Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Interpretation and Representation

Doomsday religious groups have come and gone over the centuries and will continue to do so. It's bad enough that gullible followers give up jobs, school and life savings to follow misguided iconic figures who lead them not to the Promised Land, but to disillusionment. Such embarrassing spectacles also hurt the reputation of the followers of Christ overall, even those who are mature, stable and know better than to believe such rantings.

Harold Camping's declaration that May 21st would herald the rapture followed by the end of the world was brassy in its certitude, stating on thousands of billboards "the Bible guarantees it". Then there was this on his website:

Indeed, in the face of all of this incredible information, how can anyone dare to dispute with the Bible concerning the absolute truth that the beginning of the Day of Judgment together with the Rapture will occur on May 21, 2011.

Well! How can we dare to dispute the Bible? But that's not the question. The enormous flaw in this thinking is that disputing with the Bible wasn't at issue; it was disputing Harold Camping's really bad interpretation of the Bible. And it was atrociously bad interpretation; a labrinth of dates, numbers, math equations and huge assumptions. There are many biblical doctrines that still are unresolved in the thinking of biblical scholars after two millenia of study and debate, yet Camping supposed that he had aced them all regarding the most anticipated event in escatology. Far greater scholars have spent lifetimes of study and realized in humility that they only "see through a glass darkly".

Recall too that the religious leadership at the time of Christ believed that they had the coming of Messiah all figured out from the works of the prophets. When Jesus did not fit their interpretation of prophetic text regarding the Messiah, they plotted against Him and had Him crucified by their Roman overseers.

Gallileo was placed under house arrest by the Inquisition because his scientific work brought into question the church's interpretation of the Bible verses that refer to the "rising" and "setting" of the sun and of it "standing still" in the book of Joshua. From these descriptions the church held that the earth was the center of the universe and that the sun rotated around the earth. Gallileo believed that the scriptures were the Word of God and therefore were not wrong, yet his observations and mathematics showed that the earth rotated the sun. He held that the church's interpretation of scripture was wrong: those expressions were merely colloquialisms to describe what the sun looked like approaching morning and evening, not the actual mechanism of its movement.

Thus does poor interpretation, often mingled with a strong dose of pride, spawn bad representation of the Christian faith. The religious leadership of Jesus' time, convinced they had the one and only correct interpretation of the prophets' works, crucified Jesus not because He violated scripture, but because He violated their interpretation of the scripture. The same can be said of the atrocities of the Inquisition. The doomsday silliness of the Harold Campings of the world also are rooted in the same "my interpretation is right, case closed" mentality. All of them committed the error of dogmatically placing their commentary on scripture on par with scripture itself.

Another by product of this will be that fresh scorn will be heaped upon the Christian faith and all religions by the sneering likes of today's proselytizing atheists. In dishing out ridicule they commit the same fatal conceit: declaring emphatically that there is no God, period. Their interpretation of scientific data leaves no room for God and is absolute and infallible, case closed. The Camping debacle just proves to them that all religious believers are superstitious rubes. Radical atheists mock the Christian faith by committing the same error themselves, because prideful dogmatism is not constrained to the church.

An analogy I've cited before is that I work for an excellent company, selling an excellent service. The majority of the employees do excellent, professional work. But if one employee does a poor job representing the company to customers or to the public, it reflects badly on the company as a whole. The work of all the other fine employees are not what the offended customer or public sees. Their view of the company is shaped by the misrepresentation of the one bad apple.

So it is with Christianity. For every self appointed prophet, for every smarmy televangelist, for every pedophile priest there are tens of thousands of humble pastors, brilliant scholars and selfless lay workers who humbly serve in the garden of the Lord, but whom the world never perceives or acknowledges, because the charlatans in their midst cause them shame. The life savings forfeited by a misguided follower of Harold Camping represent temporal material loss. The value of the souls left adrift because bad behavior by Christians repelled them from the joy of God's redemptive love is incalculable.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Being Truly Counter Cultural

My generation, the "Baby Boom" generation, came of age during the tumultuous 1960's and later we were dubbed with another, more dubious label: The "Me Generation".

As in me...the center of the universe. Me, the main topic of all my conversations. It's all about me. My three favorite nouns are all pronouns, "me", "myself" and "I".

This second label comes as a rather dispiriting critique given that the "baby boomers" are the children of the generation Tom Brokaw labeled "The Greatest Generation" that toughed out some of the most daunting times in modern history: the Great Depression and World War 2. It would be a feat of unsurpassed fecklessness to weather both of those tempests and not emerge with noble character, sacrificing the longings of self for the needs of others. Thus, I believe, Brokaw's descriptor was apt.

With good intentions the parents who brought us into the world wanted desperately to deliver more to us than they had known in prosperity, education, peace and freedom. And so in many ways they indulged us and showered us with the fruits of their hard labor and striving to build a better world and shelter us from the hardships they had endured.

Yet as has been said good intentions can often pave the way to a certain toasty place. Good intentions may accomplish good, but they often also spawn unanticipated negative consequences.

My generation certainly took the foundation of prosperity and education bequeathed to us and super charged it. The houses and consumer goods we have today are the stuff of royalty compared to what our parents had. But we also produced the 1960's "counter culture" revolution with it's emphasis on self: self-actualization, self-fulfillment, getting in touch with self and the pursuit of pleasure as an end in life, not just a by product of more noble pursuits. Interestingly, perhaps as a counterweight to the guilt of self absorbtion, they also seized the aparatus of government benefits begun by the "greatest generation" and infused it with steroids, mushrooming it to gargantuan size, with much of the populace as addicted to taxpayer assistance as to the most powerful of drugs. And the segment of society indifferent to the needs of the suffering people amongst us, those who pursue material prosperity with reckless abandon, not caring who they hurt in the process, also squander the nation's financial well being by inflating market bubbles to the bursting point and the subsequent expensive, expansion of regulations to rein in such destructive behavior. We would not need the monumental expenses of today's regulatory state if people acted with more selflessness in their conduct.

The entertainment industry is a morass of self-absorbed celebrities that we mistakenly make into heroes to emulate. Nightly family entertainment is dominated by "reality shows" where each week's episode features people engaged in exibitionist self degradation while the nation peers through that window into their lives known as the television.

What happens nationally is the collective work of individuals, so turning to question of what qualities compose a person of greatness, I find that the single greatest indicator of character is the opposite of what the culture has come to value. That single characteristic of true greatness is selflessness. Not selfishness, but selflessness: the concious decision to be other centered; to not think of self first. Realizing this causes discomfort as I see how far I have to go in conquering the tendency toward self-absorbtion. But it has led to awareness of the work that must be done:

~If I have an impatient, irritable attitude, it’s usually for some self-centered reason. But when I have a heart ready to serve others, it fills me with joy.

~There are times when it is appropriate to tell or even order someone to do something. But but most of the time it is much more considerate and selfless to ask politely. A selfish person barks; an unselfish person asks.

~At the heart of person full of graciousness and kindness is a unselfish individual. But a person who is critical and complaining is full of self.

~A person who has an unselfish heart doesn’t go through life thinking they are always owed something, doesn’t care if they get credit for something, doesn’t need to be the center of attention, doesn’t worry about what others think about them.

~Unselfish people have joy, selfish people are some of the most miserable people you’ll ever encounter.

~Unselfish people have a quality of authenticity to their life. They don’t put on airs. They don’t have to impress. They are who they are, humble, with no pretense.

~Unselfish people have integrity. Acts such as lying, manipulating, stealing and other dishonesties are the predatory deeds of selfish people using others for personal gain.

~Unselfish people are generous and giving and consequently, full of joy; selfish people hoard and clutch to hold on to what they have, yet never find lasting satisfaction.

~Selfish people find it hard to forgive; unselfish people forgive and seek reconciliation when conflict arises between themselves and others. By withholding forgiveness, the offended person believes they are punishing their offender, when in reality they only punish themselves. The person who forgives freely lives free from the crushing burden that carrying a lifetime of offenses imposes.

~Unselfish people accept responsibility for their own actions without equivocation or blame shifting. The three hardest words to say in any language are "I was wrong." But we cannot attain to the true character of selflessness without them.

~Unsolicited kindness, expecting nothing in return, is probably one of the greatest expressions unselfishness. Abraham Joshua Heschel said "When I was young I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people."

As always these observations are not new and find more eloquent expression in the words of Scripture. Christ said: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it." (Matthew 16:24-25) To carry the cross meant death to self and Christ said that only through the ultimate giving up of one's self would one gain all.

Then Paul later had this to say of truly mature, unselfish love: "Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perserveres. Love never fails. (1 Corinthians 13:4-8a)

The greatest people I have known and from whom I want to learn and to emulate, have lived these values with seeming ease, while I find them to be a daily conflict with the relentless appetites of self. Yet it is an ongoing quest worth pursuing without giving up. If we can attain to this, we will truly be counter-cultural in a world consumed with self.