you weep. And talk about demand! The folks who had been buying Avi’s hummus had been doing so for generations, and no one else was allowed to access this treasure!

As an American, I quickly saw the potential. Wow! You have a great product! You have tremendous brand recognition. The path is obvious. Buy more land! Plant more olive trees, chickpeas, sesame, lemons and garlic. Make more hummus. Make more money!

To which Avi replied: I don’t want to make more money. I make enough money. And I am done by 9 a.m. every day. The rest of the day is mine.

I will never forget that moment. My American capitalist pretensions collapsed in a heartbeat. I saw immediately that Avi’s way of life was better than mine in every way: He was happier, more at peace and less stressed out. Simply because he had let go of greed. He did not want more than he had. He had enough for today, and for him, that was enough.

Avi had an interesting approach to investment and savings as well. He did not try to save money, olive oil, or anything else. If he had more than enough of anything he needed, he gave it away to his friends and neighbors. For Avi, this was a form of savings. Why? Because if Avi needed anything, he could go to his friends and neighbors and they would share whatever they had with him.

With our individualistic American self-reliance mentality, this form of collectivism is inconceivable. It’s all on me. I have no neighbor who will share with me. I envy Avi that, as well as the other aspects of his full, rich life.

More later.

Selling God

I watched the documentary Selling God last night. (This is also streamable on NetFlix.) While I did not find it perfect, certainly (at times it seemed a bit over-the-top), I did resonate with the overall message concerning the dominant form of Protestant Christianity, commonly referred to as Evangelical Protestantism. I have a lot of experience with this particular brand of religion. I was a member of what I commonly refer to as an “LRO” (Large Religious Organization) for about 9 years in Chapel Hill, NC. It was during this period that I performed the maneuver that I refer to in this blog (reading the bible, not as a sacred religious text, but as a work of human literature) which resulted ultimately in the traumatic collapse of my belief system. But I digress.

OK, Selling God. I guess the thing I really liked about this movie was that after showing these butt stupid Christians (like Greg Laurie of Harvest Ministries, one of the most annoying, offensive preachers I have ever seen, and believe me, I have seen some doozies), they would show some Christians who were actually not too bad. Pretty good, actually. I particularly liked this guy who had this very nuanced view of the part of the sermon on the mount which Evangelicals refer to as the “end time prophecies”. You know, how there will be wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes, and so forth. His point was that these were not to be taken as signs of the times (as has been the case for generation after generation of Evangelicals, all of whom believed that they were living in the “last days”). Instead, he said, that Jesus was saying: “The Kingdom of God is like this: There will be wars. (When in human history have there not been wars?) But with My help, you will still overcome. And in the overcoming, My Kingdom is there. And there will be earthquakes. (When in human history have there not been earthquakes?) But with My help, you will even overcome that too. And in the overcoming, My Kingdom is there.” And so on for each form of natural or man-made disaster.

I find that a much, much more satisfying explanation for those verses than anything I had ever heard before. Certainly, a much, much more interesting interpretation than the typical Evangelical view. This was a very positive picture of a very intelligent, sensitive, and compassionate Christian. Which is surprising, for a movie which is billed as being basically about simply bashing Christianity.

The thing that I found compelling and familiar about Selling God was the idea that modern Protestant Evangelical Christianity has become simply a big business. There is certainly an enormous amount of money being made here. (Interestingly, although I can find the GDP percentage for just about every form of human activity, I cannot find it for religion. If anyone has this, I would love to know about it.) It is certainly the case that most of the current crop of Protestant Evangelical churches are simply a form of capitalism. And the product that they are selling is, from all appearances, invisible, without substance, and completely internal. If they would admit that they are selling anything, they would say (per the title of the movie) that they are selling God, or possibly selling Jesus or salvation. (Not completely far-fetched as one of the evangelists in the movie had run the numbers and figured out that after costs he had been able to “save a soul for 47 cents”. Effectively buying salvation.) In my view, though, what they are really selling is not really salvation, per se, but rather a sense of significance, purpose and meaning. A feeling that your life matters, and that you are part of a loving community.

Interesting, in that Jesus preached against just this sort of thing, as Selling God points out.

Having said that, I have come to believe that there is a form of Christian religion that is actually not bad, possibly even good. If a Christian church produces what they claim to produce (a truly compassionate, loving community), then it can be wonderful, as I myself have experienced at various phases of my life. The aggressive form of Protestant Evangelical Christianity definitely does not fall into that category, though, at least in my view. The entire time that my wife and I were at the last LRO we belonged to, precisely one family (lead by my Christian friend Ray) reached out to us. And Ray and his wife are no longer members of that LRO either. Otherwise, the folks in the LRO were among the most deluded, unconscious people I have ever known. I became involved in the Christian 12 step program there, and I had several moments of stunning clarity when I looked around the room and asked myself: “Do I want to be like these people?” To which I responded with a resounding: “No!” With the exception of Ray and his lovely wife, my Christian friends were largely intolerant, insular, bigoted, misogynistic, and closed minded.

I heard a piece on NPR that resonated with me. The woman being interviewed had written a novel and was describing the main character as: “A middle-aged Christian, white, southern, heterosexual, married, Republican man who thinks he’s good, but isn’t.” The main reason this man was not good was because he was only empathetic with people like him: I.e., folks his own age, religion, race, geographic region, sexual orientation, gender, and political view. He had no empathy for liberals, the young, Hindus, Buddhists,¬†atheists, people of color, feminists, and, most of all, gays.

That was me. At one time, I fit that description perfectly.¬†But no longer: I have flipped in many of my views from my fundamentalist religious days. As I told my friend Ray: I have woken up, and to a large extent, that cannot be undone. I may engage again with the more positive forms of Christianity, but I will never again believe that the bible is the inerrant “word of God”. That’s over for me now. And I have developed deep, abiding empathy and compassion for all human beings at this point. Even those who do not agree with me. That’s for sure!

More later.

Persistent Unreasonable Optimism

Due to recent events, I have discovered that I have a serious mental dysfunction that I am tentatively calling Persistent Unreasonable Optimism or PUO. To be honest, I see this one played out in lots of other folks as well, but I have had it really, really bad.

PUO is characterized by continuing to stubbornly believing that something is going to work, when it is pretty *&^% clear that it probably won’t. For example, in the 80s, I was employed by a company that I thought was going to make a zillion dollars. This was a technology think tank in Dallas officed in the Infomart. In every way, this company was cool except one: Their payroll checks had a tendency to bounce. I would take my check and dash to the bank in an attempt to get my check cashed before everyone else did. For several months, I continued to hang in there with this group, all the while my wife was looking at me cross-eyed. She was wondering (with great justification) why I was putting the family at risk by continuing to work at this job.

I simply could not admit the downside was now very likely. I ignored all of the signs. When the company was finally dragged down by the Pizza Inn bankruptcy, I was left high and dry.

That’s one example among many: I have had many crazy schemes in my working life. Most of these did not work out. A few of them did, but for reasons related to PUO, I was not able to fully exploit them. For example, I went to work for late-stage startup NetApp in 1997. Eventually, the stock options with NetApp were worth millions, but I stubbornly refused to sell them, convinced that the stock would keep going up forever. When the predictable business downturn in 2000 happened, the stock dropped like a rock, and we ended up with a million dollar tax bill. Eventually, we rode the market back up, and were able to sell the stock and cash out, paying off the tax bill. But we would have been sitting pretty if I had simply had the common sense to realize that it could not go on forever.

The effect has been that I have been spectacularly successful at times. I am very creative and hard working after all. But at other times, I have also been as spectacularly unsuccessful at seeing events which would be obvious to someone else who was not dealing with PUO.

The most recent event involved facts which I will not share here: They are too personal. Suffice it to say, I put myself and my family through a lot of trauma, stress, and needless suffering all because I would not, indeed could not, admit to myself that my mad scheme was very likely going to fail. It will be a while before we can dig ourselves out of the hole that I have dug.

But perhaps that’s actually a good thing, because I am now thinking more clearly. Now that I see the dysfunction, I can deal with it. Hopefull, if I can learn my lesson well, this will make it more likely that I will be wiser in the future. This would be good: I have a limited amount of time left in my working life and I need to take care of business at this point.

More later.