December 29, 2008

A Grain of Mustard Seed

If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.

How are we to interpret Christ’s reference to the power behind a grain of faith? One way is to accept it literally and say miracles can be achieved by exercising the tiniest degree of belief. Even though I’ve witnessed inexplicable occurrences that can only be described as miraculous, I have a problem with that explanation. At the time Christ made the claim, He was still speaking in parables, forcing listeners to ponder the hidden meanings in His teachings. The obvious interpretation, therefore, isn’t necessarily the most correct. Furthermore, it would imply that faith is difficult to acquire (otherwise, we would see the equivalent of metaphorical mountains moving before our eyes as the faithful demand such changes to occur). Yet this isn’t consistent with what seems like a deprecating tone: Christ seems to say all we need is the smallest bit of conviction.

Another possible explanation is that Christ was pointing to the necessity of faith as a prerequisite to any achievement. There are mountains—many in Appalachia, for example—that have literally been stripped away in order to extract the coal and other minerals contained therein. What does it take to remove so many tons of rock and soil? Naturally, one requirement is that the right people share a belief that a commercial quantity of coal is hidden beneath the mountain’s surface. Without such conviction, there would be no action.

In this case, the definition of faith isn’t strictly contained to a religious or spiritual realm. Furthermore, it implies that we all have faith, whether in God, science, or some other ideology. In fact, all our actions—no matter how innocuous—are based upon some logical rationale that eventually leads to a leap of faith. After all, wouldn’t we live our lives differently if we didn’t believe the sun would rise tomorrow morning?

The final interpretation of the scripture is that the term, “grain of mustard seed” doesn’t disparage an embryonic particle of faith, at all. Rather, it describes a powerful ideal, one that compares our beliefs against the massive unknown that surrounds us and encourages us to seek true learning. In other words, Christ may have been saying that, although faith serves as an important guide, it shouldn’t be anything more than a heuristic “rule of thumb.” It shouldn’t, for example, be our standard of truth. Faith, in fact, can evolve (or grow like a plant) as truth becomes known.

I like this last interpretation, because it gives Christ’s followers the benefit of faith as a directional roadmap, but acknowledges the unavoidability of doubt and the need to continually examine personal convictions. It acknowledges that faith—as well as similar concepts such as idea, hypothesis and objective—have more to do with uncertainty than knowing anything is true. Perhaps Jesus was saying that the particle of faith that is the source of our passion lies in a treasure-filled sea of uncertainty from which there is much to discover. The ability to admit, “I don’t know,” is more powerful than the collected wisdom of generations.

December 28, 2008

Life's Two Greatest Provocations

Life is too short and so I’ve decided time is my second greatest provocation. Like my first great provocation—desire in its forms of passion and appetite—time is essential, if only to enforce discipline and demand choices. Without it, we could postpone our difficult decisions indefinitely. And if it weren’t for time’s constraints, there would be no sequences (and therefore no consequences to suffer). For we could see the results of our actions while we still had the opportunity to do something about them. In that way, the steady flow of seconds into millennia can be a grim encumbrance.

Sometimes I dream of a world in which time refuses to flow sequentially. In fact, it sometimes does not flow at all. The inhabitants of this timeless world, choose their universal coordinates. They vector to and from age and place, unbound by calculations based strictly on rational numbers. For they can, if they choose, exist in quadrants marked only by imaginary or irrational ciphers. In this non-Euclidean world of higher-order infinities, there are no moral dilemmas. The inhabitants simply vector away to an age and place where they can eliminate the circumstances creating each, and all, of their dilemmas. They got to where they are by harnessing the first great provocation and, by so doing, proved themselves worthy to rule the next. They have created a heaven and we call them exalted.

No one wants a lazy, undisciplined angel. That would be a dangerous thing. But if I had it in me—if I could step out of sequence and vector away the compromises that constrain me—I would want to revisit our wonderful, albeit too-short, place in time again.

December 15, 2008

The Problem with Apologetic Thinking

The ancient Greeks astound me. They understood nearly everything it took a Dark Age to forget and a Renaissance to relearn. Using a few numerical relationships that they’d uncovered, Greek mathematicians accurately estimated the distance to the sun and the circumference of the earth. They were so advanced that after their learning reached its zenith, a thousand years passed before European thinkers contributed anything more of significance to the world’s ability to reason and its knowledge of science.

The Greeks were especially clever at geometry, which they developed using a system of proofs and a handful of axioms that were deemed self-evident. Among the axioms were these:
  • An object is equal to itself, and

  • Parallel lines never cross

Upon such simple assumptions, they created a powerful analytical tool that for a millennium stood as an accurate description of the natural world and a manifestation of an elegant natural symmetry. Some people saw in it a reflection of the mind of God, but that wasn’t destined to last forever. When one of the axioms—the one about parallel lines never crossing—was found to be untrue once curved space was allowed into the picture, the mathematical world was turned upside down. (You’d think they might have noticed earlier how longitudinal lines were parallel at the equator, but intersected at the poles). Nevertheless, logicians everywhere were perplexed. What did the discovery mean to the body of work they’d always thought to be without fault? Did it mean the entire bridgework of proof and reasoning was corrupted?

In the end, the discovery was one of the best things to happen to mathematics. It led to the creation of new geometries that were based upon other sets of axioms. Had it not been for such developments, Einstein wouldn’t have developed his General Theory of Relativity, which depended on a method to model curved space. Furthermore, Greek (or Euclidean) geometry wasn’t abandoned, either. It was eventually understood to have limited application when dealing with a flat plane.

Here is where I make a point about truth and the problem of apologetic thinking. Like the Greeks, Christian apologists have built frameworks of philosophical thought, too, but their axioms sound something like this: The Bible is God’s word and it’s without deficiency. The problem with this is that once an axiom is accepted as generally true, all worldly experiences are forced to conform to it, when in fact it may have only limited (or no) application. Furthermore, any learning that can’t be made to fit—no matter how tortured a conformity—is rejected without consideration. Just ask Galileo how problematic that can be.

There are other dangers associated with apologetic thinking. In the end, what did St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas accomplish? Did they teach truths of eternal value? Not really. What they sought to achieve was to “prove” the validity of Christian concepts—to leap logically from the axioms in the Bible in order to extrapolate to God’s true laws. As someone who cherishes the works of CS Lewis, I can appreciate the effort. However, in the final analysis, I’m sure Christ would rather we were doers, than provers, of the gospel.

December 13, 2008

The Rich Man and the Kingdom of God

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.
That’s not my opinion, but a statement made by our Savior. How are we to interpret the words? One possible way is to say Jesus wasn’t referring to the kind of needle used for sewing, at all, but rather the low and narrow entryways through the outer walls of many ancient Palestinian communities. To enter such a city, a camel was unloaded of its burden and forced to crawl on its knees through the opening—a difficult, but not impossible, task.

For several reasons, I think the interpretation smacks of wishful thinking. First, it’s inconsistent with the reaction of the disciples, who were “exceedingly amazed” by the claim. If it’s true that Christ was speaking of the process required to lead a camel into a city—an event that must have occurred whenever a trade caravan appeared—why were His followers amazed?

Second, the interpretation isn’t consistent with other teachings of Jesus. For example, when a follower asked what he must do to inherit eternal life, Christ told him to: “Sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor.” A host of other scriptures, too, point to our obligation to use personal resources to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and heal the sick.

Finally, enlightened communities have lived Christ’s gospel by sharing all things in common. The history of 1st and 2nd century Christianity, for example, is replete with accounts of true heroism. When plagues caused cities to be abandoned, only Christians remained to tend the sick. Among these charitable saints, the discarded of society found homes and an extraordinary people who were willing to share all they had.

If it’s true then that a rich man can’t enter the kingdom of God, what must we (who live in a country of excess) do? I believe we should, at the very least, wrestle with a tough—perhaps the toughest of all—questions. Here it is: If we have money in the bank while people are hungry, can we truthfully say we love our neighbors? In this way, the gospel is more than an abstract philosophy, but a pragmatic economic ideal, as well.

Take the two greatest commandments. Christ said that all the law and prophets—the entire Mosaic framework—hangs upon them. They are:
  1. Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind
  2. Love thy neighbor as thyself
I find the second commandment interesting in that Christ appears to offer a third great law (love thyself) that is, at the very least, tacitly approving of self-interest. Otherwise, Jesus would have said, “Love thy neighbor,” and left the remainder unspoken. Perhaps He was pointing to the necessity of self-interest, without which life is unsustainable. (Can any creature, without a desire to perpetuate its kind or protect itself, survive?) Yet, self-interest does more than insure survival. It is, at its core, Adam Smith’s invisible hand that directs the allocation of scarce resources to their most efficient and productive uses.

John Steinbeck, in his novel Cannery Row, points to the underlying friction that a self-interested follower of Christ might sense.
The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.
Is there a generalized answer to that toughest of all questions? Are we required, as Christ demanded of a follower, that we sell everything we own and donate the money to the poor? Or should we join a commune and share our resources in common? For some people, that might be the correct course of action, however, here’s an idea to consider.

Giving people ownership is a way by which varied individual interests can be put on the same equal footing. I’m appalled, for example, that Bank of America, which stated over a decade ago that it would put a greater share of its stock in the hands of employees, has not done so. In fact, less than a tenth of a percent of the company is owned by insiders, but that isn't unusual.

On the other hand, huge advantages are derived when wealth creating enterprises and resources are owned by insiders. Creating incentives by which people are provided ownership opportunties is, in my mind, an important step toward a true democracy. I’ll have more to say about this in future blogs.

December 7, 2008

A Friend's Lesson Regarding the Source of Freedom

I used to think freedom came from the Department of Motor Vehicles, a miraculous source of privilege we called a drivers license. It wasn’t until after I received mine that Dad explained the rules for using the 1967 Dodge Dart parked in our driveway. When he said I’d have to contribute to the car’s upkeep, I realized that a license hadn’t made me free at all. Freedom, I decided that day, was something else entirely: It was a full tank of gas! In this way my definition of freedom has adapted to new experiences and the accompanying lessons they've taught me.

Growing up in South Central Alaska, I had an Aleut friend named Robert Ivanoff. He had coarse black hair that fell across his laughing eyes and earth-colored face. Regardless of the weather he always wore the same clothes – faded blue jeans, tennis shoes, a tee-shirt with some innocuous (occasionally obscene) message and a cotton warm-up jacket. Once while hunting ptarmigan after an early morning snow I asked him if he was cold and he said with a mischievous grin, “You gotta be tough to live this far north.”

I never doubted Robert’s toughness. I figured it was bred into him. His ancestors chose to live in an unforgiving land governed by an inhospitable climate and he’d inherited their hardy genes. Because of his native status, he could hunt wild game with few limits or seasonal restrictions, which meant he often came to school late, looking as if he'd slept in the woods all night. Sometimes Robert didn't show up at all. To my mind he lived a Peter Pan existence in a Neverland full of adventure and I envied him.

However, in our junior year of high school Robert taught me a surprising lesson about freedom. The setting was health class where our teacher, Mr. Tinney, had asked us to present oral reports on alcohol. When it was Robert’s turn, he stood before the class like a battle-fatigued animal surrounded by wolves. Fidgeting, he began to speak.

“My Dad,” Robert said, “he drinks. Sometimes he drinks too much. He goes to a bar. He promises–only one drink, but he forgets. He doesn't stop. He acts like a crazy man and people laugh. Soon his money is gone. Then he and mom fight. They fight all the time. No good comes from drinking.”

Robert continued to stand there for what seemed like a millennium. His eyes moved cautiously from classmate to floor to teacher to floor again. His mouth twitched silently. I think he wanted to say more. He seemed desperate to say something, if only to add fluff to substance. Instead, he shrugged and walked slowly back to his seat.

There were none of the smart-aleck comments that usually followed presentations, only sidewise glances and questioning looks. Mr. Tinney could muster neither critique nor question. I suppose we all began to see Robert differently then.

In a moment the bell rang and we all left through the hushed voices and frozen space towards the door. In a way, I felt as though Robert had violated something sacrosanct. Speaking of such private family matters seemed a little like hanging dirty underwear up for flag day. Despite the embarrassment, something good came out of the experience. I understood more clearly the sorrow drinking caused. To me no amount of Sunday preaching could have illustrated the dangers of alcohol as effectively.

Later a thought exploded into my mind. Robert had made one notion clear: alcohol can enslave. But I wondered if he was trying to express the idea’s logical corollary. He might have said when we are untrue to any of our commitments–when we walk the path of least resistance, take rather than earn, avoid rather than contend–we become subject to a kind of bondage those acts create. Worse, we expose others (most often those dearest to us) to the side effects of our bondage. Caught up in the inertia of seeking easy ways out of life’s entanglements, we cheat ourselves out of lessons we could otherwise learn.

Robert could come and go with impunity, but that didn’t erase the parental discord in his family, the insinuating glances and the indigence in his life. Freedom, I’ve come to decide, isn’t a lifestyle devoid of complications. Neither is it living without restrictions. Governments can no more insure our freedom than guarantee we won’t be haunted by nightmares. Choosing not to drink is the only way to guarantee liberation from alcohol’s influence. Electing not to steal weans us from dependence. Ironically, it’s only through personal restraint based upon moral and ethical standards that we can truly be free.

Three decades have passed since I last talked to Robert, but I think of him often. I wonder where he is and what he’s doing. Being thousands of miles away, I do the only thing I can for him: I hope he’s happy. Then I offer up silent thanks for the remarkable lesson he taught me.

December 6, 2008

Christ's Most Strident Rebuke

As Christ’s time on earth was drawing to a close, His ministry took on a new urgency. His miracles became more dramatic and improbable. Lazarus, for example, had been dead three days when Jesus—near the end of His earthly sojourn—brought the man to life. The Savior’s criticisms, too, grew increasingly strident, as if He’d passed a critical juncture after which indirect parables no longer served His purpose. At a time when it seemed most critical that He be heard and His words be recorded plainly, to whom did He direct His most scathing rebukes? Were they murderers? Adulterers? Thieves?

No—though I’m sure there were plenty of such unrepentant sinners in His day—Christ’s most pointed criticisms were focused on, of all people, hypocrites. In fact, Jesus uses the term, “Scribes and Pharisees, Hypocrites,” no less than seven times in Matthew 23 alone and makes similar comments near the final chapters of the other synoptic gospels. Does this seem odd? With serious sin abounding, why would Jesus spend His last remaining days on earth pointing to a character flaw? Again, we see Him demanding a higher standard, one that condemns even acts consistent with the letter of the Mosaic Law.

The Scribes and Pharisees of whom Jesus spoke were people with social standing and political influence, yet He called them: “blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.” By this metaphor, He pointed to their habit of ignoring the Mosaic Law’s intent while twisting its interpretation for personal gain. The passage harkens to Christ’s remark about Corban, which is recorded in Mark 7. Corban, of course, referred to the practice of pledging personal assets to a religious organization—a noble gesture, one might assume. The statute, however, was used as a loophole to place assets beyond the reach of aged parents and avoid the law’s requirement to: “Honour thy mother and thy father.”

For this reason, Jesus compared the Scribes and Pharisees to Whited Sepulchers—the painted and decorous tombs that marked the graves of the rich—saying they, “appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.” The contrast to a spiritually decayed people, who put on a holy pretense, is striking.

I consider the scripture a rebuke against the actions of certain religious organizations—my own church included—that recently raised tens of millions of dollars in order to take away the rights of gay couples in California to wed. Proponents of Proposition 8 fought to restrict the meaning of marriage to a union between a man and a woman and rallied considerable resources (resources that could have been used to fulfill Christ’s admonition to feed the poor) in order to define a word in its statutory context. This, to me, smacks of people straining at gnats and swallowing camels. As a devout Christian, I have to believe with every fiber of my being, that it isn’t God’s will, but the intolerance of individuals that prevent us from understanding and living a higher, more inclusive, truth about love and marriage. I have to believe this, because to accept the alternative would be intolerable for me.

Perhaps the reason why Christ was so critical of hypocrites is that it is nearly impossible to heal a dishonest heart, particularly one that has learned to rationalize inappropriate behavior away. M. Scott Peck in The Road Less Traveled describes the difference between a neurosis and a character disorder—two broad categories that define a range of mental health conditions. While people with neuroses tend to be overly self-critical, but can be healed with proper attention, those with character disorders can never admit to being wrong and therefore rarely change. If we, like the Scribes and Pharisees of Christ’s time, insist upon tinkering with semantics in order to avoid living the gospel honestly and compassionately, can we really say we’re living Christ’s higher law?