Monday, May 26, 2008

The Iceman Cometh - Free from illusions

When I look back on my life there are many writings that affected my life. However there was not one particular piece that created a single moment of insight as to my vocation. My pursuit of ministry has been a life long journey that leads me to this place and time. When I look back over my life, I thought of one particular play that I read that jump started a journey of searching for the truth. It is a play I have continued to think about throughout my life. When I first read Eugene O’Neil’s “The Iceman Cometh” in my late teens, I was cynical and pessimistic about the ways of the world. Due to the lens of experiences I had grown up with, I had given up on the idea that there was a God. I remember that once I started reading this play, I could not put it down and stayed up all night to finish it.

The characters in the story are down on their luck alcoholics. These individuals are on the lowest rung of the ladder in society. They maintain illusions about how they happened to be in such a predicament in their life, and more importantly, how they would change their life one day and redeem themselves and their life. There are certain pairings of individuals, an ex-policeman and a crook, two combatants from opposite sides of a war, a revolutionary and an individual who has a forsaken the concept of revolution, and a pimp and his hookers to name a few of the characters. One day, an old friend walks in the bar and tries to convince them that they will find peace only if they face their illusions and realize them for what they are. His concept is that once they see themselves for what they are, their true inner self, they will see that they are just alcoholics, and they will not need their illusions. As it turns out he believes this because he killed his wife and found peace because he no longer had the guilt of constantly lying to her and knowing she would forgive him. Upon killing her, he felt peace because he no longer had to keep up the illusion that he would reform one day. Yet when he made the cast of characters confront their illusions, they did not find peace. Reality was just too harsh and had become a living death. In the end, the message of the play is that we all need certain illusions to help us make it through life.

Now this may seem like a strange story as an inspiration for ministry. If I had read this story later in life, I might not have had the same reaction. Yet what it showed me was that we all create illusions for ourselves to help us survive in a harsh world. This started me on a search for my true inner self. This also changed my perspective in how I viewed all things in the world. I learned that instead of looking at superficial aspects of something in life, I had to investigate the root cause and complexity of all points of view to gain a true understanding of such a thing. Confronting an illusion will cause the death of that illusion. However, once dead, there is fertile ground for the truth (or possibly another illusion) to achieve life.

At that time in my life I was tempted to take the position that others were under the illusion that there was a God, and I needed to confront others with their illusion. Yet intrinsically I knew that tearing down other people beliefs or illusions would not help me. I needed to understand my illusions and my inner self. My lack of knowledge and experience in the world had led me to certain conclusions about the world. The realization that I didn’t have enough knowledge and experience was the first step to breaking the illusion. I knew if I maintained the illusion of the world that I experienced, I would never evolve spiritually as human being. Without knowing what the truth was, I shed the illusion and started on the search for knowledge and understanding of God, and the way God works in this world.

Another thing I learned from this play was that you have to have a plan. Clearly these characters were flawed and at the end of the line. My perception at that time in my life was that although flawed, if I did not change, that I would end up at the end of my life in much the same manner as these characters. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I knew I had the ability to change. I knew it would be a long and arduous task, but if I focused on end result, I could persevere and succeed. Later in life I have learned to enjoy the road throughout the journey. This did teach me though that we have to choose the path carefully, and make sure we are heading in the right direction. We may have to adapt and take detours along the way, but we must think in advance which way we are heading. I also learned that answers are not instantaneous. The search for the truth can be a long journey until we find the answer. When we reach the destination it may not hold the answer we expect. The answers we receive also may raise new questions which will lead us off on another journey. Yet it is just that search for truth and meaning with love in our hearts and an open mind that will put us in touch with the divine and will eventually give us salvation.

Although this play has a bleak outlook on life, it makes me constantly reassess my self and my actions, to make sure that I am following a path that is right for me and is not based on illusion. This play showed me the need for discernment that continues today through deep thought about life. I do sometimes think that I create an illusion that living a moral, ethical life that is God centered is better because I fear the consequences of actions that society would deem immoral. Yet this is an illusion I would be happy to live with.

I read a story in a book that said that God was playing hide and seek with humans, but we were not looking. Well my driving search for truth about myself, has forced me to face the fact that I believe in a divine presence in the universe. It also forced me to face the fact about myself that I want to do good, and I want to help make the world a better place to live. I also want to help others see this light of goodness in the world and in their lives. My search for truth has shown me that there are many paths to reach this divine presence. There is great knowledge and insight we can learn from different world religions that can lead us on this path. In addition, there are many underlying truths that are similar in many world religions that can bind us together as we evolve as humans.

One of the last lines of this book, one of the characters states “Be God, there’s no hope! I’ll never be a success in the grandstand – or anywhere else! Life is too much for me! I’ll be a weak fool looking with pity at the two sides of everything till the day I die! May that day come soon!” These lines have always haunted me. I have for much of my life looked for balance and tolerance in this world. Yet sometimes we must act as a counterbalance to society at large to maintain such a balance. We must be willing when necessary to take a stand. We must take a stand for righteousness and justice when the rest of society stands idly bye. So just as this character has stood in the grandstands of life watching the game but not intervening, and at the end of day wishing for death, I submit that we cannot just sit idly bye and watch others manipulate the world for their own means. We must take action to educate and change the world, to help shape the world in the image of the divine. Although I do not agree with the message that the play offers, the ideas offered within it sparked such deep thought within me. These thoughts started me on my journey and continually keep me honest along the way.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Christian Scriptures - On Circumcision and Slaves

As with all the Christian Scripture readings I find different passages inspiring, challenging, and intriguing. 1Thessalonians Verse 5.14-22 are words to live by. I especially like the phrase to “test everything”. This would also include the words of the Paul, which if true should hold up to the light of truth. I was also inspired by Galatians Verse 6.1-10. It combines the concept of self-reliance and works for the “good of all” with a reminder to forgive and help those who are not as strong spiritually. These are messages that are universal.

I do not understand Paul’s obsession against circumcision. It is one thing to not require circumcision in order to be Christian, but why does he totally disparage it. In Galatians Verse 5.1-3 he indicates that if you get circumcised Christ will be of no benefit to you. I find it hard to believe that the basis of ones entire faith rests on a small piece of foreskin.

Paul also argues that if you are circumcised you are obliged to obey the entire law. This is clearly a way to discourage circumcision. Yet Jesus never stated all the laws had to be followed. In fact he argued against strictly following the interpretations of law regarding working on the Sabbath. I contend that the law on circumcision was installed for health reasons. Possibly individuals of Jewish descent had a proclivity for infection in that part of the body and the healers found that if a person was circumcised the infection did not occur. We have found this to be true in the modern age, so why do we assume that Jewish people did not realize this at that time.

I found the opening sentence in Philemon to be fascinating. I would be interested to learn the Greek, but the English translation states that Paul is a prisoner of Jesus Christ. This infers that he believes in Christ against his will. Is this saying that believing in Christ is against our nature? Or is it saying we are not free to escape the confines of our environment?

I prefer to read the scripture before reading others interpretations. I find by following this order my perceptions are not tainted. It is important to understand the traditional analysis of the scripture. However, reading most of this for the first time, not reading the traditional analysis in advance allows me a pristine view from my mind’s eye which often ends up giving me an alternative understanding. One such example would be in the reason why Philemon sent the slave Onesimus to Paul. I believe instead of coming to help Paul himself, Philemon sent a slave, and due to this, Paul in his response is trying to embarrass Philemon in front of rest of the community. I am sure I am no the first person in the history of the world to come up with this analysis, (although I have not read it elsewhere) I enjoy thinking about scripture independently and then comparing it to others’ analysis. In any event, although one of the smaller books in the Scriptures, I found Philemon rich in social questions.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Jesus the Tax Resistor

Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s

The three synoptic gospels start this story with the Pharisees trying to “entangle” “entrap” or “deliver him (Jesus) up to the authority” Therefore there must have been an expectation that Jesus believed in tax resistance to Rome but they needed him to publicly state this to have him arrested. I think this is also supported by Luke 23.2 whereupon handing Jesus to Pilate the assembly says “We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor”

Many tax collectors over collected taxes so as to make a profit. This put an even heavier burden on the largely poor agricultural population of Israel. Often people had to mortgage their lands. Upon the ever rising taxes eventually the people would lose their land to the money-lenders. In the time of Jesus, there was still a strong sense of God haven given this land to the Jewish people and the land was God’s and should not be transferred to Romans or used to facilitate payment of taxes to Rome.

Jesus had to find a way to give his tax resistance message to the people so as to maintain his integrity, without publicly denouncing the Romans which would lead to his arrest. His wording is highly ambiguous just for that reason. Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s – which is nothing, Render unto God what is God’s – which is everything, particularly the land.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Intentions

I just wanted to touch on the issue of Intention and its importance to ethics.

It is a critical issue, which I have struggled with all my life. Really just how important are intentions as opposed to the actions taken or the results of those actions. There is the old adage that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”. Does intention matter? Without proper action, intention may be immaterial, or even harmful. In a simple example, I may intend to lose weight so that I can live a healthier life. Yet if I do not do the requisite study of nutritional education, or exercise and / or change my eating habits, it really doesn’t matter what my intention is, I will not lose weight.

What if someone who is torturing someone has the good intention of thinking they are saving lives. Does it really matter what the intention is, if the act itself is unethical. Suppose someone steals money but does it with the intention to give it to charity. Does that make the act of stealing any less unethical. What about a doctor or pharmaceutical company whose intention is only to make money, but they save thousands of lives.

Is it the intention, the act itself, or the result of that act that determines the ethics of the situation?

Ah, these are the questions that have plagued minds for millennium.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Movie Review - "Blow" with Johnny Depp.

This one gets a 7 on the J Scale

Johnny Depp is a great actor….I cant really say this was a great movie, or that it was done in a unique way or told a compelling story, or that it developed it character over time. However I gave it such a high mark because it did move me, and in an odd way saddened me, and made me think, which to me is one of the main purposes of movies (of course other than entertainment) .

There were a couple of lines in the movie that I thought were really good, The first was when he said “my ambitions far exceeded my abilities”. I think many of us can relate to this. Because many in life are un-ambitious, merely having ambition can take one far. But at some point, a person is limited by reaching the capacity of their ability. The thing is most people don’t see their own limitations, especially ambitious people. Many people, underestimate their ability, whereas ambitious people tend to overestimate their ability and in this case shows how negative that can be.

The second comment which touched me was that he said, “some people’s lives go by without their realizing it, but his life had several poignant moments”. I think this is true to some extent, that people just let their lives go on, and let life take them where it will, without much planning, or direction. And they blame the fates, or destiny, but in truth, it is their lack of action, or thought that led them to their position in life.

His was a tale of a sad life, that he did not realize what he wanted out of life until it was too late, and he was unable or unwilling to change…Another poignant point, was the stark comparison of the value of money versus integrity. How one lives their life, and what one does with their life is important and that it is never too late to turn back, it is never to late to start again.

OK, so most of the points made here are self evident….and the movie although completely lacking in subtlety certainly gets it point across for all to see. But I guess that was the point!!

Movie Review – Kite Runner 8 of 10 on the J Scale.

I usually like to wait a day or two before I write a review of a movie to let it all sink in. But I was just so moved by this movie. It was the story of two children growing up together in Afghanistan (pre soviet invasion), their life together, events that tore them apart and events in life that bind people together in ones heart forever. The story had such a depth to it. Dreams of children,. Dreams of parents for their children….the secrets children keep from parents and from each other…the secrets parents keep from children and from each other….triumph…shame….finding a purpose in life…fear...redemption….honor…courage…loyalty.. It also dealt with the dilemma of fight or flight in the face of danger...and how the stories we tell and hear shape our lives.....I can not say enough about this movie….The only fault I found in it was a sentimental and improbable escape from danger that occurred late in the movie as well as the ending of the movie seemed quite rushed, but I am just picking….a must see movie…

Descriptions of Salvation

I was recently asked "what descriptive word for salvation (justification, redemption, ransom, etc) you prefer and indicate its usefulness in today’s world."

There is of course an assumption that salvation is necessary, and the concept of salvation is useful to society today. Looking at the world from a multicultural and pluralistic perspective I cannot start out with that assumption. As is required from different cultural contexts, translation of words into other words that can be meaningful is necessary to bridge understanding among different groups of people. The word salvation, as well as most of the words describing salvation is so laden with history and assumptions that its mere use negates its usefulness to many.

The use of the word ransom has such negative connotations in society today. The concept of redemption although a more commonly used phrase today presupposes sin and guilt. I like the Hebrew concept of sin described as “missing the mark”. Thus sin is not living up to fullest potential as humans, or in the manner that God has called us to. Most humans do not consider themselves sinful (whether they are or not). If one does not consider themselves sinful, there is nothing to be redeemed from. Therefore I do not think most people would react to this description. I feel the description of justification will not be useful because it is a theological construct for Christian Salvation that does not have the same impact in the Vernacular. In our culture the use of the word justified indicates that someone’s actions were correct. If someone needs to be saved, they are being saved because they did something wrong. Therefore intuitively the use of this word does not resonate for me. I like the description that described justification as “a change of status in our relationship with God”. I think this is an important concept. At some point in our life we need to come to an understanding for ourselves separate from what we have been indoctrinated with in our youth. Relating it to salvation, though is a challenge as I think our relationship with God changes over time and that would mean there would be multiple salvations.

The first description I feel would be useful would be re-creation When I first thought of this I looked at the word as recreation as in leisure activities. Immediately I thought what a unique theological concept. Salvation through leisure. And although I came back to reality after a moment, the thought of taking time to enjoy the splendors of the world that God created could be a form of salvation, and certainly something that people could relate to. I do find it interesting that the words are homographs, but I do think the concept of re-creation is something that people can relate to. People have experienced creation within their lives. People have created children, shelters, food, and artistic expressions of ideas. This last is one of the things that make humans uniquely human. Humans have also had the opportunity to re-create their lives. We use the phrase second chance, or a do-over. We are constantly changing our lives, every day with every decision we make. People have the opportunity to re-create their view and perspective on the world every day. Seeing the world through the perspective of others can help us better reconcile differences with others (reconciliation is another description of salvation that is useful, although I think it is a subset of re-creation.) Even people who have had horrible experiences in this world can and often do use those experiences to change the world and help others avoid the same experiences. I think this is another factor in the development of salvation that is critical when we recreate while working with others.

If we were made in the image of God, why would we not have the same ability (on a smaller scale) to create and recreate? I believe in the Unity of God with all of God’s creations, and if we are one with God, we should have the ability to create. And just as God had the ability to create, God also had the ability to destroy such as displayed with the Flood. Yet always in the Jewish Scriptures, God recreated humans, or allowed humans to re-create themselves and try again and again, after each failure, to try to rise up again to strive for the maximum potential of humanity.

I was moved by a statement attributed to the Cappadocians that When God assumed a human form and nature, the purpose was not only to participate in human life, but also “to enable man to participate in divine life”. God did participate in human life in Genesis directly and though human actions throughout the Jewish Scriptures. Although I would argue that the divine spark is within each human being, although that is different and not as comprehensive as participating in divine life.

Another important description of salvation is deliverance and liberation. I think this description is something that people can relate to. Many people have felt the sting of oppression and marginalization in some way in their lifetime. Dealing with this is the great need for religion. Salvation can be seen as the hope for deliverance and liberation from oppression. As the world becomes more connected, people will become more aware of the disparity in power which will create conflict. Such conflict will lead to the need for reconciliation amongst all people. I like the concept which speaks of both vertical and horizontal elements of reconciliation. I think before we can reconcile with God, I think humanity needs to reconcile with each other. I think both humanity and God need to meet halfway in the abyss. I think it will take entering into the abyss for humans to reconcile with each other. Entering into the abyss is a matter of unconditional trust. It is a trust that there is a purpose in the universe and that purpose is working towards justice for all. I believe that by entering the abyss in search of reconciliation and justice within humanity, we will find our reconciliation with God and only then will we have salvation.

Just what is conservative and liberal?

Last night I was listening to talk radio on the way home, and I heard Shawn Hannity say something to the effect, “Just how high do gas prices have to go before Americans agree to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska. This was shocking to me. Every attempt by the Bush Administration to allow drilling has been rejected by the Senate. Yet now there is a consistent call from conservative talk radio trying to drum up support for this environmentally indefensible idea.

Now first let me say that my conservative friends find it amazing that someone with my views on politics and religion would listen to conservative talk radio. Yet I believe in my heart, I need to hear all sides of the story before I make my decisions. I do believe there is a mainstream media bias, so I like to read, listen and watch the fringe media from both the liberal and conservative positions to try to interpret what is really the truth. One of the principles of my Unitarian Universalists religion is the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. I would not be responsible if I did not investigate all views. Another principle of my religion is the respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. I cannot sit idly by and do nothing while forces within America want to destroy and pillage the earth’s resources. We must realize that there are consequences to drilling that could effect the future existence of this planet. Therefore I ask all Americans to contact your governmental representatives immediately and say NO TO DRILLING FOR OIL in the ANWR.

As I listen to talk radio more and more, I find I am more confused about what is conservative and liberal. I always thought I was middle of the road with liberal leanings on social issues. More and more as I listen to talk radio, I am shocked to learn that what I thought were conservative views are radically liberal. Take the drilling in ANWR. I believe we should conserve our natural resources and live simpler lives. I think it is radically liberal to want to drill for oil in a pristine environmental location merely to give the oil companies extra profits with having no real impact on prices to consumers or the long term energy problem. So protecting and conserving the environment is now considered liberal and not conservative?

I think we should invest in alternative fuel programs, finding the most cost effective method with the least disruption to our planet. I am not opposed to business (even oil companies) making money on this. But let them make money based on a strategic plan of the government (by, of and for the people) to create an energy independent, eco-friendly product. Investment in long term business projects seems to be quite a conservative idea, yet talk show hosts seem to label alternative fuel sources as radical liberalism.

I also once thought that having a balanced budget was a conservative issue. Yet the Republican President and Republican led congress took a balanced budget, strong economy, and secure social security system left to them by President Clinton and ran them into the ground. They breached their fiduciary and moral responsibilities with openhanded tax giveaways for the wealthy and big business, and unconstrained military and domestic spending. These acts seem like wild liberal radical actions….yet the talk show hosts call them conservative.

And lets talk about our foreign policy. I think most people would argue that going to war in Afghanistan was in our country’s best interest. Yet it seemed clear to me and to many others that there never has been a valid reason to enter the war in Iraq. A conservative would be one who should be hesitant and reluctant to engage in foreign wars and would try to resolve things diplomatically. A conservative would be one who set up policies to avoid the need to be entangled in foreign intrigue and would want to follow isolationist policies. I think it is quite a radical liberal idea to create a global network of business and social interests. I think it is a radical liberal idea to try and impose our way of life and government on others. Yet the talk show hosts call this conservative.

When Mike Huckabee was running for President, he was the “conservative” and the conservative talk show hosts were ripping apart John McCain. Now these same people are supporting John McCain as the “conservative” choice, not bringing up their previous vehement diatribes against him. They are now using the same smear tactics in their invectives against Democrats. My point is, there seems to be little integrity in the news media, and we move the word liberal and conservative around as labels to fit our needs.

As a seminary student (and future minister), I hope to transform individual lives and society for the better. Therefore we must look deep within our selves and our society to see what the truth really is. Merely accepting labels others have used to define people is self defeating. Truly listen to what is being said. Listen to varying views that are available, be open to different ideas, and above all, let us work together to achieve our common goals and visions and not demonize people who disagree with us. Lets use our hearts and our heads to make this world a true Heaven on Earth for both Conservatives and Liberals however you view yourself!!

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Some thoughts on Constantine and Post-Christianity

There is no question in my mind that the “Church’s” ascension was due to the support of Constantine. It is good to be emperor and it is good to have the emperor’s power supporting you. Constantine publicly showed his support for Christianity including lavish spending of various building projects. I think money unfortunately influences people’s actions and their focus. Constantine wanted the support of Christians to solidify and fight for his empire. On the one hand, one has to admit that prior to Constantine’s actions, Christianity was growing and had a committed following, otherwise Constantine would not have done what he did. Yet the ramifications of his actions were soon felt.

I think just as important for Christianity was Constantine’s edict of Toleration. Prior to this Christians could be killed for merely being a Christian. I do believe this led many to keep closer ties to Jewish nature of the religion. Jews may have been persecuted for political reasons. Yet due to the ancient nature of their religion they were not persecuted for being Jewish. I think to avoid persecution; Christians tried to have Romans view them as a Jewish Sect. Once the toleration of Christianity was accepted it allowed Christianity to more formally create their own unique theology and separate themselves from Judaism as a completely separate religion. It also allowed them to live their life and reflect more with the fear of becoming martyrs. I think this in and of itself opened the religion up to others as death was no longer a deterrent to entry.

Early Christianity flourished with diversity of ideas, worship, doctrines, and beliefs. Before Constantine summoned the Council of Nicaea in 325, even the question as to the divinity was a deep conflict among different Christian groups. In fact, even after the finalization of the Nicene Creed, there were bitter disputes on this issue amongst Christians. I do not believe Constantine really cared about the theological dispute as much as he wanted unity amongst the Christians. Yet Nicaea was a turning point in Christianity. Although there had been other councils before, this was the first council that was convened by an Emperor. It set the structure in place to bind religious and political wills together. Over the years, religious leaders and therefore their religions have fallen under the sway of political tyranny with devastating consequences for the world. For years Emperors and Popes used each other for their own ends. This in many ways corrupted the original message of Jesus. The Protestant Reformation was a search for this lost purity of early Christianity. Ironically, it allied itself with governments to obtain their freedom from the Catholic Church. This set in motion even more violence in the name of what is true religion. In any event the Reformation shows that even though there are political corruptions of Religion, independent thought in search of truth still finds a way to surface.

In the sense that every new member of group affects and changes the group, of course adding more members to Christianity will change the nature of the Christianity. This is the inherent nature of groups. If something is the truth, if an event is meaningful to you (as I am sure the events of Jesus life were meaningful to his followers) it is natural to want to share it. But others who did not have that exact same experience will never understand it in the same way as the original person experienced it. This brings up the age old debate as to whether one has to experience something for it to be real. Well, I don’t think so, but I think someone has to experience something for it to be as meaningful for that person as the original person. A person in Alaska could be experiencing snow. Yet if I always lived in Florida, I can intellectualize what snow is, but I cannot understand it in the same way as the person who physically experienced snow. That does not make snow non existent. So if we did not live and witness the experience of the life and the miracles of Jesus, doesn’t mean they didn’t occur and doesn’t mean they are not true. It just means we cannot understand it in the same way as his direct followers. Therefore we need to find different ways to understand the experience of Jesus. My point is that it is inevitable that the world changed Christianity and will continue to change Christianity as everyone experiences life (and Jesus) in different ways. Often we are indoctrinated into the religion of our birth and remain within it for social reasons as opposed to real belief. For religion to be understandable, and thus meaningful, it has to be something that one can imprint in their heart and soul. Most people look to religion to help them understand their existence. Can someone really understand their existence through rote acceptance of dictated rules. If so, I would argue that such an attitude leads to superficial and superstitious actions and thoughts that are not truly believed. In order for an individual to truly believe in their heart, I believe this can only be attained through experience, and in lieu of direct experience through introspection and understanding through reason.

One can never know how Christianity would have turned out had Constantine’s acceptance of it not occurred. It had already been trying to form an ecclesiastical structure prior to Constantine. Yet I think without the power of the emperor, it could have fractured into multiple sects. At the very least, it would not have had the far reaching political impact it had. Whether this is good or not would require a dissertation. I have heard some argue that the existence of Constantine was God’s plan to expand Christianity. I feel that he tried to eliminate religious liberty. He choose Christianity as the religion he believed could help him achieve his goals. He then started persecuting other religions. I think what we have found is that God’s will cannot be thwarted by human means. When we try to prevent religious liberty, it consequences are violent and in the long term it moves people away from Religion.

I think in the world today, we have more religious diversity than ever before in history (or maybe we are just more aware of our diversity). People may have to succumb to power structures at times, but intuitively, they understand that God is God and God cannot be captured in words or buildings or food or songs. God is in our hearts and souls. All those other items are just means to help us understand God. To help us understand how to live and how to create a Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. Since these other apparatus’ are created by humans they are subject to human error and again, I think people intuitively and experientially understand this. People evolve, religions evolve, the Church evolves, and maybe even God evolves. I envision Post Christianity as an evolution of the ecumenical trends we are already seeing in the religion today. This evolution of Post Christian ecumenicalism will include other religions as well. It will focus on relating the teachings and religious beliefs of Jesus with other world religions. With the advent of the electronic age we are entering a new Pentecost which will allow all people to again communicate with each other. As we can better understand each other, we can move in the direction of learning the underlying universal truths that can save the world.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Book Review - I'd Say Yes God, If I knew what you wanted

The title alone made this book intriguing. The concept of the book was timely as I go through a time in my life requiring spiritual discernment. I found the book an easy read. The book described a broad range of discernment techniques. I also feel the personal stories added a dimension that allowed one to better understand how each discernment process might be experienced. I enjoyed the balance of stories about historically known figures and people I will never know. It is a reminder that all people’s stories and experiences are important and a learning experience. Too often we go without ever hearing about the heroic stories of individuals’ spiritual journeys’. If nothing else this book is a reminder that we are not alone in this quest and that each person travels their own journey in a unique way.

I have tried a number of the discernment techniques described in the book. In particular, I have found the labyrinth to be a particularly powerful discernment practice. Our church created a full sized labyrinth, and out of respect for the work everyone did, I walked it. I really did not expect to gain anything from it. Yet in every step, I found a metaphor for life. Do we take shortcuts? Do we finish what we start? How do we avoid obstacles? Where we are heading? Life has some twists and turns and we need to continue to see where it leads. More importantly, the labyrinth is where I connected with the divine. It is something that is unexplainable to me even to this day. Possibly it is the focused nature of the activity. Over time, what I have found is that I can connect to the divine anywhere and at any time, if I open myself up to it. I still go back and walk the labyrinth on a periodic basis. Each time it re-focuses my attention to the divine.

Another technique of discernment I have used is journaling. When I started journaling I did not consciously realize it was for discernment. When I started I just wanted to express my ideas and thoughts on my experiences in life. As I wrote, I just let it flow from my mind (onto the computer). The more I did this, the more my thoughts flowed and the more self aware I became of who I was, how came to be who I was and why I thought what I thought. I think the dangerous thing about understanding the will of God, that even the author recognizes is that even psychotic murderers believe they are following the will of God. I think the reason I find the technique of journaling satisfying and enjoyable, is because it satisfies my psychological intellect that there is reason behind my journey, not just a mystical feeling. I think this speaks to the issue also that we must not rely on just one discernment technique. There is a need for both the mystical and the rational in our discernment process. I often find it interesting to go back and look at what I wrote a year or five years ago and to see what has and has not changed in my thought process.

I have also over the years had a meditation practice. When I have been disciplined in following my meditation consistently, I find myself more at peace, and more open to hearing God’s will. Another form of discernment that I use which I do not recall reading in the book is the arts. I have found the arts to be a great stimulus to better understand ourselves and the world around us. Particularly movies (and theatre to a smaller degree) have become the new storytellers in our society. These stories frame moral questions and issues that ask us to question our beliefs on certain issues. These stories allow us to see ourselves in the roles of these characters and make us question who we want to emulate, how we want to live our lives, and what we consider right and wrong.

There were many stories in the book that I found inspiring. In particular, Doug Seeley’s story on page 51-55, under the concept of Divinity loves Diversity was very moving. His struggle to understand and accept that there was something greater than our individual intellect that is active in this world resonated with me. It talked of the Oneness of the Universe and the connectedness of all things. . As I was reading this story, I really related to it and then at the end when I read he was a Unitarian I just smiled.

I think Doug Seeley’s story touched on another issue that is very important as well. The issue of synchronicity of the universe versus trusting your own instincts can be a conflict. Other stories in the book spoke of times when other people gave advice that related to their discernment but was ultimately in conflict with what the individual was feeling. Synchronicity is a challenging concept. It defies reason. In my life, when I look for it or become aware of it, I can say it does exist. I do not believe that life is a sequence of events that randomly happen. I believe life is causal in nature. Yet receiving a message (verbal or visual) or meeting a person at a critical time with no apparent connection happens. We all look for signs. We want to believe there is a reason for everything that happens. Sometimes this can lead to superstition, rationalization and wishful thinking. So as always, I look for balance. I open myself to the synchronicity of the universe without accepting it blindly. I analyze the messages I receive and make them a part of my decision making process.

I liked the comment from Rebecca’s story on page 175 that “if it doesn’t feel or seem right for you, wait. God will find other methods to inform you” and “God will keep working with us until we get the message.” Also in Catherine’s Story on 187 it states “God would be with me whatever road I took” was very comforting. Yet in the end discernment isn’t always (and shouldn’t) be a comforting experience. It should force us to face our deepest inner self with the goal of helping us shape our lives. I also believe there has to be a balance between ongoing discernment and discernment paralysis.

I believe discernment is an ongoing process. We must however at some point make a decision, commit to it, and act. Ultimately making decisions about our lives and acting on them needs to be the focus of our discernment. If we stay on the fence too long through indecision, although we may not fall (fail), we will never grow.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Thoughts on Salvation

Thoughts on Salvation.

Just finished Joel Green’s book “Salvation” Not exactly light bedtime reading, but certainly lots of food for thought, especially for a divinity student.

My biggest challenge with the Christian idea of salvation is that only through Christ can people be saved. I guess it depends on the definition of what Christ means. Does it mean only through love and peace, and connection to the interrelated universe? Or does it mean literally accepting that the physical person/God Jesus died for our sins. The latter just does not resonate intuitively with me. I have met people who I believe are peaceful, loving people that I have to believe if there is a heaven, they will enter it. Does anyone believe that the Dali Lama will not be granted access to heaven because he has not accepted Jesus as his personal savior.

On the one extreme of course is atheism which believes that we live eternally by the works we do and how they affect the world after we have left. Whether true or not, I do believe we are always apart of what we have created while we were here for good or bad. On the extreme of salvation theology are the radical Universalists who believed everyone was saved upon death. This created controversy even within Universalism, as many felt it gave people too much leeway to act indiscriminately in this world without consequences.

I did like many of the concepts that Green put forward, in particular that we find salvation within community. It is an interesting question, as our society is often besieged by messages of personal relationship with Jesus (God) and personal salvation. Yet I think of all the twelve step programs are with groups of people. People have historically always grouped together to achieve their desired end. The question is what is the desired end. I think when all people have the common end of creating a loving, just and righteous world then we will have heaven on earth. The point Green makes is that the purpose of community is to bring people to consciously change their thinking to bring this about. Can it be done differently? What if everyone in the world just meditated peacefully? Not sure of the answer to that, but I can say there is a difference meditating in a group versus meditating individually. There is a certain energy that is created by being with others in a common practice. It is unexplainable to me logically, and I can only speak to my personal experience about this but I find it to be true. Ultimately I believe life is about creation. Do our actions end in creating a more just world. The point of this whole intellectual thought process is if it ends up in action towards creation of heaven on earth. (Interesting that the saying creates the acronym HOE – a garden implement for digging, weeding, turning over the soil. We need to dig deep within ourselves, and turn ourselves over to create this. I am sure I am not the first person to come up with this, but I see future sermon out of it!!).

I thought Green’s comment that “to transform the imagination is to transform human existence.” I actually like this concept although it has elements of new age philosophy within it. I do not think we can just self actualize what ever we are thinking. I do believe though that if we think we can do something, we are more likely to be successful than if we don’t think we can do something. I also think that we often are not aware of what we are capable of, and thus we have to stretch and test our boundaries to find that answer. This to me is also the concept of jumping into the abyss. It is the unknown. Often we fear the abyss, but really what we fear is the unknown. I think this speaks to our fear of God as well. Even Green says on page 106 “Disclosure of the will of God meant standing at the threshold of fresh ways of conceiving God’s work, and stepping across it”.

Salvation theology really is something that is created because we fear the unknown of what will happen when we die. We also are trying to understand why we are suffering in this world, especially when we often see apparent injustice all around us. Salvation is human’s way to deal with this. Again what are we being saved from. Sin? Sin is redefined generation by generation, society by society. Doesn’t this speak to the relative nature of what sin is? I ask the question of myself, is there an absolute sin, just as we ask are there absolute truths. To me, sin is separating myself from the reality that I am inter- connected to the universe. I realize that everything I do has consequences to everything else in creation. When I forget this, my actions can result in harm to others. This to me is sin.

Green speaks of forgiveness as well as part of salvation. I find this meaningful as it brings me back to the liturgy of Yom Kippur. Forgiving others for their sins against us. Asking others to forgive us for our sins against them. Forgiving ourselves. I think this is an important part of salvation.

What do I believe in the end. I think we intuitively know right from wrong. I agree this can be also be taught right from wrong within community. Of course the challenge is that different communities think different things are right and wrong. When we all come to the same realization, (of course I think if everyone agrees with me J, but really I mean when we understand our place in the universe) we will know peace. This may never happen in a hundred more lifetimes, but each generation (or each lifetime) we should try to move closer to this. (I wasn’t thinking of reincarnation when I wrote that, but really upon re-reading it, it has that ring to it) When we align ourselves with the universes will for ourselves, that is when we will find peace within. We must constantly educate ourselves, and learn and evolve. We must work towards creating a peaceful loving world. We are not perfect. But we need to work towards perfection. Even if we never reach it, even if we know we will never reach it, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. I believe in a benevolent universe, so maybe that is grace. I believe in my heart, if I try to live a good life and harm no others, if there is a heaven, I will go there, whether I believe in the deity named Jesus, Buddha (not technically a deity, but you know what I mean), Yahweh, Allah or Zeus.

In the end, hopefully I will find out when I die, or maybe not.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Why the Democrats have me pissed off

First let me say that I have been a lifelong Democrat. I am also proud to say that I am a liberal Democrat. I know we use the word Progressive now, but we shouldnt shy away from the word liberal, as it means open minded and not rigid in thinking. So why am I pissed off. Well the Decomcratic candidates for President have signed a pledge not to campaign in Florida. The Democratic National Committee has stripped Florida of its delegates. All of this because we moved our primary up to January 29th against their wishes. First someone needs to tell me why Iowa and New Hampshire should have such a large say in choosing a nominee. Why should other states have a larger say then Florida. I have heard the argument that it is tradition. Yet the very word liberal eschews tradition. The only argument I could come with on my own is that our country in its founding was structured to protect the smaller states. Yet that is why the Senate is structured the way it is.

So the real question is why should I support the Democrats in November if they are not even willing to visit my state for the primary and in essence have voided our primary. Did they not realize that this would dissafect Democratic voters in this State? What were they thinking. Florida is a pivotal state for tryting to recapture the Presidency. Why would they risk losing in the National Election next November just to show that they can exert their will and power over the state primary. This is all about power and control, not about what is best for the party or the people of this country (and the people of this world) This is short term thinking in my opinion.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Movie Review - The Hurricane - 8 of 10 stars

This movie is the story of the former boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, played by Denzel Washington, his false imprisonment and eventual freedom, but it is so much more than that. An 8 on the J Scale of 1-10 on movies ratings.

Just watched “The Hurricane” for the second time…I like watching movies a second time to see details I might have missed along the way the first time…looking for meanings in the story whereas the first time I am focusing on the story….So after this movie, I went out on the porch and sat watching the rain pour down with my dog Linus by my side, and a cup of coffee in hand, just thinking about the insights of this movie….it seems so rare that I just think anymore…just do, make decisions and implement….and do….not to think, to delve into things, to wonder about the thing called life….

The movie is about freedom, at least one mans freedom, but the message is about freedom…the last scene struck me…all these men in prison and this is the life they live…it is the only environment they are aware of and they live by the rules that are set up for that environment…..and I thought about myself, although I have a multitude of choices, I live by the rules of my environment, and make choices by the rules of my environment….the difference is the people in that prison don’t have a choice about their environment and I choose to live by the rules of my environment…so often humans don’t even recognize they have a choice, or that they are even that their actions are ruled by their environment…those that do become self aware, then have to make that choice which is to decide whether to live within the constraints of their environment….and accept that, or not to.

Another point the movie makes is transcending ones own environment…or shutting oneself off from the unobtainable possibilities so that they can survive within the environment they are living in….obviously the choice this movie promotes is transcending ones own environment, and helping others transcend it….that love and hope are the two elements that allows one to truly transcend it….it shows that one can trancend by looking inward, but the problem with that is that it shuts out the rest of the world…one can transcend their environment through internal means to make their current situation tolerable, or survivable….but without opening ones heart and mind to others and the possibilities of the world being a better place, then we can never truly achieve personal freedom…we can only achieve true freedom of mind through love and hope and openness of our souls, not contracting our souls so that we save only ourselves or protect only ourselves. We can only truly save and protect ourselves by opening ourselves up to which of course leads to the risk of pain…

He talks of letting the light in…obviously I love the analogy of light and darkness, from my earliest days of reading Dylan Thomas poetry, “Rage against the dying of the light”…amazing to this day, how that poem has affected my life….but it is true, we let light into our life, it can blind us , but it is the only way we can truly see what is in front of us…in the darkness we can sense what is around us, and in reality it is a way of focusing on the senses…when we are not truly aware sometimes it takes the darkness to force us to sense what is around us, the trick is not to get stuck in the darkness…use the darkness to become aware, and use the light, and let it in to allow us to truly see the world for all its wonders…

One other line in the movie I found intriguing is one that said that he used writing as a weapon…it wasn’t meant as a negative….but more as something that allowed one to express themselves, their anger, their outrage in a constructive, thoughtful way…a way to better understand oneself and ones thoughts and ideas…I don’t look at it as a weapon of destruction but as a tool of enlightenment…it is something that got me writing this…here I was sitting in my backyard watching the rain and thinking thoughts that were deeply insightful to me at least, but if I didn’t write them down, they would be gone forever, like the leaves blowing in the wind swept away in hurricane winds as the hurricane of life throws us off balance…

Although I didnt give many specifics about the movie, but rather more how it impacted me philisophically and emotionally, that to me is the mark of great movie, one that makes you think deeply.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Endings

As much as we know it is coming
As much as we try to prepare
There is nothing
That can prepare us
For the emptiness
When it happens
Mountains climbed
Rivers crossed
Uncharted territory
Explored
And now
Only a memory
Of how we got to here
But every moment is a memory
And every moment is new
Every end is a beginning
As we try
To fill up the void of emptiness
Until we empty it again
Moment by Moment
Each day diminishes
At a quicker pace
As we are nearer to the end
Than the beginning
And that makes
Each new day
More valuable

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Definitions

How can I let others
Dictate what is mine
How can I let others
Drive me far from home
Why do I doubt
What I know to be true
How can one day
Change what is within.
If there is an eternal
And if I want to search
No one else can stop me
They can only look down from their perch
Look down and beat me down
Throw hurdles in my path
Throw hurdles to salvation
With piety as their wrath
Why could they not see
What I know is inside of me
What others see and assure me
Is the righteousness of my path…
They made me doubt myself
They made me question my way
They are like the drain in my sink
That sucks the life of water away
The water goes down and goes out
Goes about its way
Not staying where it cleansed
But into another place
A river, a lake, a sewer
To add to some other life
Maybe it makes it way back
And then again maybe not
But it flows just as life flows
Sometimes resting
Sometimes turbulent
I’d rather be the water,
Then the rock standing
In idle judgement
The rock that is pounded
As water rushes by
The rock that is hardened
By life and is set
The rock that never changes
Yet they are both
Part of the river
They are both
An integral part of life
The river has a path
Defined by its boundaries
Of land and rocks
On either side
So is the water truly alone
Is it truly free
To flow where it wants…
Once it reaches the ocean
Of all oneess, it interacts
With all the other water
But even then
It is confined by continents
So we all have some boundaries…
Until we are flooded by all that we are
Just as times the waters flood the land
But they eventually recede
To allow all to live in harmony
For the land to view
With beauty and awe
The beauty of the water
And the sun rise
And the sun set
And yes, I would rather be the water
Providing such beauty and awe
Than be the land which looks on in awe
Which is defined by which
Land by water
Or water by land
Or do they coexist
Do they define each other
Can we define ourselves
Or are we defined by others…
When we define ourselves
Is that when we overcome
The others
But at what price
For if the water overcomes the land,
it will destroy the land
If the land overcomes the water
It will dissipate the water
How does one find harmony
With their surroundings
How does one find self
Amongst other competing interests
Trying to force their own definition
There is only one answer…
We are either all separate beings
Vying for power
Or we are all the same being
Trying to work together
When we do not realize this
An imbalance occurs
And one definition reigns
I cannot define myself
Without taking account
Everything else that is around me

I cannot define myself
Without realization
That all that is
Is interconnected to me
There is a purpose
To all that has led me here
There is a purpose
To all that I do
I will be respectful
Of all around me
But mostly
I must be respectful
To myself
To what I know is true
To who I am
To the whole of creation
To the beauty of life
To the wonders of the universe
And never forget
That I am a part of it
That I am
Not because I think
Just because I am
And I will rise
And I will fall
And I will love
And I will hate
And I will grow
And I will evolve
And I will evoke my will
To be who I am
For I am who I am
that was enough for God
It should be enough for me
And if it is not enough for others
Then at least
I will be who I was
I will be who I am
I will be who I want to be
Not who others want me to be

We are all Slaves - Some comments on Philemon

Although The Letter of Paul to Philemon is the shortest of the Pauline letters it has generated a significant amount of research due to the question as to how the letter depicts the Christian ethic in regard to slavery. The letter raises many questions. Who is the letter addressed to? Is Paul accepting the institution of slavery, or is he trying, in his own way, to surreptitiously destroy slavery? Who is Onesimus and how did he meet Paul? Was this letter merely an appeal from the author to its recipient or did the letter have any deeper purpose? Because of its brevity, there are not many details to answer these questions and we are required to look for insights where they may be none. The mere lack of evidence of course has never stopped anyone from drawing conclusions, including myself.

One question that is heavily debated in research relates to whom the letter is addressed to. Upon first and subsequent readings, it seemed natural to me that it was addressed to Philemon and was meant to be read aloud to the church in his house. There is much scholarly debate as to whether the letter is truly addressed to Archipus, and just delivered to Philemon to whom Paul knew. I think J Estill Jones makes a good point that the church meets in Archipus’ house due to the fact that the phrase “follows his name immediately and the pronoun would not jump over two names to take its reference back to Philemon”[1]. There is debate as to whether Apphia is Philemon’s wife and whether Archipus is Philemon’s and Apphia’s child. I really do not think this point is relevant. Whether Onesimus is Philemon’s slave or Archipus’ slave doesn’t change the content or meaning of the letter. For the remainder of this paper I will make the assumption the letter was written to Philemon. By including the names of all three individuals and “the church in your house” the letter was meant to be read to all in the church and thus it was meant to be a public letter. I think this last fact is quite important in relation to the purpose of the letter. If this letter is merely an appeal to the owner of Onesimus, its public nature was meant to insure compliance. If the letter had a deeper purpose, its public nature was meant as a teaching for the community.

I think a critical difference in Philemon versus other Pauline letters is the prologue in which Paul refers to himself as “a prisoner of Christ Jesus”. The use of this phrase could merely indicate that Paul was in prison. However, none of the other Pauline letters, even the other prison epistles use this phrase in the prologue. I do not think it is a coincidence that Paul uses this phrase in a letter that is dealing with slavery. If Paul’s goal was merely to obtain Onesimus’ freedom, why would he not utilize his apostolic authority to do so? The fact that he uses this phrase in the prologue as opposed to the phrase apostle or servant is because he wants to bring focus to the issue of slavery. Kirk Lyons believes “Paul’s intention was to promote an ideology affirming that within the church of Jesus Christ the primary relationship would be a pseudo-familial relationship among peers”.[2] I think this concept is somewhat diminished by the fact that Paul makes it clear he could use his apostolic authority but chooses not to. Is coercion through the threat of authority, any different than the actual use of authority? Or perhaps as it found in many other letters, Paul’s apostolic authority is in question, and thus he uses other tactics to achieve his goal, which is Onesimus’ freedom from slavery to serve Paul and thus serve Christ.

Who is Onesimus? Much of traditional exegesis treats Onesimus as a runaway slave from Philemon. Paul Rees among many others suggests that “Onesimus was arrested and the two met in prison.”[3] I find this highly unlikely. It is clear from the letter that Onesimus has been of service to Paul in prison. I find it hard to believe, that of all the prisoners in all the prisons of Rome, it would be likely that a runaway slave of a friend and church leader would just happen by coincidence to be put in the same cell as Paul. There are some who argue that Onesimus sought out Paul as a unbiased third party arbitrator to appeal to the slave owner. I again find this hard to believe. I cannot imagine a runaway slave voluntarily seeking out someone in prison (even if it was only house arrest) for fear of being arrested themselves. Although it is not specified anywhere many scholars point to this letter being written during Paul’s imprisonment in Rome. Due to the similar greetings in this letter and the letter to the Colossians it is assumed that addressees of Philemon were from Colossae or that general area. Due to the distance between Colossae and Rome I would find it hard to believe that Onesimus would travel all that way merely to engage Paul as a mediator.

Nordling makes a long, well documented but rambling defense of the runaway slave theory. He documents very well the history of and impact of runaway slaves in the Roman Empire. Yet I find he doesn’t overcome the basic challenge that the letter doesn’t indicate in any form that Onesimus is a runaway. In trying to describe why Paul did not mention Onesimus was a runaway, he states “Paul’s purpose here is primarily conciliatory: to persuade Onesimus’ angry owner to welcome back his previously disobedient slave.”[4] First there is nothing to indicate that Philemon is angry, and secondly, I think it is clear that Paul wanted Philemon to free Onesimus so Onesimus could be of service to Paul and Christianity. In his final conclusion Nordling states:
The ultimate danger of the new interpretation is that it could turn a letter which manifestly breathes the great hearted tenderness of the apostle into a rather dispassionate non-theological financial transaction between Paul and Onesimus owner. Yet I doubt that such a routine scrap of business correspondence would ever have become part of the canonical NT”[5]

I think the use of the word danger is an overstatement. Merely because something is new doesn’t make it dangerous in and of itself. I do not think the mere fact that Onesimus is or is not a runaway diminishes what Paul is trying to accomplish in this letter nor diminishes Paul’s spirit filled heart. I do agree that if Onesimus was a runaway, Paul’s request would have been of greater magnitude and at a higher cost of Philemon’s reputation. However I would never call a request for the freedom of a human being under any circumstances “a routine scrap of business”. The issue as to why the letter is included as cannon is a much larger issue, but I think it boils down to the fact that the letter was confirmed as authentically Paul’s which in and of itself, was reason enough to include it.

I think it is far more likely that Onesimus was sent to Paul from the Colossae church. I think Onesimus’ time with Paul is coming to an end and Paul was hoping to continue to have his services. In verse 13 he states “I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place”. I think this is a key phrase. Perhaps Philemon was supposed to be the one to come and aid Paul, but instead Philemon sent his slave. If this is so, why would Philemon send a slave who was an unbeliever to Paul. One possibility is that he sent him to Paul with hope the slave would be instructed in Christian ways. I do not think this to have a high probability, but wanted to give Philemon the benefit of the doubt. Another alternative as to why Philemon sent a slave instead of himself is that possibly Philemon was not a strong believer in Christianity, and or perhaps was miffed that he had to send one of his slaves away for a period of time. Due to this, he sent a slave to Paul that was an unbeliever and one with whom Philemon had challenges with. Onesimus would have certainly indicated to Paul the challenges, and between such challenges and the time spent away from service from his master very well could have been the cause of the need for verse 18.

If we continue along this line of thinking, the letter then appears to be a rebuke to Philemon. It was a way of embarrassing Philemon for sending an unbelieving slave to help Paul The entire letters’ outward goal is to coerce Philemon into freeing Onesimus. I think along those lines, without question, Paul is saying Christianity should not practice slavery. Christians should be “beloved brothers” and sisters. I think Paul is against slavery, but he feels he cannot come out and outwardly denounce slavery for fear of retribution. He believes the better course of action is to change society one heart, one person at a time, with the teachings and spirit of Jesus. I think there is no question that the letter would have been read by the guards, and if he had publicly denounced slavery, there would have been a backlash as much of the Roman economic system was based on free labor from slaves. I think Sabine Bieberstein relates this to modern times quite succinctly by indicating “Our concern today must be to use such individual cases to unmask systems that show contempt for human beings, and to tell the story of the victims”[6] I think the challenge we have today, is that over saturation through the media tends to make people tune out to the suffering in the world. This letter is a reminder that injustice can be changed by independent actions by individuals.
On a different note, W.H. Griffiths Thomas in quoting Dr. J.H. Jowett states
Although personal liberty was an exceedingly precious thing – a pearl of great price - there was something more precious still – a pearl of great price – the welfare of all the Christian faith, might not only have jeopardized the interests of the struggling infant Church, but would have plunged into even great hardships all the slaves throughout the Empire. So Onesimus voluntarily went back into bondage, sacrificing his personal liberty for the common good, the good pearl for the sake of the better, and in so doing proved himself a worthy member of the Kingdom of God.[7]

I think this analysis is hyperbole and even dangerous. I think Paul did worry about the effect on Christianity if the religion became thought of by the government as fermenting slave revolt. Yet it is clear that during that time in history there were many runaway slaves and there were slave revolts. So I do not see the request to free one slave as a creating a hardship for slaves throughout the empire. Yet much of Christianity theology is based on sacrifice. I just think it is dangerous to indicate that the way to become a member of the Kingdom of God is to enslave ones self. Again if one is reading this allegorically, the concept of enslaving oneself to Christ could be an acceptable reading. Alternatively, to accept physical slavery as the sacrifice necessary to attain redemption is despicable.

There seems to be an ongoing justification in scholarly writings as to why Christianity accepted slavery. William Richardson seems to put forward and apologetic response. He indicates that “it is questionable whether people were even capable of envisioning a society where all were in theory free”[8] I find this statement incredulous. The whole basis of Christianity was the vision of a society where last would be first. Richardson goes on to reflect about Paul’s “commitment to the Christian mission”[9] and quoting Ernest F. Scott states “an attack on social and political institutions would not have accomplished anything save the exposure of his mission to danger as a revolutionary movement”[10] If one takes this point of view, one is saying the end justifies the means. Religion at that point in time in history was very interwoven into politics. Christianity in its goal to preserve itself, tried to avoid conflict with governments. Yet instigating governments is exactly what Jesus did. Christians often won converts through their martyrdom. I would argue that Christian passiveness which may have allowed the religion to survive, may have extended Roman rule and bloodshed and caused countless deaths. Perhaps they did not have the courage of their own convictions. Or maybe they truly believed death was preferable to engaging in violence.

Craig De Vos tries to argue that due to the nature of the slave culture, which was “lazy, negligent, willful, cowardly, and criminal“[11] and “had values such as obligation, duty, obedience to authority, subordination and acquiescence, dependency, and respect for tradition”,[12] that even if Paul were to be successful in obtaining Onesimus’ freedom “the legal act and structural change of manumission would not have changed this”.[13] It is true that one learns a way of life based on their circumstances and it can become entrenched. It becomes a part of who you are. But if the cycle is broken under which the circumstances of such behavior are created, then over time one’s life can be tranformed. I believe one the great things about Christianity is the notion of personal transformation and its availability to all people. I would also challenge the basic argument of his statements. In order to enslave someone we must first demonize them. So I think slaveholders attribute negative attributes to such people to justify their own actions. I also do not view the value of duty the same as submission out to fear of retribution. Additionally the fact that there were so many runaways as documented in various articles, leads me to believe that many salves did not accept it as a way of life. I think the concept of personal freedom burns deeply in the soul of every person. Slavery breads hatred. One may be subservient because they are not willing to accept the consequences of pain and death. But few people voluntarily choose slavery. I think the story of Christ and thus Christianity is that we must accept the consequences of not accepting societal norms, even if it means one’s own death, just as Jesus sacrificed himself as opposed to denouncing his beliefs.
Perry Kea in looking at whether Christianity is really counter cultural or just a sub culture of society, indicates that “he (Paul) is responding to the cultural expectation that an owner should gain from his slave’s service” and “Paul addresses the master-slave relationship of Philemon and Onesimus with respect for the dominant social role of Philemon”.[14] His conclusions seem to indicate that Christianity is not challenging the dominant culture but is just a part of the grander mosaic of society. I disagree. I think Paul views Christianity as very egalitarian, which would be counter cultural. I think this letter is about dealing with power even within the Christian community. Paul is never one to follow convention in his actions. He does follow the law when it suits him and it is to his advantage. I think to some degree Paul feared Philemon’s power or retribution if Onesimus was not returned. Or perhaps Paul was trying to help give justification to Philemon within the community as a way to make it easier within the cultural setting to release Onesimus. Andrew Wilson feels:
“Philemon’s position is particularly vulnerable, for any FTA (face threatening act) in the letter is made the more so by its public mention before Philemon’s immediate community. We might therefore expect Paul to take particular care to mitigate any FTA with politeness strategies to reduce the cost to Philemon in both face and material terms in order to avoid damaging his standing within the Christian community at Colossae.”[15]

I think Paul wanted everyone to be prisoner’s to Jesus Christ, not to each other, which is a counter cultural idea. I think Paul just believed in working within society to transform it as opposed to be revolutionary. By making this letter public he is trying to change the balance of power in the community and with Philemon without causing disruption

I would take an even more radical reading of this letter. Perhaps the letter is an allegorical tale regarding slavery. Since most of Paul’s writings are letters dealing with specific situations, it would lead one to believe that the same is the case in this situation. I believe revelation is ongoing and we should read more into this today than what its traditional or historical impetration was. .

Lightfoot points out that the name Philemon relates to the “legend of Philemon and Baucis the aged peasants who entertained not angels, but gods unawares, and were rewarded by their divine guest for their homely hospitality and their conjugal love.”[16] Perhaps this was not coincidence. Conceivably Paul wanted to send a message about what type of love Christian love is. The legend of Philemon is an example of how one should treat their fellow human beings no matter what their station in life may be. That is the same message of this letter.

Slavery was a given fact in the time this was written. Slavery was legal in this country just over 200 years ago. We often forget that even today physical slavery is still a common practice throughout the world and occurs even in this country. But on a deeper level, I think the point that could be made is that we are all slaves. We are slaves to our material possessions, we are slaves to our lifestyle, we are slaves to our families, and as Paul indicated he is a prisoner of Jesus Christ, we are slaves to religion. Paul did not use his authority to show the way to freedom, rather as verse 9 indicates, he wants freedom “on the basis of love”. We must release ourselves from the prisons of hatred and desires and treat people on the basis of love in order for there to be a kingdom of heaven on earth. I thought of this while reading Abingdon New Testament Commentaries which indicated the wordplay on the name Onesimus. It indicates that
Onesimus means useful. There may be a further pun intended too; in Hellenistic Greek, and modern Greek as well the word useful (Chrestos) would have been pronounced exactly Christos (anointed or Christ). Thus useless could also be heard as without Christ. Confusion of the two words was easy.[17]

Onesimus was a common name for slaves. Perhaps the use of this name was a double entendre to indicate that he could only be useful as a free Christian brother not as a slave.
The entire letter would take on a different meaning if the word Onesimus was replaced with Christ. It would be a call to Christianity. It would be a call to personal freedom. Ultimately this was always Paul’s goal, to evangelize the world for Christ. Ultimately that is the purpose and message of Philemon for me.




Bibliography
Bieberstein, Sabine. "Disrupting the normal reality of slavery: a feminist reading of the Letter to Philemon." Journal for the Study of the New Testament, no. 79 (S 2000): 105-116.
Brown, Raymond E. “An introduction to the New Testament”. New York: Doubleday Publishing, 1996
Carson, Herbert. The Epistles of Paul to the Colossians and Philemon. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1960.
Cotter, Anthony. "Epistles of the captivity." Catholic biblical Quarterly 4, no. 11 (October 1949): 370-380.
De Vos, Craig Steven. "Once a Slave, Always a Slave?." Journal for the Study of the New Testament, no. 82 (June 2001): 89-105.
Dunham, Robert E. "Phileomn 1:1-25." Interpretation 2, no. 52 (April 1998): 191-194.
Frinlingosw, Christoper. "For my child, Onesimus; Paul and domestic power in Philemon." Journal of Biblical Literature 1, no. 119 (Spring 2000): 91-104.
Harris, Murray J. Colossians and Philemon. Grand Rapids, MI: William B Eerdmans Publishing Co.
Jones, J Estill. "Letter to Philemon - and illustration of Koinonia." Review and Expositor, no. 46 (October 1949): 454-466.
Kea, Perry V. "Paul's Letter to Philemon : A short Analysis of its Values." Perspectives in Religious Studies 23 (Summer 1996): 223-232.
Koch, Eldon. "A Cameo of Koinonia - The Letter of Philemon." Interpretation 2, no. 17 (April 1963): 183-187.
Lightfoot, J.B. Saint Paul's Epistles To The Colossians and to Philemon. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1879.
Lyons, Kirk C. "Paul's confrontation with class: the Letter to Philemon as counter-hegemonic discourse." Cross Currents 1, no. 56 (Spring 2006): 116-132.
Nordling, John. "Onesimus fugitivus : a defense of the runaway slave hypothesis in Philemon." Journal for the Study of the New Testament, no. 41 (Fall 1991): 97-119.
Osiek, Carolyn. Abingdon New Testament Commentaries. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000.
Rees, Paul. The Epistles to eh Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1964.
Richardson, William. "Principle and content in the ethics of the Epistle to Philemon." Interpretation, no. 22 (July 1968): 301-316.
Soards, Marion. "Some neglected theological dimensions of Paul's letter to Philemon." Perspectives in Religious Studies, no. 17 (Fall 1990): 209-219.
Thomas, Griffith, W.H. Studies in Colossians and Philemon. Edited by Edited by his Daughter. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1973.
Wilson, Andrew. "The Pragmatics of Politeness and Pauline Epistolography : A case Study of the Letter to Philemon." Journal for the Study of the New Testament D, no. 48 (1992): 107-119.

[1] J Estill Jones, "Letter to Philemon: an illustration of Koinonia," Review and Expositor, no. 46 (O 1949): 457.
[2] Kirk C. Lyons, "Paul's confrontation with class: the Letter to Philemon as counter-hegemonic discourse," Cross Currents 1, no. 56 (Spring 2006): 124.
[3] Paul Rees, The Epistles to the Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1964), 127.
[4] John Nordling, "Onesimus fugitivus : a defense of the runaway slave hypothesis in Philemon," Journal for the Study of the New TEstament, no. 41 (Fall 1991): 107.
[5] "Ibid, pg. 119.
[6] Sabine Bieberstein, "Disrupting the normal reality of slavery: a feminist reading of the Letter to Philemon," Journal for the Study of the New Testament, no. 79 (S 2000): 116.
[7] W.H Griffith Thomas, Studies in Colossians and Philemon, ed. Edited by his Daughter (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1973), 163.
[8] William Richardson, "Principle and Content in the Ethics of the Epistle to Philemon," Interpretation, no. 22 (July 1968): 307.
[9] "Ibid, pg. 307.
[10] "Ibid, pg. 308.
[11] Craig Steven De Vos, "Once a Slave, Always a Slave?," Journal for the Study of the New Testament, no. 82 (June 2001): 95.
[12] "Ibid, pg. 95.
[13] "Ibid, pg. 95.
[14] Perry V. Kea, "Paul's Letter to Philemon : A short Analysis of its Values," Perspectives in Religious Studies 23 (Summer 1996): 226.
[15] Andrew Wilson, "The Pragmatics of Politeness and Pauline Epistolography : A case Study of the Letter to Philemon," Journal for the Study of the New Testament D, no. 48 (1992): 109-110.
[16] J.B Lightfoot, Saint Paul's Epistles To The Colossians and to Philemon (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1879), 304.
[17] Carolyn Osiek, Abingdon New Testament Commentaries (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), 136.

Speaking the Truth to Power - The Book of Job

Why does evil prosper in this world? Why do good people suffer and how should we react to such suffering? These questions were asked over twenty five hundred years ago, and resulted in the Book of Job in the Jewish Scriptures. Yet even today, I find this story and its answers relevant

For those of you who do not know the book of Job, or have forgotten, let me quickly recap it for you. Job is the most pious of men, who is without fault. He is loyal to God and helps the widow and orphan, and is righteous in every way.

Well, basically God makes a bet with Satan, and actually interestingly enough, in the Jewish Scriptures God make a bet with a being called the Adversary who is member of the divine beings who gather with God. Now the issue of how there could a gathering of Divine Beings if there is only one God in the Jewish Faith will have to be a discussion for future sermon. Anyway, the Christian Scriptures change the wording from Adversary to Satan. God is boasting of Job’s piousness. Satan wagers with God that if God allows him free reign to cause havoc in Job’s life, Job will repudiate God. God takes the bet. Well, this adversary character does all he can to make Job turn away from God.

All of Job’s children are killed, his sheep were killed, his camels were stolen (I am not sure why the camels are stolen, but the children and sheep are killed, I will have to dwell further on that one), his wife abandons him, and he is stricken with “Inflammations of sores” from his head to his toes. (I will let you use your imagination on that one, but I’m guessing its very unpleasant)

I do not think I could make up a story like this, yet there it is in the Bible.

So when studying this story, I have to ask, what is the purpose of putting this story in the Bible. It is believed that this story was composed after the fall of Jerusalem and the exile of the Israelites in 587 BCE. I believe this is the story of a people who were trying to reconcile how God could allow such evil to happen to them. Throughout the story there are four people who come to visit Job and there is an ongoing discussion as to why such tragedy has befallen Job. The assumption that these people make is that Job must have done something wrong to deserve these terrible things. Now we as readers have a foreknowledge that Job is completely innocent, and Job steadfastly defends his integrity to these people questioning him.


Throughout the story, Job has argued that he wants a audience, even demanding an audience with God. He even states that he knows God will not answer his questions, but yet he still wants to ask God the question. I believe like many people who cannot explain their circumstances, Job really just wants to be assured that there is a God, that there is some guiding force for justice in the world. How many of us have felt that way at some time in our life, when we through no fault of our own we find ourselves in desperate situations. Or after we hear a child has died. How often did I hear in my lifetime, in my family, the question of if there is a God, how could God have allowed the Holocaust to have occurred.


We see every day in our lives, and on television, ongoing inhumanity against humanity and against nature, and the incessant destruction of people, property and souls, and we wonder, today, where is God. That is what the character Job is asking. That is what the people of Israel were asking 2,500 years ago.

In Chapter 9 Job goes on to state “
God is not a man, like me that I might answer God,
That we can go to a trial together
No arbiter is between us
To lay their hand on us both.

I think this is a telling line. “There is no arbiter between us” I think this brings to bear the same philosophical question we still ask today – How do we gain knowledge. And more specifically, how do we gain knowledge about the mysteries of life. Do we gain knowledge from direct experience, or through ritual and dogma? Much of the arguments brought by Job’s visitors dwell on the wisdom of the elders. This is epitomized in Verse 8 the visitor Bildad states

Ask the generation past,
Study what their fathers have searched out
For we are of yesterday and know nothing;
Our days on earth are a shadow
Surely they will teach you and tell you
Speaking out of their understanding

And Job replies in verse 12
But ask the beasts, and they will teach you
The birds of the sky, they will tell you
Or speak to the earth, it will teach you
The fish of the sea, they will inform you

And of course my favorite quote, in Chapter 13 when Job tells his visitor

“If you would only keep quiet it would be considered wisdom on your part”


So what is Job saying. I believe the message is that we must experience life, and we must gain an understanding of the universe for ourselves, and we cannot learn the mysteries of life through ritual and dogma. We must come to know ourselves, and through the examination of the world around us we must learn that there are universal truths, that there are natural laws about what is what is morally and ethically right and wrong, and just because there is a human law that says otherwise, or just because someone in power tells us otherwise, if we know deep in our heart and souls something is right, we need to stand for it and have faith in our beliefs.

Unitarians have long held to this principle in our country’s history, whether it was being the leading voice for the abolition of slavery, for the women’s rights movement, for the civil rights movement, and in the present day among the many things we stand for, for economic justice, for sane environmental policies and for marriage equality. We stand up for what we know is good and moral even in the face of powerful opposition. My theology tells me we are not born with original sin, we are born innocent and good. And if we don’t stand up for this what is good, then goodness will not prevail.



Now often we have heard the phrase the patience of Job. I really think this phrase is a misnomer. This comes from the Book of James in the Christian Scriptures. In chapter 5 it states

Indeed we call blessed those who showed endurance.
You have heard of the endurance of Job.
The King James Version uses the phrase patience instead of endurance.

Well Job certainly endured a lot, but clearly he was not patient. Most of the Book, he is raging against his visitors and against God for an explanation of the injustice done to him. Well finally at the end of the book, God shows up. Yet God doesn’t respond to Job’s Questions regarding injustice. To make a long story short, God verbally tries to browbeat Job, and I paraphrase here, telling Job that Job has no right to question God because God is all powerful and created the universe as it is known. I am thinking maybe God is feeling a little defensive about this whole bet thing with Satan.

But God also states to Job in Chapter 40
Gird your loins like a man (I take that to mean sort of like suck it up)
Would you question my justice?
Then Scatter wide your raging anger
See every proud man and bring him low
See every proud man and humble him
And bring down the wicked where they stand
Then even I would acknowledge you

I see these statements in the Bible as saying that we need to stop complaining and asking for a higher authority to help us solve our problems, that we as humans need to take responsibility for the human condition.

In Chapter 42 in Job’s last statement to God Job says
I had heard you with my ears
But now I see you with my eyes
I repudiate and change my mind about dust and ashes

Now first I must admit that in my research, this last line has literally more than 50 different translations, of which many would give different meaning to the whole book. But when I look at this story from my Unitarian Universalist faith, this translation makes complete sense to me. Dust and ashes is a symbol for meaninglessness. Abraham used the same exact Hebrew phrase in the Book of Genesis in comparing humanity to God. First by emphasizing “now I see you with my eyes” Job is again reiterating direct experiential learning regarding the mysteries of the universe, and in changing his mind about dust and ashes, he is repudiating the meaninglessness of humanity. The message is Humanity is what is meaningful, Humanity is what will make a difference in the world, and that is what this story ultimately is trying to tell us.

So how can we fight injustice. In the end, the story gives us a message for that as well. In the last chapter of the book, God Chastised the Visitors for not speaking the truth about God as did Job. Job’s fortunes were restored, yet it is interesting just how they were restored. They were restored by members of the community sharing their food and money with Job. So maybe this story is a positive commentary on the benefits of socialism, or at the least progressive taxation.

I think in general the mainstream of society is only willing to challenge power when they see injustice befalling people similar to them. If there is injustice against the poor in society, the majority of society turns away. People only pay attention to injustice when they feel it is possible that it could happen to them. One of the messages of Job is that society has to realize that injustice by those in power needs to be recognized, no matter who is affected. Justice can be restored by the community joining together. The community had a choice to help Job at the beginning but abandoned him out of fear. In the end, they joined him and helped him. The book of Job shows how human suffering or the awareness of suffering and injustice can lead to social transformation.

In order to create social transformation though, we need to be transformative in our dealings with injustice. We must be able to reach out beyond our own perspective of the world and try to understand the perspectives of others. We need to understand the perspective of people who are starving while we overeat, the perspective of those jailed or killed for their political views while we have the right to free speech, and the perspective of people who live with little or no prospects to improve their conditions, while we live with ample opportunities to choose our path.

I believe the story of Job is an allegory for the evolution of justice by humanity. There has been some progress over the last 2 millennium. And I do take the long view. I think by continually reviewing such universal stories of justice we will remember deep in our souls to remember the Jobs of this world, and to be like Job. We should shout against injustice, to speak the truth to power no matter the consequences, and to not be swayed from our beliefs by fear. We are the guiding force of justice in this world and we cannot shirk from our responsibilities. In the end, the truth is all that matters and it is the truth that will transform our souls and yes, it is the truth that will set us free.
Thank you

The Akedah

I grew up listening to the story of the Akedah each year at the Rosh Hashanah services. I really paid little mind to it growing up. We were taught that this story was told to explain that God did not want us to sacrifice humans. As I entered my late teens and early twenties, I became infatuated with existentialism, which of course brought me face to face with the writings of Soren Kierkegaard. In his writings he brought up the question “Is there such a thing as a teleological suspension of the ethical?”[1]. The view of the Akedah at that point for me was a basic question as to whether humans should have complete faith in something greater than ourselves and our own experiences, to a point that we would do something unethical. By looking at Abraham’s actions in this vein, we can see that such a view has led many people to do unspeakable things in the name of religion.
More recently, however, I had a much more personal experience that made me dwell on The Akedah. When I received the call to Ministry, my youngest child was (and still is) in school. Obtaining a Masters of Divinity was a requirement for me to obtain ordination in my denomination. I had investigated and searched for Seminaries that would accept students from my denomination. After months of searching, I realized that if I were to pursue my call from the divine, I would have to either move my family away from Central Florida (including my son from his school and friends), or travel away from my family. Either course of action would cause severe pain to my son. As I struggled with this decision, my minister mentioned that she had been to a preaching conference and had heard about the Florida Center for Theological Studies, and thought I should look into it. In finding this seminary, it was as if God had left a ram in the thicket for me. In my heart I knew I would never consciously do anything to harm my son. Still it troubled me deeply that I would have this calling, and yet the only way to fulfill it would be to hurt my son. Why would God do such a thing? I didn’t look at it as a test from God, although perhaps it was. When this incident happened, I immediately thought of The Akedah. It is why I chose these verses as my final paper. I wanted to dig into this verse and try to better understand its mystery, myself, and my mission. These verses have always been challenging as they touch on such profound topics of faith, yet leave so much for interpretation. Maybe that point, in and of itself, is part of the answer. That we must search deeply between the lines of life for answers, as they are not always so obvious. After much research, I found many challenging, thought provoking concepts regarding these verses, which guided me to find my answer. It may not be everyone’s answer, but it is my answer, based on my experiences with the world and with the divine.

The first basic question that troubled me is why God would create such a test? Did God question Abraham’s commitment? What had God asked of Abraham initially? In Genesis 12 he asked very little. “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you”. He basically asked Abraham to follow his advice and he would give him great blessings and later on promised him land. In Chapter 15 there are more specific promises. There were no other stipulations. In Chapter 17 there is another covenant between God and Abraham. Is this possibly another version of the same story retold in a different way? There is no reference at all to the previous covenants. In Chapter 17, in exchange for God’s blessings, Abraham and his descendents had to “Walk in My ways and be blameless” and partake in the act of circumcision. And then in Chapter 22, he asks for the sacrifice of Abraham’s son. As the bible goes on, there are more and more requirements added. It is almost as if God is continually requesting more and more, once the previous task is completed. Israel Charney in “And Abraham Went To Slay Isaac” states:

“We see in the story of the Sacrifice a stunningly clear statement of where man is in his development as a species, and just where the challenge lies if man is to hope to develop his evolutionary potential for nonviolence.[2]

Although Charney was not speaking specifically to this issue of additional requests, I think his point relates well here. God continues to push us to reach our maximum potential. Almost like a video game, once we reach a certain level, we are ready for higher, more difficult levels. We will evolve as beings by constantly being challenged to reach another level of humankind. This concept is one of the messages of The Akedah. We must constantly challenge and push ourselves to reach our maximum potential as human beings.

The second question that always has troubled me about religion and this story in particular, is why does God require a living sacrifice (animal or human) from humans? In fact, I do not believe God requires sacrifices from us. God is not vain. If God is all knowing, God would know what we think and feel about God. I see two possible conclusions. One is that God is not all knowing and requires sacrifice to better know who loves God. There is no way to determine this conclusion, and it would require a separate theological dissertation to explore this concept. The second conclusion is that God does not require the sacrifice, but rather humans have a desire to sacrifice to God. This sacrifice might be out of thanks for all the blessings that God has given us, or it might be out of a lack of faith that God is really present in our lives, and we have to take some action to satisfy or justify that. Ronald Green in “Abraham, Isaac, and the Jewish Tradition: An Ethical Reappraisal” tries to answer the reason why God would create such a test even if God knew the outcome quotes a midrash:
“It was my wish that the world should become acquainted with thee, and should know that it is not without good reason that I have chosen thee from all the nations”.[3]

I think this view is a rationalization. First, this test of sacrifice was specifically a private ceremony and a private covenant between Abraham and God. Second, I am not quite sure what the test proves to others and why it would impress them. Thinking about it, why does God need to prove anything to anyone for what God does? I found this answer unsatisfying.

Howard Moltz in “God And Abraham In The Binding Of Isaac” makes the case that “God had come to doubt Abraham”[4] and “uncertain of Abraham’s devotion, had devised a brutal test.”[5] By questioning God regarding Sodom and Gomorrah, and by questioning God regarding Sarah’s and his having children, Abraham had not shown faith in God. Through such a test, he showed obedience to God. I find this of little consolation. Abraham had left his family and all he had known to follow God. Again, does God know what we think and feel? If so, why would God doubt Abraham? If not, we know God had been in conversation with Abraham, why would God not just discuss his concerns with him as opposed to creating such a test.

I think Walter Breuggmann captured it best for me when he said
“The command of God is that Isaac must be killed. It follows that there will be no descendents, no future. We are back to barrenness. The entire pilgrimage from 11:30 has been for naught. Abraham has trusted the promise fully. Now the promise is to be abrogated. Can the same God who promises life also command death?”[6]

Clearly Abraham knew that if he followed the order, God’s promise would be broken. He had given up his past by leaving his family. Now he faced giving up the future of his descendents. The message this sends to me is very clear. Our individual relationship with God is unique. We each must progress and develop it on our own. Our parents and our descendents have to come to their own peace with God. We are alone in our relationship with the divine. To me this is powerful. Each of us must find our way to the divine. It cannot be handed to us by a piece of paper, or by some community ritual, but rather we must experience it for ourselves.
I was shocked by the extent of the writings that indicated Isaac actually was killed by Abraham (or at least severely injured), and then resurrected by God. There are some stories that he was severely injured by Abraham before the Angel could stop the knife. There is even significant commentary as to whether Isaac willingly participated in the event. There is some circumstantial evidence to these theories. It states that “Abraham returned to his servants” with no mention that Isaac was with him. Abraham never speaks to God again. After this story, Isaac’s role in the Bible is limited. He does not even search for his own wife; his servant is sent to find her. This is a change from the standard storyline throughout the Bible of searching for a wife. Abraham and Isaac never talk to each other. The most difficult of these issues to explain is that the story doesn’t mention that Isaac came down the mountain with Abraham. Some try to argue that Abraham sent him away to study torah, or to rush home to his mother, but there is no logical basis for those arguments. My only thought is that if he was not killed, Isaac ran away. His father just tried to murder him for no apparent reason. I don’t think I would hang around too long with someone who tried to do that to me. This could also explain why they never talked again. Perhaps Isaac never forgave Abraham. There are many stories in history, and in the present, of fathers and sons not getting along. What this says to me is that it is ok to go our separate ways if we cannot tolerate the situation in life we are faced with. In addition, I believe this reiterates the theme of new beginnings. This is a consistent theme throughout Genesis, with Creation, Adam and Eve, and Noah. Abraham started anew when he left his family. Maybe he just didn’t get along with his family. Now Isaac is starting anew without Abraham.
One commentary stated that Abraham abandoned Isaac on the mountain, “as an expression of estrangement”[7], or I would think, possibly out of a sense of guilt. Maybe Abraham had lost his faith or no longer cared about the future promise after being put through such an ordeal. Why follow a God who makes you suffer? This was a similar question asked by many Jewish people after World War II.
The issue of estrangement could also explain why Abraham never speaks to God again. Although on a positive note, maybe he had realized that he had become one with God; that he didn’t need to speak to God. He now knew and understood God. He now knew Good and Evil. Or, it could be as simple as that the J author took over. Under the E author, there is a pattern of God communicating directly with humans. Under the J author YHWH does not (except the prophets). Most of my research indicates that in the beginning of the verse the E author is present. However, in the two episodes where the angel is talking to Abraham, the J author is present. If the J author finished the story, or if this is a combination of two stories as is suggested often, then the literary style of the author could explain why Abraham never talked to God again. I will touch on the different authors again when I reach my conclusion.

Isaac’s lack of involvement later in the Bible could indicate a multitude of issues. It could indicate that he was injured and thus he did not have all his faculties. It could indicate that he died, and he was added back in order to continue the storyline. It could be that his role in this story and as a conduit to Jacob and Esau were all that was significant about Isaac in his lifetime.

The question I ask myself is, what generated such a barrage of commentary on the death of Isaac? In Shalom Spiegel’s “ The Last Trial” , there is extensive commentary on this. His research points to the possibility that this stems from two stories, one a pagan story of actual child sacrifice edited to give an ending to prohibit such actions. This idea is a rational possibility. His research points to stories of the resurrection of the dead as it relates to Satan. “He is Satan, he is the angel of death, and the victor over Satan is the victor over death”[8]. There is also some discussion of the corollary to the story of Job. Yet there is no history in Judaism of Satan as an evil character. Even in Job, Satan is a servant of God, not the angel of death. I think perhaps these are Judaism’s responses to some Christian concepts of Good and Evil.

More likely than not, these commentaries were composed as a response to Christianity. They wanted to show a sacrifice and resurrection as competition to Jesus. They wanted to show that God had already done this to someone who pursued Judaism, so there was no need to create a new religion out of such an act.
I also think to some degree this was a response to the oppression Jewish people felt during the Roman occupation and later during the crusades where Jewish people sacrificed themselves rather than convert from Judaism. It gave people a reason to sacrifice themselves for a higher ideal. I think this is a dangerous concept to promote. I have always struggled with this issue. Since we live in an “open” society in the United States, we can only imagine conditions that would lead one to do such a thing. Even today, after 9-11, most people cannot and do not understand the motivation for a suicide bomber. Yet here it is in these Bible commentaries. It is expressing this justification that this was an order from God to sacrifice oneself, and an innocent, rather than allow the corruption of your religion. Of course I believe that as long as people are not harming others, they should be allowed to practice whatever religious beliefs bring them closer to the divine. However, just because in a particular society, people are not publicly allowed to demonstrate their beliefs, it does not mean they can no longer have such beliefs. In my view, religious beliefs in no way justify the suicide or murder of any being. However, I think it is clear that such thinking has long been used in Jewish History, Christian History, and unfortunately, is being replayed again today in the religion of Islam.

It is amazing that such a short verse in the Bible is so rich with different and varying interpretations. Although there were many subsequent interpretations, as discussed above, what was the original purpose of the verse? Usually when there are various conflicting ideas regarding the origin of something, I like to utilize the theory of Occam’s Razor, which to paraphrase is “when there are multiple explanations available for a phenomenon, the simplest is preferred”. The simplest explanation for the origin of this passage is what I was taught as a youth. The story was used as a way to convince people not to sacrifice their children. There are many stories of child sacrifices (particularly of first born children) throughout pagan cultures. Gunkel speaks of
The Phoenician cult legend according to which El himself instituted this cult by offering his “only born son” as a burnt offering to his father Uraos in a time of distress on an altar erected for the purpose. The son is called “darling” or “only son”[9]

There have been archaeological digs from pagan cultures that have found remains of a large number of children, suggesting that there had been many sacrifices of children.

Spiegel, in “The Last Trial” also comments on the topic of doing away with human sacrifice. The biblical account, then, came to enforce and validate a new way of worship; and, too, it came to abolish and discredit the statutes of the ancient world. The Akedah story repels once for all the primitive notion of the sanctity of the human first born and its derivative demand for the literal sacrifice of children. The Akedah story declared war on the remnant of idolatry in Israel and under-took to remove root and branch the whole long, terror-laden inheritance from idolatrous generations. [10]

In my view, the wise men included this story as a means to convince people that God did not want child sacrifices, which most moral and ethical people find abhorrent. If one focuses not on the test of Abraham, but on the end result it shows God as merciful and humane.

One of the most interesting and thought provoking thoughts that came up in my studies was the effect that redaction of multiple authors had on the verse. Omri Boehm makes a very strong argument that the J author added in the two angelic speeches in verses 11 and 15. If that is true, it changes the whole nature and meaning of the story. This actually makes sense. The story would then flow as if Abraham himself made the choice not to kill Isaac, and sacrificed the ram instead, based on his on free will. Based on Abraham’s personality this view seems logical. Abraham often was a very practical man, and didn’t always agree with God. He hid the fact that Sarah was his wife to protect himself. He argued with God to try to save people at Sodom and Gomorrah. I think the story of having a child with Hagar is quite revealing as well. At the point in the bible of the first Hagar story (verse 16), it had not been indicated that the blessings for descendents would be through Sarah. This was only indicated in verse 17.16. Abraham was being practical. If he could not have a descendent through his wife, he would have one through someone else. I don’t think that concept should be acceptable today (although I am sure it happens often), but the practice seemed fairly common for that period. As a side note, it would be interesting if the naming of Sarah’s son as the receiver of the blessing was an added redaction in later times. If so, that could mean that Ishmael’s descendents were the heirs for the blessing. Wouldn’t that throw (Jewish) religious thought upside down. But I digress. Clearly it is within Abraham’s personality to be practical and to question God’s command. Secondly, if the original test is from God, why would not God communicate with Abraham? Why would God suddenly send an Angel to act and communicate to Abraham? This does not seem logical to me.

The message here is that we as humans have to make hard choices. We have free will. Just because we receive an order to do something from an authority, does not mean we have to follow it blindly. We have the knowledge of good and evil. We have the ability to choose one over the other, and we have to make those choices wisely with an open mind and an open heart. Abraham, as we are today, was faced with a difficult choice. He looked within himself, based on all the knowledge and all the instinct he had, and made what he felt was the correct moral and ethical choice. Was that the test God had given him? The theological issues this raises are many. Did God give a blatant unethical order? Was it a test to see if Abraham would use his ethical compass even if it differed from God’s command? Next time the order might come from someone else, and we have to be to be strong willed enough to stand up against unethical orders. If one can stand up to God, certainly one can stand up to a human being and defy an unethical order. Maybe God put the ram there to give Abraham a clear choice. I think Boehm summarizes this well:
In disobeying God’s manifestly illegal order, it is Abraham, the monotheistic believer, a knight of faith, who is responsible for the determination of Good and Evil, not God. He thus presents us, not with the “suspension of the ethical”, but with a preference for it.[11]

This concept is where I found my answer. We must continually strive to achieve an ethical and moral life. This is not an easy thing to do. Maybe God tests us to make us stronger, to make us realize our possibilities to make this a better world. Personally, staying with my son, and giving him the best opportunity to succeed in the world, was in the correct ethical and moral choice to make. Finding this school has been like a ram in the thicket. Although doing this part time in addition to a busy full time schedule of work, church and family is a struggle, it has taught me many things. It allows me to achieve my ethical choice, it has taught me patience, it has taught me to balance my life, and it has shown me that God offers up many alternatives. Life is not always either this or that. We have to keep our mind and heart open towards other alternatives, which is the ultimate meaning of The Akedah.






WORKS CITED

Boadt, Lawrence. Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1984.
Boehm, Omri. "The Binding of Isaac: An Inner-Biblical Polemic On The Question of "Disobeying" a Manifestly Illegal Order." Vetus testamentum, no. 52.01 (2001): 1-12.
Breuggmann, Walter. A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: Genesis. Edited by James L. Mays. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982.
Charney, Israel W. "And Abraham Went To Slay Isaac: A Parable Of Killer, Victim, and Bystander In The Family Of Man." Journal of Ecumenical Studies, 10.02., (2001): 304-318.
Green, Ronald M. "Abraham, Isaac, and The Jewish Tradition: An Ethical Reappraisal." Journal of Religious Ethics, no. 10.01 (2001): 1-21.
Gunkel, Hermann. Genesis. Translated by Mark E. Biddle. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1997.
Kierkegaard, Soren. Fear and Trembling. Translated by Walter Lowrie. Garden City: Doubleday and Company, 1954.
Moltz, Howard. "God and Abraham in the Binding of Isaac." Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, no. 96.01 (2001): 59-69.
Rad, Gerhard Von. Genesis A Commentary. Translated by John H. Marks. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1956.
Spiegel, Shalom. The Last Trial. Translated by Judah Goldin. Woodstock, Vermont: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1993.

[1] Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, trans. Walter Lowrie (Garden City: Doubleday and Company, 1954), 64.
[2] Israel W. Charney, "And Abraham went to slay Isaac: A Parable of Killer, Victim, and Bystander in the Family," Journal of Ecumenical Studies, 10.02., (2001): 308.
[3] Ronald M. Green, "Abraham, Isaac, and The jewish Tradition: An Ethical Reappraisal," Journal of Religious Ethics, no. 10.01 (2001): 5.
[4] Howard Moltz, "God and Abraham In The Binding Of Isaac," Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, no. 96:01 (2001): 67.
[5] "Ibid, 68
[6] Walter Breuggmann, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: Genesis, ed. James L. Mays (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), 188.
[7] Howard Moltz, "God and Abraham in the Bindng of Isaac," Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, no. 96.01 (2001): 64.
[8] Shalom Spiegel, The Last Trial, trans. Judah Goldin (Woodstock, Vermont: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1993), 109.
[9] Hermann Gunkel, Genesis, trans. Mark E. Biddle (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1997), 239.
[10] Shalom Spiegel, The Last Trial, trans. Judah Goldin (Woodstock, Vermont: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1993), 73.
[11] Omri Boehm, "The Binding of Isaac: An Inner-Biblical Polemic On The Question of "Disobeying" a Manifestly Illegal Order," Vetus testamentum, no. 52.01 (2001): 12.