June 4, 2009

O thy metaphorical B.I.B.L.E.

Preachers at the mission tell me that BIBLE stands for "Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth." Well, maybe. But not in the way those preachers intend it.

The preachers think that it is the kindly-hearted, literal instructions of a mysterious three-aspect Father/Son/Ghost who is jealous and so compassionate and unconditionally loving He intends to toss 10 billion people into a lake of fire to be tormented beyond mere waterboarding, forevermore! Yipe.

A merciless, meanspirited god, that, I say.

No, no, you whacky literalists. You have it all wrong! The Bible is metaphorical/allegorical. So, forging forward from Kyle R. Lovett's post "Could the biblical story of Adam and Eve be a metaphor for Buddhist teachings?" in Progressive Buddhism, and my own fine post, borrowing heavily from Joseph Campbell, "Tom's First Sermon at Union Gospel Mission," let us look at other things from the Bible, both of what they truly intend, and the hash that's been made of them by believing them literally, in the backward, unknowing, childish way of the ancients.

One God
First, let us look at the idea of One God. Where did that come from? According to Solomon Goldman [in his book The Book of Books],

[The Bible] had its beginnings in the tales of a bold skeptic of whom it was recounted that, having rejected the beliefs universally adhered to in his day, he set out to transform the face of the earth. How he came by his skepticism or new faith is a question easier asked than answered ... Of this much we are certain: once, in the ancient world, there lived a Jew, or one whom the Jews came to regard and claim as their own, who, repelled by idolatrous creeds and pagan practices, groped his way to a glimpse of the One God, perfect in all perfection.
Let us face it, Goldman over- and under-states things here. The idea of One God has enormous appeal and can have been thought up by many. And, indeed, there are very many One Gods.

The "obvious" One God is inscrutable and acts outlandishly. Ancient people would credit everything to this One God, certainly including tempestuous weather, terrible illnesses and great good fortune.

And having God "on your side," has to have seemed to be the best, easiest way to win in all you transactions with others. And how might you get God on your side? It would seem an impossible thing, for God is God, he doesn't need anything.

What, then, can you do for him? For a backward, childish people, as the ancients most certainly were [compared to what's possible for US, that is], all you might do is praise him, and possibly give him things by denying yourself things. Thus, praise and sacrifice was all you could do.

But by praising and sacrificing to God, surely you are demeaning him. Is God an egomaniac? He doesn't need praise. What value could he place in praise from those pitiful [as compared to Him] human creatures? And what possible purpose can God have for sacrifices, unless God is sadistic and just enjoys the misery that comes from sacrifice?

Truly, the notion of One God doesn't help in formulating an understanding of the creation, structure and meaning of the universe. Besides, if you posit One God, you have to come up with an explanation of how He came to be.

Still, One God, a being with completely-free will, and total power, has enormous appeal. Why? Because we can imagine ourselves in His place, with the ability to completely clean up our messy lives. And wouldn't it be delicious [to a child] to be able to know everything and reign over everyone with the capability of crushing any opposition? Why, he's better than Superman, Spiderman and ALL the superheroes put together!

God was created, not in man's image, but in man/child's imagination of what it would be like to be all powerful.

And what could this One God do, all by himself, before there was anything? Why, create toys – aspects of himself. And so he made microscopic life, something that moved on its own, as he did. And plants, that grew in ways that took advantage of their environment. And animals, that had the freedom to explore and exploit. And people, capable of contemplating their situation as He could.

These are the obvious lines of thinking, absent any modern information, about how the world and life came into being. And, thus, stories were created along these obvious lines.

The One God is sustained because He can so easily be utilized, both as a justification for nations [God is on our side] and as a balm for the underclass [God loves us; after our miserable lives, God will redeem us].

Morality
Mankind noticed that he was unlike the other animals: he was self reflective. He thought abstractly and separated those things that were good [gentle weather; the smell of flowers] from those things that were bad [thunderstorms; the smell of feces]. Note that ancient times were before the concept of evolution occured to anyone. Now, of course, we know that feces, and pretty much all other 'bad' things are 'bad,' only because they are contrary to what aids with our success as a lifeform. Feces doesn't intrinsically smell bad; it only smells bad to us because our nose has evolved as a sense that, roughly, distinguises for us what's good for us from what's bad – usually with respect to what we should & shouldn't eat.

Ancient man wondered what was ultimately Good and ultimately Bad and figured that only God would know. God would surely know because God, himself, created the division between good and bad, ancient man, understandably, believed.

Some things that seemed good in an immediate sense, had long-term bad results. [Screwing your neighbor's wife, for example.] Some things that seemed bad, had long-term good results. [Lifting weights; eating broccoli instead of cookies, for examples.] Thus, ancient humans knew, better than other animals, that it was very helpful to plan and put off or avoid some pleasures for one's long-term betterment, or for the long-term betterment of the community.

But there were problems to overcome. Some people take advantage of others, ruthlessly. Others thrive by being paragons of virtue. Quick! Go to God; He'll sort things out for us.

Thus the tall tale of Moses coming down from the mountain with the stone tablets. Hard, fast rules of conduct. Sins are IDed.

As metaphor, this is to the good. Mankind recognizes morality, if only in broad strokes of absolute black and white. And he recognizes the need for a common morality such that everyone will tend to abide by the same rules of conduct.

But the rules are binary, commandments. There's no room made for situational exceptions. And a mere ten commandments don't begin to touch upon all the harmful things that people can do to each other. Where's "Thou shalt not sneeze directly on others and thus possibly cause others to catch your germs?," for example?

But the Ten Commandments [aka, the Decalogue] was a step forward. The laws apply equally to everyone. They don't give some people privileges and subjugate others.

Also there were myriad conflicts between what individual people wanted for themselves, and what served the good of a society at large. A heavy-handed and straightforward set of laws was purposeful in taming ancient societies.

Quoting H.A. Overstreet in The Mature Mind,
Animals know no moral law. For countless ages, man himself knew no moral law. In those animal-like ages, his self-restraints were those of custom, not of understanding in the area of social cause and effect. His relations with his fellows were instinctual, not moral.
Moses's descent from Mt. Sinai represents the insight that morality applied to all of us, equally. It was not, as the Jews experienced in Egypt, the arbitrary, self-engrandizing directives of a ruler. Thus, Moses's descent with the tablets represents a recognition that principles allowing us to live in harmony exist in a broadly defined way.

Indeed, Moses's "Thou shalt nots" are radically NOT directives from a King or God – except for the first Law.

That bold skeptic, or whomever he was who thought up the Moses tale, brought a liberating insight: Truth is one because the Source of truth is one.

Now watch what happened to this great insight – again, as reported by Dr. Goldman:

The people responded readily and agreed to do and obey. It resolved never again to be like unto the nations – but could not abandon their ways. It accepted the Eternal as God – but upon every hill and under every green tree it erected altars to wood and stone. It urged that man was God's image – but it would not abandon slavery ... It longed for justice . . . but, fond of bribes, it neither judged the orphan nor did it plead the cause of the widow. It looked forward to peace but periodically became enmeshed in the web of imperialistic ambitions of Egypt, Assyria, or Babylon as the case might be. In a word, it dreamed of the ideal society and even legislated for it, but never got down to build it.
This story of a people's noble belief and ignoble backslidings; of its inspiring faith and its failure to live up to that faith; of its spiritual triumph and unspiritual self-defeats is the story of immature men incapable of grasping the fullness of the truth that had been offered to them. It is the story that has been acted out in thousandfold ways through the ages and far beyond the limits of that small tribe of Jews.

3 comments:

Mumon said...

Preachers at the mission tell me that BIBLE stands for "Basic Instructions for Leaving Earth."




Umm...where's the 2nd "B?"


Seriously, the cure is to concretize in one's life, to have tattooed into the marrow of one's life, wisdom, compassion and generosity which speaks beyond such things.


You do not have it easy, to say the least.

Tom said...

Whoops. "Basic Instructions Before leaving Earth," I shoulda said. And, indeed, I fixed the text. Thanks, Mumon.

Yes! We need to find and develop our wisdom and compassion, and not follow the dictates of ANY dogma.

nope. It's not easy out here for me, sometimes. But I perservere during the low times.

Mumon said...

Thanks Tom; your life practice is greatly appreciated.