The Cosmic Breach

Most religions and philosophies over the course of human history have understood that human actions often fall short of — and sometimes run directly counter to — what is good, generous, loving, humble, and in line with the desires of an infinitely good God. Different systems place differing levels of emphasis on the problem of this disparity between human behavior and divine example; in Christianity, it is certainly one of the most central concerns of the faith. Those of us familiar with Christianity have often heard the phrase, “Jesus Christ died for our sins.” But what does that mean? It can almost become one of those phrases that loses its meaning; it is heard often but is hardly self-explanatory. It invites the questions, “Why? What for? And in what way?”

Christian faith holds that Jesus’ voluntary death on the cross and subsequent Resurrection was necessary to mend the divide between humanity and God, to step into the cosmic breach that sin tore open between them, to bring humankind back into right relationship with its — and the world’s — Creator. Christianity holds that this was necessary because of the gaping distance that sin creates between humans, who are so often willful, selfish, vindictive, cruel, unthinking, and hypocritical, and God, who is none of those things. Hence, according to Christian faith, God united with human flesh, becoming one of us in what Christians call the Second Person of the Trinity: Jesus Christ. In so doing, God and humanity became united in that person in the Incarnation, in a profound act when Christ-God “emptied himself” (Greek, heauton ekenosen) to take on servant form, says Paul in his letter to the Phillippians. Self-emptying, indeed, for a God to come to the level of a human, submit Godself to human needs, limitations, and struggles, and then to humiliation in a grisly and eminently unjust death. Why, in the Christian worldview, was this necessary to permanently heal the breach between humanity and God and bestow grace for sin?

Just how Christ’s death functioned to forever absolve human beings from sin and heal the cosmic breach between God and humanity has been a subject for theologians from the earliest Christians onward. In ancient Israel, the sacrificial system provided a way to make reparation for sin. The Hebrew Bible describes two types of sacrifice that were made for sin: the hatta’t and the asham. It seems that the first type was made on behalf of “unintentional” sin, while the second type was performed to make reparation for intentional sin that incurred guilt. Just how the Israelites understood the efficacy and symbolism of the sacrificial system is a massive question in biblical scholarship, since the Bible itself says several things on the matter — not mutually exclusive things, but things that emphasize different aspects of the meaning of sacrifice. Further, there is no systematic explanation of how sacrifice was understood to “work,” probably because the ancient Israelites had no need to explain it systematically, and were not writing for our benefit. Complicating matters even further is the fact that there were several different types of sacrifice that served clearly different purposes, having nothing to do with sin. There were thanksgiving offerings, for example, and whole burnt-offerings, and offerings of peace and well-being. In any case, some of the Church Fathers in the first centuries after Christ concluded that Christ’s atonement on the cross was sacrificial in nature in the way that the hatta’t or the asham was — Christ effected the ultimate sacrifice to dispense forever with the pernicious effects of sin upon the soul and separation from God, and he could only do this because he came from God.

There are a couple of verses in the New Testament that hint at this interpretation, but in many of the earliest New Testament writings (the first three, or “Synoptic” Gospels, and some of the letters of Paul), there is not a clear indication that this was a predominant early interpretation for how Christ’s death and Resurrection worked. More often, we find either ambiguity, or the idea that Christ’s death and Resurrection served as a reconciling event. That is, it was a demonstration of God’s solidarity with and love for humankind, and victory over death, that proclaimed God’s healing of the breach that sin causes between humans and God. In other words, not a required blood atonement under a sacrificial system, but a demonstrative act that effected reconciliation through its power. We see this interpretation in Paul, in one of the earliest-dated writings in the New Testament (Paul wrote his letters and died before the Gospels as we know them were circulating):

“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation….All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” (2 Corinthians 5:17-20)

In her book Joy to the World! Mission in the Age of Global Christianity, Dr. Dana Robert, expert in world Christianity and mission history, describes it this way: “For his followers, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the ultimate sign that God loves the world. In becoming human, God identified with our sufferings, failures, and weaknesses. In dying on the cross, he chose to take on the pain of human vulnerability rather than commit violence by fighting or by seizing earthly power. In the resurrection, he promised us life over death. Just as God became one with us through becoming human in Jesus Christ, so is humanity united with God. The resurrection of Jesus carries in it the assurance of humanity’s permanent reconciliation with its Creator.”

There is probably more than one way for a Christian to interpret the significance and purpose of the Christ event. But for Paul, one early and influential Christian who wrote roughly between 50-60 CE, the theology of reconciliation of humanity with God — and thus, crucially, the divine invitation for the reconciliation of human beings with one another — was at the very heart of it.

© Elizabeth Keck 2011

My God, Your God, or the Unmoved Mover?

In ancient times, people didn’t have the religious wars that we have today and have had over the centuries in the Common Era. There was no such thing as one religion warring against another. The closest anybody got to that were the frequent wars that petty kingdoms waged against one another, usually over territory, and the wars that a stronger nation waged against weaker nations in the endless pursuit of empire-building. In both types of conflict, the nations’ gods were perceived as essential to the outcome. (We see this in the Hebrew Bible numerous times.) The winning nation would usually proclaim its high god’s superiority over the losing nation’s high god; sometimes, as in the case of Cyrus of Persia in his victory over Babylon, the winner claimed that the loser’s god voluntarily handed over his own nation in anger against them. The losing nation would usually conclude something similar — typically not thinking that its god was simply weaker, but more that the people had angered the god in some way and were now facing consequences.

This idea appears a number of times in the Bible. One major example is 2 Kings 17, which offers that explanation for why Samaria (Northern Israel) suffered bitter defeat at the hands of Assyria in the eighth century BCE. Another is 2 Kings 24-25, which describes why Jerusalem and Judah fell to the Babylonians in the sixth century BCE. The prophets, such as Jeremiah and Ezekiel (to name only two!), also teem with the idea that Yahweh will hand over — or has already handed over — his people to foreign nations if they do not clean up their act. The Bible does not countenance any idea that Yahweh was ever defeated by some other nation’s god — for the Israelites, Yahweh was the only one who made the real decisions. Eventually, Yahweh was conceived as the only real god at all; this formation of thoroughgoing monotheism seems to have developed in the sixth century BCE, judging by its strong formulations in Second Isaiah (Is 40-55) and Ezekiel.

In any case, all that was as close as you got to a religiously-based conflict. Not very close at all. This is because people in ancient times typically did not have a problem with the idea that different people had different gods — even to the proliferation of thousands of gods. Even within one nation, where the people typically all shared a number of high-level national gods, it was quite common for individuals to cultivate special personal relationships with one god or two, often even with lower-ranking gods. We see this in ancient Egypt, Sumeria, Assyria, Babylonia, Ugarit, Greece, and Rome; we know it from the texts these peoples left behind. A person’s devotion to one god on a personal level did not lead to that person’s dismissal of other people’s personal gods; it was more an acceptance of the actions of multiple deities among different spheres. (The brief and infamous reign of Pharaoh Akhenaten was a notable exception to this, but let’s not go there.) You even find it in ancient Israel. Archeologists have uncovered countless female “pillar figurines” from individual homes; these were likely representations of a fertility goddess to whom women would pray about reproductive and maternal concerns. Yet it’s improbable that such practitioners would have denied that Yahweh was the shared national high god.

Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, however, waved aside traditional ideas that cast gods in the behavior of people. But they also went further and abandoned the idea of a personal god with whom one had a real relationship, with whom one could communicate. For them, particularly Plato and Aristotle, there was only one real God (although Plato referred not to “God” but to an inscrutable entity he called the Good), and that Being was so high that it was by definition beyond human knowledge or reach. They reasoned that a God so vast would likely exist beyond human capacity to influence through prayer, since such a God would operate on the scale of the entire universe. Aristotle famously dubbed this Being the “Unmoved Mover.” Nothing could act upon or influence the Unmoved Mover; but the Unmoved Mover had set the universe in motion. This is similar to the approach of Thomas Jefferson and others of the Founding Fathers, who practiced Deism — not, contrary to what the Tea Party convinces itself, an especially pious form of evangelical Christianity.

The great monotheistic religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — did something remarkable and combined the above understandings. Similar to Plato and Aristotle, they conceive of one pristine ultimate Being, to the exclusion of others, who operates on a universal scale. But similar to older notions, they also conceive of this Being as a personal God with whom one can communicate, have a relationship, and to whom one can actually pray. Christianity went a step further along these lines and conceived this singular, ultimate God of the universe to incarnate as a human within history. All three of these religions understand the one God to act in the lives of created beings in an ongoing way, and to take an active individual interest in them.

Personally, I prefer that model, though at times I think that Aristotle’s seems the more logical one. Then again, even in Aristotle’s model, if the ultimate God is so far beyond our understanding, who is to say what is logical? I once knew someone in graduate school who, as we walked back to the halls of the ivory tower from Taco Bell one lunchtime, informed me that he was perfectly unperturbed by the idea of a vast God-beyond-reach, an Unmoved Mover. I, by contrast, flailed against the possibility of a removed God who was unlikely to talk to me, hear me, or relate to me; for me, this was unacceptable. For him, it failed to shake his unflappable calm that God was God, God knew all, and why be flustered over the details? I think he found me vaguely amusing.

Ultimately, on this matter we have no course but to embrace humility and lack of knowledge, accept uncertainty, and follow where our inner self urges us. On that score, I am reminded of that romp of a movie, “The 13th Warrior,” set in the middle ages. There is a point when an Arab Muslim protagonist calls out to his close friend, a Viking warrior, that he will pray to the one God for him. His Viking friend responds, “In your country, you may have need of only one God. But in my country, we have need of many! I will pray to all of them for you.”

© Elizabeth Keck 2011

Something New Under the Sun

In my last post, I talked about the differences in how “older things” are viewed in our culture as opposed to ancient cultures. I noted that our culture tends in large part to esteem what is new, while relegating older customs (or, sadly, older persons) to a past that need have no bearing on current preferences. I noted that ancient cultures, including much of what we find in the Bible, did the opposite: they largely valued the worth of inherited traditions, and tended to work within those structures even when innovating.

Yet sometimes we do witness things that represent the reverse. In the Bible, the famous lament of Ecclesiastes (Hebrew, Qoheleth) that “there is nothing new under the sun” echoes across the ages from a man who lived in a time when things rarely changed, and even more rarely changed for the better. But we also witness elements within our own culture doing the reverse of the above pattern. The most prominent example I can think of these days is the negative reaction among some to the stratospheric rise of new social networking — communication in the form of email, Facebook, Twitter, and texting. Over the last couple of years, we saw various talking heads appearing on TV to talk about what we are “losing” to these new forms of communication. Then we were treated (and continue to be) to written commentaries, or even whole books, on the virtues of the older forms of communication over against the deficits of the newer ones. Invariably, the argument is something along the lines of how people form better relationships and are more satisfied when their primary forms of communication are in-person visits and phone calls rather than written forms such as email, Facebook, or texting.

Let me say that in-person interaction is, indeed, usually the most preferable and satisfying. I don’t think that even the most ardent email, Facebook, or texting aficionado would dispute that in principle. But, as we all know, in-person interaction is not always possible, especially in a modern world where most people — certainly most people who have not yet reached middle age — have a number of friends and family who do not live in physical proximity. Sometimes, the physical proximity is there, but the open time is not. This may especially be the case with thirty-somethings and younger, who often lead frenetic lives filled with all kinds of disparate occupations and obligations as they try to establish their places in the world. Such people may indeed get together for coffee or a visit with friends, but during the times when they do not see each other face to face, they more and more rely on written-form, instant communication to keep in frequent touch. More and more, it is becoming clear that such forms of communication are surpassing the traditional phone call for the day-to-day comments one might make to someone else outside one’s nuclear family.

Someone I know terms this phenomenon “asynchronous” (or non-synchronous) communication. It is not intrinsically worse than the “synchronous” communication that comes with a phone call. Surely, there are certain interactions that are better over the phone: in-depth conversations, for example, that cover a broad range of topics too large to put in writing efficiently. Or when the parties involved are a couple who delight in nothing more than the sound of the other’s voice. But a phone call does require that both parties cease what they are doing and carve out the time necessary for synchronized communication, during which they can usually do nothing else. This is sometimes not practical for many, in a world with full and conflicting schedules. So people have turned to “asynchronous” communication, which allows them to keep up interaction and conversation with others more frequently — and in a freer fashion — than if they relied on the phone.

There is also the comment of my (then middle-aged!) high school history teacher, who, before anyone had heard of email, insisted that he disliked talking on the phone so much that he would not do it unless absolutely necessary. His problem was the odd and sometimes awkward quality of phone conversation: not seeing the other person’s face and getting that unspoken feedback while talking to them can feel strange, especially if there is a pause (and we all know there is nothing worse than phone pauses). Remembering his comment led me to think of something else: what if people talked on the phone all the time for decades not because they intrinsically would have preferred it, but because they had no choice — other than postal mail, in which case they would have to wait a minimum two weeks for a reply? Indeed, how could email, Facebook, Twitter, and texting have enjoyed such an unbounded explosion of popularity if they did not fulfill something that many people felt they needed or wanted? Clearly, these technologies do provide something that many people like, and it makes one wonder if it’s just because now there is a choice, and before, there wasn’t.

It is also amusing to remind ourselves that when phones were first invented, many people most assuredly raised the very same perspective that something would be “lost” with the new-fangled invention. Others, assuredly, were delighted. We see the same thing happening today. For that matter, one could amuse oneself further by considering that written communications such as email, when personal and not business in nature, bear more similarity to old-style communication by letter. I read an opinion piece by a teenager in my regional newspaper recently, in which the writer observed that when people around his parents’ age rail against texting as a legitimate form of communication, it’s usually just “adults not understanding what they’re looking at.” Another opinion piece (written by a thirty-something) noted that being on Facebook is like being “at a cocktail party, where there are all these different conversations going on.” That’s not a bad thing, even if an in-person cocktail party is ideal.

Perhaps we should take it as a good thing that electronic communication has blossomed so thoroughly — it could not have done so, after all, if people did not want to talk to each other. We do not live in the time of Ecclesiastes. There is, indeed, something new under the sun — even many things. And they’re not all bad.

© Elizabeth Keck 2011

Out with the Old?

First, I’d like to acknowledge that it’s been a long time since I have posted — back in December, to be precise. This is because the last couple of months have been consumed with completing my doctoral degree, which culminated in the defense of my dissertation on Feb 28. Still riding the crest of that tide, I’m looking forward to posting here more regularly.

That said, I was reading my regional newspaper the other day, and came across an article that included advice from a few career counselors in response to disillusioned job seekers. One of these wanted to know why she had had interviews for seven months, but no job offers. One of the dispensed nuggets of advice was the following: “When writing your thank-you notes, make sure to send them by email. Handwritten ones can make you appear old-fashioned.”

Inherent in this nugget of advice, of course, was the bald and unquestioned implication that being old-fashioned  is automatically bad. I am not a career counselor, so I cannot claim that this advice is wrong. I do, however, remember the days when email was only a few years old and had not yet caught on as a ubiquitous form of communication. In those days, one was warned always to send handwritten thank-yous to an interviewer, and never emailed ones, because a handwritten note would show that you were professional enough to make an effort with a time-honored tradition. Nonetheless, the rapid pace of modern changes of convention is not my main point. I am more piqued by the counselor’s unquestioned acceptance that “old-fashioned” equals negative; this is proclaimed as a truism, taken for granted.

What strikes me particularly (and this won’t be surprising, given my newly-minted occupation as a biblical scholar) is how different our culture is from the ancient world in how it considers the worth of old ways and old things. In the culture of the Bible — to use just one example of an ancient culture here — old ways, old things, and old people carried a cargo of deep respect, and were emulated by younger newcomers seeking to make their own meaningful contribution. A prophet or psalmist, for example, could innovate with a creative idea, but expressed such innovation through deference to older convention, and often with reference to older things. There are too many examples of this in the Bible to do more than scratch the surface here, but one of my favorites involves the use of ascending numbers. This was an ancient literary convention. Here are a few examples:

“There are 3 things that will not be satisfied, 4 that will not say ‘Enough’: Sheol, a barren womb, earth that is never satisfied with water, and fire that never says ‘Enough’ ” (Proverbs 30:15-16).

“There are 3 things that are too wonderful for me, 4 that I do not understand: the way of the eagle in the sky, the way of the snake upon a rock, the way of a ship in the heart of the sea, and the way of a man with a young woman” (Proverbs 30:18-19).

“Under 3 things the earth quakes, and under 4 it cannot bear up: under a servant when he becomes king, a fool when he is satisfied with food, an unloved woman when she gets a husband, and a maidservant when she supplants her mistress” (Proverbs 30:21-23).

“Yet gleanings will remain in it like the shaking of an olive tree, 2 or 3 olives on the topmost bough, 4 or 5 on the branches of a fruitful tree, declares Yahweh the God of Israel” (Isaiah 17:6).

“Thus says Yahweh, For 3 transgressions of Damascus, and for 4, I will not revoke it [punishment], because they threshed Gilead with sharp iron” (Amos 1:3).

It’s worth noting that in Amos, the “for 3 transgressions and for 4” continues in a litany of divine charges against various oppressors. To use a different example, the books of Samuel make several references to God’s deliverance of Israel in the Exodus, but these references are made in the new context of the people at war with the Philistines and other groups; reference to “the olden days” is valuable. We see such references to the Exodus again in the context of the Babylonian Exile in the 6th century BCE, in which Second Isaiah (for example), an exilic-era prophet who wrote Isaiah 40-55, reminds the people of how God parted the Red Sea, led them through, and extinguished the pursuing oppressors.

I could go on, but I’m beginning to get tired. The point is clear. There’s a real difference between how our culture perceives “old-fashioned” things, and how the Bible (and other ancient cultures) perceived them. Now this is not to say that “the olden days” represent some golden era where everything was easier and good and everybody was kind and thoughtful, and so on. My recent reading of Mark Twain’s Autobiography was enough to cure me of any such notion, as the great humorist himself goes on at length about what is deficient and distasteful about hypocrisy, politicians, political parties, and the electorate in his day. Excerpt that passage and you could have in front of you an editorial in any newspaper during our modern election cycles. So this is not to say that everything old equals good. But it is to say that by the same token, not everything old equals bad, and not everything new equals good.

And then there are the words of that immortal realist/cynic (depending on your point of view), Ecclesiastes: “A generation goes and a generation comes, but the Earth remains forever. The sun rises and the sun sets, and hastening to its place it rises there again. Going to the South, then turning to the North, the wind goes swirling, swirling, and on its swirling courses the wind returns. All the streams go to the sea, yet the sea is not full; to the place where the streams go, there they keep on going” (Ecclesiastes 1:4-7).

© Elizabeth Keck 2011

Two Streams of Water

A few days ago, I set up the Japanese rock garden (or Zen garden), also known as dry garden (karesansui) that I mentioned in my last post. Here you will see two small pictures; each represents a different iteration of the rock garden. I ultimately settled on what is represented in the second picture, after having for a while what is represented in the first picture. Both are valid examples of how a rock garden can be arranged. The light gravel, raked to represent the rippling effect of water, represents the ocean; the large rocks stand for large islands rising from the sea; the background represents the land. The red rocks in the first picture indicate land, while the cacti and aloe represent various flora.

This morning I sat down on the couch with my coffee in front of it, watching the gold of the morning sun’s rays flood the window, listening to the scores of birds that arrive around our house every spring morning. These birds, in these quantities, are here for spring and summer only, so their presence is temporary. And the side of the house that harbors this window gets that strong sunlight only in the early morning, so the presence of those exuberant rays is even more temporary — at least until the next morning, provided it is a sunny one. The temporary nature of both the flocking birds and the full sunlight means that if they are not enjoyed now, in the very moment, you miss them. There is no taking them for granted.

Knowing this, I decided I would do nothing but sit in my spot, drink my coffee, and look at my karesansui and the trees outside my window. It was surprisingly difficult just to sit there and do that and nothing else — even with my knowledge that that full sunlight was very fleeting, and the flocking birds at their morning feeding almost equally so.

It occurred to me as I looked at my garden that that is one of the core lessons of Zen philosophy, core lessons of which I had hoped to remind myself by building the garden in the first place. Mindfulness, awareness, appreciation. Mindfulness is the act of being “mindful” of whatever it is you are doing, of truly living in the moment by paying attention to that moment rather than rushing past it. Driving somewhere, for example; enjoy the drive itself rather than merely trying to rush to your destination as expediently as possible. That drive is part of your life that you will never get back: enjoy it as much as you can. Or even if it is something we don’t think of ourselves as relishing — such as doing dishes, which is a famous example for this philosophy — we can savor our lives that much more if we simply focus our minds on the very thing we are doing. This in itself is a meditative act that creates both peace and enhanced enjoyment of life with hardly any effort at all. How often do we whittle our lives away by not living in each moment, by rushing ahead, by constantly thinking of something else? By constantly feeling — even in the times when it is not necessary — that we need to be doing something, to be distracted, to be “busy.”

Though I am a Christian, I keep a marble-dust representation of the Buddha near my rock garden  — not because I revere the Buddha in any extraordinary way, but to remind me of some of the more salient and helpful aspects of that philosophy, which are really not incompatible with Christianity. Mindfulness. Acceptance. Compassion. Living in the very present. Appreciating small, everyday things as the fundamental things of life. Creating and maintaining a peaceful, uncluttered space for the mind. Training one’s mind to be calm at its core even in the face of adversity. Living honorably and with integrity, creating no intentional harm against others, keeping Love and Compassion as one’s highest aims. All of these things Christianity and Buddhism can share in common, but only some of these do Christians actively emphasize on a regular basis. I contend that Christians could benefit in their own practice by more actively stressing some of those tenets of Buddhist philosophy discussed above. Zen practice, in particular, is especially adaptable for Christians.

Two representative aphorisms from the Dhammapada, the foundational Buddhist text, illustrate such confluence very well:

“In this world, hate never yet dispelled hate. Only love dispels hate. This is the Law, ancient and inexhaustible.”

“However many holy words you read, however many you speak, what good will they do you if you do not act upon them? Are you a shepherd who counts another man’s sheep, never sharing the way? Read as few words as you like and speak fewer. But act upon the Law. Give up the old ways — passion, enmity, folly. Know the truth and find peace. Share the way.”

And what reader of the Bible would not recognize the similarity of this aphorism to the style and content of Proverbs?

“Speak or act with an impure mind, and trouble will follow you as the wheel follows the ox that draws the cart.”

The lifting of a few quotes from an entire work cannot possibly encapsulate the whole, and that’s not my intention. This is as true of the Bible as it is of the Dhammapada. But it can illustrate that two distinct streams of water, remaining distinct, can still flow down the mountain in tandem with one another.

© Elizabeth Keck 2010

Born in the Garden of Eden

The story of the Garden of Eden and the Fall of humankind (incidentally, the term “Fall” is never used in the biblical account) can be interpreted in many different ways by its religious inheritors. In the world of Christian interpretation, there are some that take this story only at its most literal face value. Adam and Eve were two historical individuals who ate a fruit [not necessarily an apple, since the Hebrew word pri can mean any fruit] because they were tempted by the serpent [not necessarily the devil, since the serpent might represent any tempting, deceptive impulse], and were kicked out of a real geographical Eden for violating God’s one command not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad. Other Christians see this story as metaphor, a lesson on why life can be so far from the ideal world we are all capable of imagining. In classical Christian theology, it is a story (metaphor or otherwise) that details the arrival of imperfection and sin into the human experience, and explains why such things afflict all of us.

The Eden story seeks to provide the answer to some of life’s most troublesome realities: why childbirth, a joyous event, comes accompanied with unparalleled physical pain, and why a man can work in his fields until he has no skin left on his fingers and no sweat left in his body and the earth might still not yield enough to live on. And why even if it does, that yield cannot ever come forth without hard, physical dedication. In short, the Eden story recognizes that this world and that human life are imperfect, and seeks to tell us why. That, at least, is something on which both literalists and non-literalists can agree. Beyond that, literalists often believe the story is a straightforward one about how two people disobeyed God by giving in to greed and temptation, lost out on Paradise, and thereby doomed the rest of us to sin and the school of hard knocks. Non-literalists often believe the story is a quaint, perhaps somewhat embarrassing tale of origins that observes (1) life’s a bitch, and (2) why it’s a bitch.

To my mind, the essence of the story is neither of these. The Eden story is a sophisticated and multi-layered coming-of-age tale, a commentary on the point in time (and maybe that point could be a process over thousands of years) when humans came to know good and bad, truth and deception. That is to say, the point in time when humans became sentient as a species. When humans gained a knowledge and capability they had not had before: the knowledge that it is possible to deceive and to cause gratuitous harm with aforethought for one’s own gain, or worse, pleasure. The serpent, which I take to represent all those capabilities we have and wish we didn’t, tempted Adam and Eve — the prototypical humans — to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad, even though God had warned them not to. And they did. The serpent’s “promise”? That they would become like gods, that they would become wise.

This is a story in which God finds out that Adam and Eve had eaten of the Tree when God goes for a stroll one evening to enjoy the cool part of the day. This is not a literal story and it was never intended to be, to my mind. God had told the humans they could eat of any tree except the forbidden one, for the day they ate of that one, they would surely die. It seems to me that they did die when they ate of the Tree, but not by a stopping of the heart. What died was the creature — the species — they had been before gaining such knowledge.

The Garden of Eden is a story that describes the loss of innocence; I believe, the loss of innocence as a species. Innocence is not the quality of being good all the time (any parent of a child can tell you that). Innocence is the state of not knowing — of not being capable of hurting someone or something as a result of deliberately intending to do so. And the innocent being is not capable of that because the innocent being does not even know such a thing is possible; such a being cannot think of doing that because that awareness does not yet exist within its mind. It is not yet wired for it. Most animals are innocent in this way: they might cause harm or kill, but they do so either to eat or to defend themselves, their group, or by extension their home territory. They do not cause hurt out of malice, deception, or for kicks.

Some of us are still in Eden, in a way. Among humans, innocence still lives — in very young children. This does not mean young children are always paragons of behavior. But it means that very young children do not think to themselves: “I want to hurt mommy’s/daddy’s/my friend’s feelings, so I will do x-y-z and hurt their feelings that way.” A very young child might do or say something that does hurt someone else, but they are not doing so in a knowing fashion, or for pleasure, or for some selfish gain. They are going on what they want or feel in the moment, without aforethought. I say “very young children” because eventually, children do get to an age — biologically, get to a point in their brain’s wiring — where hurting someone else because they want to, or because it benefits them in some way, becomes possible. At that point, they are no longer in Eden. Even if, hypothetically, they never intentionally hurt another being, they are aware that such a capability exists and that there are people who do it. That is the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad.

In that sense, it seems to me that the Eden story not only tells of a species’ development from innocence to knowledge of good and bad, but also of each individual within that species. Very young children are innocent, and it is our job to teach them how to treat other living beings in preparation for the time when they grow older. That job is a sacred responsibility. It is all the more sacred because another quality of the innocence of a young child is the implicit trust that child has. Children have a capacity for trust that humbles us. You could tell a small child the sky is blue because God colored it that way with God’s Crayola marker, and that small child could very well believe you. At night when I give my child her allergy medicine, it strikes me how completely she trusts that what I am giving her will cause her no harm. She has no apparatus for doubting that, and the sweetness of that trust speaks to me.

All of this, I believe, is what Jesus meant when he told the disciples not to prevent parents from bringing their little children to him. As recorded in Mark 10:13-16, the disciples thought the children would bother him, but Jesus’ response was emphatically the opposite. He said, “Allow the little children to come to me; do not stop them, for to these belongs the Kingdom of God. Very truly I tell you, unless you receive the Kingdom of God like a little child, you will never enter it.” Then Jesus gathered the children into his arms and blessed them.

Knowledge of good and bad, in addition to all of the above, also extends to the awareness that bad things happen in the world. My young daughter accidentally caught sight of a photo of the Polish plane after it had crashed to the ground, and she said with furrowed brow: “Oh, the plane fell out of the sky! Oh, the plane is sad.” Then, after thinking another moment, she brightened up: “Slinky can help! Yeah, Slinky can help get the plane off the ground.” No knowledge of the tragedy involved — and at her age, I intend to keep it that way. Hers was a lack of knowledge of the scale of what had gone wrong, and hers was a sweet and simple desire to help, and then happily going to read her bedtime story with us. That is innocence, and I will preserve that for her as long as possible — even while teaching her how we as humans should behave in the world outside of it.

© Elizabeth Keck 2010

When Home is 93 Billion Light Years Around

In 2004, the Hubble space telescope completed a picture it had been taking for about four months. The result was what we now know as Hubble Deep Field. (To see this image, simply Google those words and it will be the top hit.) In the picture, seemingly countless separate galaxies are everything you see. To be specific: ten thousand of them, all inhabiting a point in space that to our naked eye is the size of a pencil tip. The fateful image, which altered the way we visualize the universe, came to be after astronomers decided to point Hubble at a tiny, seemingly empty dot in space — black, nothing discernible, totally unremarkable. Just to see what was there.

There is no other image that more fully impresses upon us — or allows us better to imagine — the scale of the universe. Ten thousand galaxies in the area of a pencil tip, including some that are so far away they appear as a bright red, cause us to think about who we are and who God is. Red shift, the phenomenon that causes an object to appear red when it is moving away from us at high speed (this is considered the Doppler effect of light), helped astronomers to calculate that a few of these galaxies were around 12 billion light years away from us. This, of course, means that the light that has traveled to us from those galaxies, allowing us to see them, has been traveling for 12 billion years. So we are only permitted to view those galaxies as they would have been 12 billion years ago; incidentally, this is the only way we know of to “look back in time.” And there is no way for us to know what those same galaxies might look like right now, provided they still exist.

But those 12 billion years mean that those particular galaxies are nearly as old as the universe itself. Astronomers quite accidentally stumbled upon the age of the universe when they noticed strange background microwave radiation unevenly distributed throughout space at a temperature of three degrees above absolute zero. The astronomers realized that this radiation was in fact the “afterglow” or “echo” of the Big Bang. The existence and character of the background radiation allowed them to calculate the age of our universe at close to 14 billion years. 14 billion years ago, the Big Bang happened. To put things in a little more perspective, the star that we call our Sun is somewhere between five and six billion years old.

To this point, astronomers have actually discovered a staggering 100 billion galaxies, and in each of those galaxies burns 100 billion stars like the Sun. The number of planets encircling 100 billion times 100 billion (10 septillion) stars is incalculable. As for the massive scale of the larger universe in which all these galaxies reside, our observable universe runs 93 billion light years in circumference.

In the ancient world, peoples of many different nations (ancient Egypt, Sumeria, Babylonia, the many small Canaanite nations, Israel, Greece, etc.) believed the gods lived in the Heavens. But they also believed that those gods were present in their temples and shrines; inhabiting more than one location simultaneously was not impossible for a deity, and temples were typically thought of as microcosmic sacred spaces that represented a connection between Heaven and Earth. Though this was widely true in many ancient cultures, in the case of Israel it is illustrated nicely in several biblical texts, perhaps most notably Isaiah 6. In this chapter, Isaiah witnesses the inside of Yahweh’s Temple, which is filled merely with the bottom hem of Yahweh’s robes as he sits on his throne. The massive figure of God extends upward through the Temple into the Heavens, where serpentine, winged flaming seraphim hover near him (the Hebrew word saraph means “to burn”).

People also gravitated toward statues and figurines of the divine, some of which could be kept in people’s houses and/or in small shrines as part of a kind of local or in-home worship. No figurines of Yahweh have been discovered — probably due to the aniconic emphasis involved with his worship — but we have found figurines of Baal, for example, and many other deities across the ancient Near East. The famous ancient Israelite “pillar figurines” found inside homes could also be meant to represent a goddess(es) of fertility, though this is not certain. My purpose in mentioning these things is to point out that people have tended always to identify God or gods as having some connection with and even some location on Earth, even in tandem with the awareness that the full home of God or gods transcended Earth into the Heavens. We have still always identified God as close to us somehow, transcendent but also immanent.

With the knowledge of the cosmos that we have today, that of a place so vast and complicated that it eludes our comprehension utterly, some of us think it time to leave behind these ancient conceptions. People understandably think that it is now ill-informed and grossly arrogant to continue thinking of ourselves as anything special, as anything on which God would spend much time. Our planet is already a tiny speck even in our own galaxy the Milky Way, and we orbit one fairly standard star amidst 100 billion such stars just in the Milky Way alone. Even leaving it at that is enough to cause us to look at ourselves a bit askance. Add consideration of what lies beyond our own galaxy — 100 billion other galaxies — and to think of ourselves as anything to attract God’s attention becomes preposterous, laughable, hubristic, or just blindly stubborn. Who are we, after all?

I understand such thoughts, and in a positive way, they are a sign of a very welcome humility after so many centuries of disproportionate human pride. But my approach is somewhat different. I do think it ridiculous to imagine that we are the only intelligent life in this vast universe; but I do not consider the certain abundance of that life to be evidence of our intrinsic insignificance. Nor do I consider the smallness of our Earth within this 93 billion-light-year-round universe to be evidence of our insignificance. If our species is small and is one among potential millions, then by extension, each and every one of those other species is also one among millions. Such species are not intrinsically more “important” than we are simply by virtue of their being not-us. The same is true for our planet, a “pale blue dot” that with distance may indeed appear as “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam” (Carl Sagan), and eventually disappear into imperceptibility. For the same is true also of each planet orbiting any of the 10 septillion stars in the universe.

Knowledge of “our place in the universe” is a necessary corrective for exaggerated egos, and, it is to be hoped, a wondrous impetus for us to spend some time appreciating the Creator of this universe. But it is not a sentence of futility, of denigration, of lack of worth. To say that it is so would be to pronounce the same sentence on every single one of those potential millions out there beyond our galactic neighborhood. A precious thing is not any the less precious for being in the company of other precious things, any more than a single human could be deemed not precious because there are 6 billion such humans. I am not daunted in thinking of the certain abundance of life in God’s universe; I am oddly reassured and encouraged.

This is our home, as much as it is the home of 100 billion other galaxies. Even when home is 93 billion light years around, one member of the family is not any the less beloved to the Head of Household.

© Elizabeth Keck 2010

_______________

**Much of the information regarding astronomy in this post is courtesy of PBS’ “Nova: Hunting the Edge of Space.”

A Hijacked God

This past week, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the largest American Lutheran body and member of the Lutheran World Federation, rewrote its policy. Under the old policy, openly gay persons could be ordained to ministry, but could only serve if they remained celibate — if they refused all possibility of love in a committed relationship. After years of review, countless meetings of task forces and councils, and collected input from congregations across the country (including dissenting input), the new policy states that gay ministers will now be permitted the same rights to human companionship — to love — as heterosexuals, provided that their relationship is monogamous and committed. Their committed partners will be entitled to the same benefits as the spouses of married clergy because in most states, gay people do not have the right to marry. For those who would like to read the news release, here is a link: http://bit.ly/anmgiZ

The above is a contentious issue for many people, but basic human decency and humility — respect and love for other human beings as beings created in the image of God — should endure regardless of ideological and theological disputes. I think of this particularly after hearing not for the first time about the Westboro Baptist Church, an extremist church based in Topeka, which pickets (among other things) the funerals of our soldiers killed in the line of duty. This church is open about its hatred for gay people, and proclaims that God purposefully causes our soldiers to die as punishment for America’s “tolerance” of homosexuality. They appear at soldiers’ funerals (gay or not) holding signs like “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “Semper Fi Fags,” “You’re Going to Hell,” “God is Your Enemy,” and “God Hates You.” For a recent article on a late soldier’s father’s efforts to fight them, click here: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/36449471/ns/us_news-crime_and_courts//

I will grant no further space to this “church.” They may be particularly radical, yet they are certainly not the only people who hold such signs or chant such slogans of hatred. But the issue here is not where one stands with regard to homosexuality or even gay people in ministry. The issue is how we conduct ourselves in relation to our fellow humans. I cannot help noticing that many people who quote the Bible the loudest are often using it to keep at bay some kind of “other” — mostly people who are different in some way from themselves. And the person doing the quoting is always so thoroughly convinced that God is on their side, and that God is against the other guy. It seems to me that this constitutes a hijacking of God. Why do people always quote the Bible to disenfranchise some other group (gays, women, African-Americans, Jews, etc.), but never themselves? How is it that the target is always somebody else and never oneself?

We so easily hijack God to glorify ourselves and make less of others. We can pick an issue, find a quote in the Bible, and then beat everybody over the head with it — oblivious to the amount of pain we may cause another human being — because after all, God is on our side and that justifies everything. Never mind that Jesus identified the greatest commandment as: “Love God with all your heart and all your mind and all your strength,” and the second one as: “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” If we are to take the Bible seriously, is it not imperative to give these words, identified as the greatest commandments, more than casual lip service? Nor can one claim that these are only New Testament ordinances. Jesus quoted those words from Deuteronomy, after all. Other words attributed to Jesus that are often passed over: “Judge not, lest you be judged,” and “The measure you give is the measure you get.”

If love is the greatest commandment, how does it serve love to denigrate and to inflict pain with our words upon fellow human beings, who are as much God’s children as ourselves? Does God love only some of us? Does God think only some of us worthy of being treated with respect and compassion? On the surface, few people of faith would agree with such statements. But when it comes to the crucible of practice, many of us behave as if the answer to those questions is yes. If we’re going to quote the Bible, we are then obliged to be aware of the Bible as a whole, not just whatever verse(s) we are currently inclined to use to make other people look bad. The Bible is not a weapon to be wielded against God’s other children. This is a dishonor.

I also notice that many people who quote Leviticus on the matter of homosexuality fail to quote Leviticus on anything else — like the prohibition on wearing clothes made from two different fabrics. You mean we can’t wear our cotton/polyester blends? You can also forget about shellfish, and don’t even think about those nice ham or bologna sandwiches for lunch. This is not to say anything against Leviticus per se or the practice of keeping kosher; I love the Hebrew Bible. But it is to say that we cannot divorce Leviticus’ one ordinance concerning homosexuality from the myriad ordinances among which it appears. Leviticus does nothing to single out its words on homosexuality as any more important than any of the other things that surround it. Yet most people who cite the verse on homosexuality neglect to observe most of the other rules in the same book.

A discussion of what may be the reasons for many of the Levitical ordinances would lead us astray for this particular post. But it is certainly true, and overtly stated in the text, that the Levitical regulations are concerned with ritual purity and the need at the time for the Israelites as a fledgling people to separate themselves from other Canaanites.

But one glaring fact remains. We are mortals. We are finite in our understanding of the universe and of God. We are the created, and cannot hope to penetrate the depths of the mind of the Creator. We may only fling our arms wide open to that Creator’s mercy and love. Lest I be judged by the same harsh measure that I might give to someone else — I prefer to err on the side of love, which is the only thing we know for certain pleases God.

© Elizabeth Keck 2010

The Fall-Guy for the Weather?

Today where I live, the weather could hardly be more pleasant. The air is warm but not humid, and an agreeable breeze keeps the warmth from turning into heat. It is hard not to think of ancient Near Eastern weather gods on a day like today. More on this in a moment.

In the modern Western world, many of us will actually thank God (most likely, a God in a monotheistic religion) for such an unusually perfect day. Others will simply admire it and be glad at the felicitous combination of atmospheric forces that produced these conditions. There is nothing wrong per se in being grateful to God for fantastic weather. But then that does generate a quandary of its own. Do we believe that God specifically creates the weather for each day everywhere? If so, what are we saying about hurricanes, tornadoes, blizzards, droughts, overabundance of rain?

Most compassionate people in our society (myself included), after hurricane Katrina and the indiscriminate suffering it inflicted, reject the notion that God purposefully generates weather. In the aftermath of Katrina, Mayor Ray Nagin threw a match into a powder keg with the statement that the hurricane could have been God’s punishment for the city’s sins. [The topic of “retribution theology” is one unto itself, and will be the subject of its own blog post eventually]. Mayor Nagin was not the only person to hold such a view, but most people — quite sensibly — pointed to the federal government as the primary cause of the scale of that city’s suffering. The existence of such fierce weather and the devastation it can wreak raised the question among many people of faith: what do we think about such things?

Ancient societies had their own answers, which we would largely (and I think rightly) reject today. In Greece, you could either thank or blame Zeus for your weather; in Rome, Jupiter, Zeus’ equivalent. In the ancient Near East, depending on where and when one lived, the fall-guy for the weather was either Baal, Hadad, Enlil, or — in ancient Israel — Yahweh. Who, judging by certain storm-god imagery attributed to him in the Bible, absorbed in popular culture some of the weather-god language formerly assigned to Baal. It is also worth noting here that at least one biblical author disagreed with thinking of Yahweh as a storm god similar to Baal: the writer of 1 Kings 19, who described Elijah hiding in a cave sulking on Mt Horeb. Elijah witnesses first a powerful wind breaking the rocks apart, then an earthquake, then a fire; but the writer states clearly that Yahweh was not present in these forces. Elijah then hears a gentle whisper, and Elijah comes out to talk with God, for it was in the whisper that Yahweh could be found. Legendary biblical scholar Frank Moore Cross observed that this passage (among other things) likely represents a protest against the sometimes-identification of Yahweh with Baal.

In ancient societies, many people believed that if the weather was good, the gods were pleased with the city/country. If the weather was bad, the gods were either displeased or were having a battle amongst themselves — in Greece the gods seem to have been especially cranky. We find another sort of answer in Job, however. In the concluding chapters of that book, we hear Job railing at God for an often patently unjust universe, accusing God of being derelict in his duties to maintain the balance of justice (duties commonly expected of deities in the ancient Near East). With audacity that we can only admire, Job demands an answer. He gets one, but not any that he expected.

God’s response to Job, basically, is that Job as a human doesn’t know squat about the universe. In a response that must have sent Job diving for cover under the nearest palm tree, God delivers a litany of the things Job can’t even begin to understand: the stars, the oceans, the wind, the animals in the great deep, the way justice works, the universe in general…. basically, everything. Here, I believe, is our connection with the weather. God states that he has tamed, with a ring through the nose, the great beasts that symbolized Chaos: Leviathan and Behemoth. Under the purview of God, these Chaos creatures now play and skip like frolicking and perhaps not always well-behaved animals; they do not, as they did in primordial times, rule the cosmos with freakish destruction.

The implication may be that God has to a large degree tamed and controlled Chaos; but God has not killed it. Chaos is restrained, but it is a restrained power. In modern times, when we see a hurricane swirling in grandeur on a satellite image, we cannot help feeling a shiver of admiration, of pure respect at a force of nature so untouchable in its raw power. We are fascinated and attracted by it. It is chaos, it is formed by our Earth’s complicated and wonderful atmosphere and all the raw forces that move that atmosphere.

I would think that the same holds true for gorgeous, perfect days such as the one I am now experiencing where I live. It is a product of the unpredictable movement of atmospheric components. Does this mean God had nothing to do with it, even indirectly? Since I believe God created all the components of the Universe, my answer to that is probably no. And I will still thank God for this delectable day, in the same way that I thank God for any other blessing I detect in my life.

© Elizabeth Keck 2010