Sacred Dance #11: Ants and Jelly Bean Jars

February 28, 2009

As individuals, ants are neither particularly smart nor particularly complex. A single ant may spend hours wandering about randomly looking for food to no avail, and with little discernable pattern in its search. Its actions, I’m told, are random – virtually void of intellect.

Yet, as colonies, ants are remarkably sophisticated. They can build (and rebuild) homes, defend them, and assimilate all of the nutrition that the colony needs.

What enables ants to accomplish so much? The question has puzzled biologists for years. Somehow, a collection of seemingly chaotic, randomly behaving organisms manage to collectively accomplish something that any one of them cannot. There is nothing directing them, per se. They simply seem to have collective capabilities that transcend what any of them can accomplish individually.

Steven Johnson, an American science author, has recently written a book on this subject called Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software. Unfortunately, I have not read the book, but there a really good summary of it in this episode of the Radiolab podcast.

Emergence is a concept that transcends multiple scientific disciplines, from biology to neurology to sociology. Johnson defines it as follows:

Emergence is what happens when an interconnected system of relatively simple elements self-organizes to form more intelligent, more adaptive higher-level behavior.  It’s a bottom-up model; rather than being engineered by a general or a master planner, emergence begins at the ground level.  Systems that at first glance seem vastly different–ant colonies, human brains, cities, immune systems–all turn out to follow the rules of emergence.  In each of these systems, agents residing on one scale start producing behavior that lies a scale above them: ants create colonies, urbanites create neighborhoods.

One curious phenomenon involves the way ant trails develop. Apparently, if an ant stumbles across something that appears to be nutritionally useful, it begins to leave a chemical trail behind which other ants may (or may not – at the start) pick up. However, if another ant picks up the scent, and also finds something useful, it will also add to the scent. Eventually, it becomes so strong that a huge number of ants will “stumble” into it and – thus forms the trail.

A similar phenomenon can be found on the sociological level. Ask a large enough group of people to guess something – the weight of an animal, the number of jelly beans in a jar, whatever – and the average of all the guesses will almost always be dead-on. One person’s guess is virtually useless, but – if you get enough people involved – the collective guess is almost always right.

You are probably already familiar with the fable of the blind men and the elephant. In this story, different people touch the elephant in different places and perceive different things, though there is – in the end – only one elephant. Extending that fable a bit – consider what happens when the blind men begin to speak to one another. As they compare experiences, they can begin to get a “picture” of what the elephant might look like, even though any one of them could never have imagined what the elephant looked like based on his individual experience.

Some of the most incredible scientific discoveries of the last two centuries have been a result of this process. Scientists can take the work of their colleagues, refine it, create more sophisticated hypothesis, and arrive at conclusions that no one person would ever discover. The quest for the grand unification theory is, in a sense, a highly complex conversation between thousands of scientists out of which may eventually emerge a deeper understanding of the universe.

Which brings me back to the window blind. If God is, in fact, only partially revealed to any one person, then it makes sense that the best way to learn more is to enter into conversations with other people who have (or haven’t) had experiences of God. We can sometimes add to the conversations, but we are mostly there to listen.

These conversations, however, are not momentary phenomenon among 2-3 people. They are deep, ancient dialogs – involving the dead as much or more than the living – and they involve tens of thousands of people.

At the heart of those conversations are those who found themselves in the aftermath of what they claimed was the most remarkable event in human history – the resurrection of Jesus, the Messiah. They are the communities of the First Century church. It was out of those communities that our New Testament was formed. And, among other things, they point us to the text of the Old Testament to interpret what they had experienced. Since their time, there has been a virtual explosion of thought about what had happened, what they had experienced. Thousands upon thousands of voices have joined with them.

It is into that conversation that we must enter.

And in the next post, I’ll try to put this idea in a slightly more concrete form.


Sacred Dance #10: Scripture and Human Trafficking

February 27, 2009

Should one human being be forced into the service of another?

Its a simple question. And most of us, I’m sure, would respond to any answer other than “no” with puzzlement, if not outrage. For the vast majority of Christians, the entire concept of human trafficking is utterly, morally abhorrent.

Go back two centuries, however, and you will encounter a much different, more controversial situation among Christians.

[Slavery] was established by decree of Almighty God…it is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation…it has existed in all ages, has been found among the people of the highest civilization, and in nations of the highest proficiency in the arts,” Jefferson Davis once said.

Alexander Campbell – a noted figure in the American Restoration Movement – once made a slightly more guarded statement. “There is not one verse in the Bible inhibiting slavery, but many regulating it,” he said. As such, “It is not then, we conclude, immoral.” As best I can understand it, Campbell’s political views with respect to abolition were not quite a entrenched as this quote suggests. However, his view of the ultimate, biblical position on slavery we clear enough.

Reverend R. Furman, a Baptist from South Carolina, also made his position clear: “The right of holding slaves is clearly established in the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example.”

The problem that is posed by the observations of people like Davis, Campbell, and Furman is that – essentially – they are right. One might quibble, in particular with Furman’s assertion that everyone has a right to slaves. However, when it comes out to making a clear case against slavery, the Bible isn’t explicit enough to help the argument. Indeed, the tacit acceptance of the institution of slavery by the writers of scripture only serves to fuel the sort-of arguments that were made by Jefferson Davis and Confederate sympathizers.

A century later, during my formative years, similar issues began to arise with respect to the treatment of women. “Wives, submit to your husbands, as to the Lord,” the apostle Paul once wrote. For centuries, this – and other similar texts – were taken as a sign that women should exist in a subordinate, subjugated state in relationship to men. Yet, today, a large number of Christians have come to think of men and women as equal, without one holding any authority over another. This has in part been the result of scholarship which shows that the early Christians held views of women that were revolutionary for their day, though still antiquated by our own standards. Still, if one looks to the Bible itself, one can find little more than a tacit acceptance of a culture in which women assume a subordinate position.

As I’ve reflected on the roles of slaves and women within society during the last few months, and on the Biblical silence on both subjects, I’ve been led to what seems to me to be a fairly obvious conclusion: if we rely on scripture alone to discern moral authority, our capacity for understanding and accomplishing good will be decreased, not increased. I do not say that lightly, because I realize it is a radical departure from fundamentalism and from most forms of evangelicalism. Still, if one bothers to be objective in the least, it strikes me as an inevitable conclusion.

I’ve also, however, wondered – how is it that Christians eventually came to a virtually unanimous conclusion that slavery is morally abhorrent? And how is it that similar things are happening today with respect to our understanding of women? It has plainly happened, in part, because of our love for and dedication to scripture.  Yet, something more is going on.

I’ve considered several answers to this question. But the one that I have found most satisfying finds its roots – ironically – in modern biological and sociological science. As such, in the next post, we will take up the advice of one of the biblical writers – Solomon – and, in answering our big question, we will consider a very small thing: the ant.

Sacred Dance #9: Holy Kissing and Authority

February 23, 2009

In the last post, I pointed out that we should be careful when we throw around the word “authoritative” to describe the Christian scriptures because, even the scriptures themselves make it very clear that we are to consider Jesus as authoritative. I think that any approach that tries to treat scriptures themselves as “authoritative” ironically puts one at risk of idolatry, one of the very things that the scriptures tell us to avoid.

I want to take things a step farther now, and ask this question: Does it even make any sense to talk about the Bible as “authoritative”?

The presumption behind the concept of authority is one of command and obedience. In other words, if someone or something is authoritative, it must be expecting me to submit to its commands, instructions, guidance, etc.

One of my problems with the word “authoritative” is that not all of scripture seems to be providing commands, instructions, guidance, etc. Take Psalm 74, for an example. Here, the Psalmist cries out, mourning that God has rejected him. Adversaries have crushed God’s people, yet God has taken no action. God, the Psalmist recognizes, is a powerful creator-God. He asks God to rise up and defend his cause for the sake of his covenant. Still, there is no answer.

Where is the guidance in Psalm 74? Where, for all that matters, is God himself? The text is a lament over the absence of God. No divine instructions are to be found here. This Psalm is best understood as a question, as puzzled grief, even as a veiled accusation of betrayal. But it is not a command.

To select another random example, lets take I Samuel 25 and 27, a particularly unflattering series of stories in which David, anointed as King of God’s people (but on the run from Saul, who is also in some sense the current King), decides to become a common marauder, robbing the weak of their cattle and other assets. Where is the “instruction” here?

As a final example, lets take a statement that does – on the surface – appear to be instructional. In the book of Romans, the instruction is given to “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” Simple enough. Yet, I know of very few religious communities who actually do this. This hardly seems respectful of scripture’s authority.

In attempting to deal with this problem, I have – over time – been exposed to a slightly more complex approach to the scriptures, which looks like this:


The presumption is that, in each biblical text, some “eternal truth” is hidden. However, to understand it, we have to first extract from the text its meaning to its original audience (a process called “exegesis”). Then, we can discern a more generalized truth from the text that can be applied to our own culture and times, and we can thus learn how to be obedient to the “authority” that comes out of the scripture.

This process “works” fairly well in many situations. Take Holy kissing, for example. It made sense to freely exchange kisses in the culture of the early Church, but today kissing is more closely associated with sexuality. As such, under this model, we might refrain from kissing in our culture, while recognizing that there is an “eternal truth” that requires us to greet each other warmly. Thus, we search for  other ways that “work” within our culture to recognize/greet each other – such as shaking hands or even hugging.

The story of David the marauder can, similarly, be seen as a cautionary tale regarding the ease by which one can be drawn into conduct that is harmful to others. We can then reflect on the ways we are tempted in our own time and place.

Still, this model is quite imperfect and subjective. Scholars can debate endlessly over the correct meaning of a term, an entire book, or even the overall theology of a well-known writer such as Paul. And the process of trying to distill the text so that you remove all of the cultural baggage and come to its pure meaning is even more maddening and subject to radical disagreement.

The process is good at yielding useful, subjective results, but such results will always be sketchy at best, and there will always be all sorts of room for discussion in the process. (This, I will argue later, is not a bad thing at all).

More to the point, however, this model doesn’t always work. The Psalm where we began – and indeed a good part of the book of Job, which raises similar themes – is a great example. There are no lessons to be learned in some texts of the Bible. Thus, while the process described above can sometimes be useful, it doesn’t complete the picture for me.

Scripture can only begin to speak in meaningful ways when we begin to see it as much more than a divine instructional manual.

Furthermore, if we limit our understanding of God’s purposes to scripture, we can actually diminish our capacity for good. And for the next two posts, we will look at two particular examples (first, slavery, and then the subjugation of women) of why that is the case.

Sacred Dance #8: Idolatry and Scriptural Authority

February 18, 2009

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”
– Matthew 28:18

I never really thought about it this way until it was pointed out by N.T. Wright in his book The Last Word, but the issue of where Christian “authority” resides is pretty well settled.

The scriptures don’t claim to have any authority. Rather, they claim that Jesus has all authority. For that reason, I don’t think that “authoritative” is a good word to describe the Christian scriptures. In fact, if anything, I think it could be considered downright idolatrous.

Idolatry, at its heart, is worshiping something other than God. It follows, then, that when we ascribe authority to something other than God – when we give it control over our lives – we have committed an act of idolatry.

Scripture exists as a means by which we can come to know God, but scripture is not itself God. When we begin to follow scripture indiscriminately, ignoring the very thing that it seeks to reveal in the process, we are not worshipping God.

In fact, when we think of scripture in terms of its “authority” – it loses its potency. For the next few posts, I want to illustrate why I believe this is the case.

In short, I will first argue that scripture can only be considered “authoritative” if it provides instruction or guidance, yet very little of what we encounter in scripture fits into either of these categories… and efforts to force the issue by attempting to reduce every verse and story down to some discernable, divine instruction will only lead to frustration.

Second, I will argue – using the examples of human slavery and the subjugation of women – that, if the limits of our moral understanding are defined by scripture, our capacity for understanding good is actually diminished. God must be found – in the words of an older hymn – “beyond the sacred page.”

Sacred Dance #7: Matthew, Luke, and Q

February 15, 2009

Most of what we know about the life and teachings of Jesus come from the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John)…and Q.

For all the hard core Trekkies out there – no, I’m not about to suggest that the infamous character from Star Trek: the Next Generation wrote his own gospel. I am saying, however, that a legitimate, but still somewhat mysterious, source – which bible scholars call “Q” – is widely thought to be heavily influential in the early church, and on the development of the gospels that are in our bibles.

In short, this is why we think there was a mysterious “fifth” chronicler of the life of Jesus: If you place the gospels of Matthew and Luke side-by-side, two things become apparent very quickly. First, you find that they often write about events in the same sequence as the Gospel of Mark. Second, you find that they are often utilizing the same language that is used in Mark’s gospel. Logic would seem to dictate that they are both using Mark as  a source.

But…Matthew and Luke are telling other stories, using largely identical language, and it DOESN’T come from Mark’s gospel.

What is the explanation here? The broad consensus is that there is another, otherwise unknown source – one which seems to be comprised largely of the teachings of Jesus – that was utilized by the writers of Matthew and Luke. This source has been designated by New Testament scholars as “Q.”

Thus, while Matthew and Luke seem to be based on some first-hand information, they are not written as direct, eye-witness accounts. (Although the Gospel of Matthew was traditionally attributed to the apostle of the same name, it never claims such authorship, and it now seems very doubtful that the tax-collector-turned-apostle actually wrote the first gospel).

So – since they weren’t writing as eyewitnesses – how did they do? There is some reason to think that they didn’t give us what we would characterize as an accurate, historical picture. Here’s one example of why some people are making such claims:

The opening verses of Matthew 5 contain what we now call the “Beatitudes.” The first Beatitude, in verse 3, says “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” A saying that is very typical of source Q.

Luke (and, yes, the New Testament character by that name probably did write this one) also gives an account of the Beatitudes. Here, however, Jesus says “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (6:29). Also, seemingly, from Q.

Yet…each account is slightly different, both in wording and meaning. In Matthew, we are told that Jesus spoke of those whose spirits are downtrodden. But Luke tells us that Jesus spoke of those who are physically, not spiritually poor.

Did both of them get their information for this saying from source Q? Probably. Yet it seems likely that one of them has altered the source – and not slightly – for the specific purpose of making the first Beatitude “fit” with an overall theme in their writing.

Matthew is concerned with the life of Christians who live under the dominion of the Roman Empire – and some of them are not physically poor, yet they are under considerable duress. He wants to comfort them. Luke, on the other hand, is a champion of social justice. He constantly draws our attention to those who are in poverty, or who are otherwise marginalized within society. He doesn’t want us to be comforted because we are feeling depressed. He wants us to understand that God’s kingdom exists among the poor.

So which did the infamous source Q say originally? There is no way to know. For all that matters, there is no way to know whether Q got things right….and even if you assume that there is no Q, there is still the problem of two accounts of Jesus’ saying that are inconsistent.

Its possible, some suppose, that Jesus said both things at one time or another. This isn’t necessarily the most reasonable explanation from a strictly historical perspective, but it is at least a possibility. Still, it doesn’t address the fact that both Luke and Matthew are picking and choosing what they want to tell us to suit their purposes.

Either way, larger questions loom. Did Matthew and Luke get their facts right? Can we actually come to know the “historical” Jesus through their writings? Come to think of it, how did Mark and John do? And…if we can’t even be sure we truly know what Jesus taught or did in his lifetime, how can we be certain that we are coming to know the “real” Jesus through scripture?

These questions have been the subject of an intense debate that has been raging for several decades within the halls of academia. The entire fundamentalist perspective, which relies on the assumption that scripture is a direct, inerrant “message” from God is at stake. Most Pastors in the mainline churches have been trained to understand the issues involved in these arguments, and even evangelical seminaries – as I understand it – are pretty good about making sure their graduates are well-versed on the more conservative side of the debate.

Yet, outside of the academic world, most of us have been going on with our lives, completely unaware of this conversation. We are well versed in the young earth/evolution debate, but that is a whole different matter. It is one thing to wrestle with seeming contradictions between science and a literalistic reading of scripture. It is another for your assumptions about the absolute reliability of scripture to collapse under the weight of the scriptures themselves.

In the last post, I indicated that some translators alter the original language of the biblical text to smooth over what appear to be clear errors in the biblical text. But I also think that a lot of people who come out of academic settings – and who are charged with teaching the bible to the Church – are glossing over the problem of the subjectivity of scripture.

I don’t think there is a conspiracy among our leaders. Rather, I think they are wrestling with the implications of these issues in their own minds, and they don’t yet have any clear answers. They are concerned that – if they tell us too many details about the debate – they won’t have good answers for the questions that we will begin to ask once we know more about the problem.

But the inevitable result of efforts to “protect” us from these problems is superficiality. Our leaders are trained to think of scripture as a product of human minds and cultures. If they are constantly having to tip-toe around this perspective to avoid challenging fundamentalist-type thinking among the laity, they will always be tempted to fall back on shallow platitudes and vague generalities.

A good, open airing of this problem, difficult though it may be for some of us, is exactly what is needed, if we are to move forward.

So…lets start here:

The books of the bible were written by human beings, and each writing contains a perspective that is limited by the writers’ own languages, experiences, and cultures. We may be seeing God through scripture, but we are always looking at God through the eyes of other human beings who share flaws that are similar to our own. In other words, the writers of the bible are seeing God through their own set of window blinds.

Much more to come.

Sacred Dance #6: Certainty and Fundamentalism

February 12, 2009

Why do some people react so violently to the suggestion that the writers of the bible made errors?

Lets consider a way of thinking about discerning the will of God that is characteristic of most fundamentalists. It can be illustrated like this:


In this model, the bible essentially occupies the position of the brown cell. It assumes that the “true” author of scripture is God, and that while he may have acted through someone who inscribed his words, everything in scripture should be considered straight from the source. Our job here is simply to be a consumer of truth, and to then then line my life up in accordance with the truth.

This approach provides a lot of security. Assuming that I act obediently, I can be quite certain that I am in proper relationship with God because I can absolutely know that I have done what he has told me in very direct terms. It is this “security” that makes fundamentalism work so well for many Christians. God says “Cover your head when you worship.” I do that. Viola! I am in proper relationship. No doubts. No worries.

The problem is that, once I learn that a bible writer made a mistake, such as writing down the wrong age of an ancient King in Judah, the whole thing falls apart. Since God clearly would not make a “mistake” in dictating scripture, I can only assume that he didn’t really author scripture, and I am left with no other means by which to come into relationship with him.

But, before we start considering other approaches to discernment, we need to explore just how deeply this problem goes.

The truth is, the issues involving “mistakes” relating to relatively insignificant facts in the bible are only scratching the surface. There is good reason to think that the writers of the bible were heavily “editing” – if not outright altering – the realities of their world, to suit their purposes. This is – most disturbingly to some – true even with respect to the words and teachings of Jesus.

We’ll explore that idea next.

Sacred Dance #5: Inerrancy and the Wicked King

February 9, 2009

In the last post I suggested that, while the writings in the bible play an important role in the process by which we come to know God, it is possible to place too many expectations on the people who wrote the Christian scriptures. The “pressure” that comes from requiring them to satisfy those expectations can, in turn, actually make it more difficult for us to understand them.

Two words that get thrown around a lot these days to describe the bible are “inerrant” and “authoritative.” During the next few posts, I want to explain why I don’t think these two words are helpful ways of talking about the bible.

I begin with the word “inerrant,” and with the rather tragic tale of the very short reign of Ahaziah. Ahaziah was one in a long line of kings over Judah who – we are told – failed to do what was right in the sight of God, and who were punished in various ways for their conduct.

Ahaziah’s story is told in two places in the bible. One is in 2 Kings 8 and 9, and the other in 2 Chronicles 22. There are also, in turn, at least two versions of 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles. The oldest versions are written in the Hebrew language. However, there is also another very old version of each book that translates the Hebrew text into Greek.

In 2 Chronicles 21, we are told that the father of Ahaziah, whose name was Jerohim, was thirty two years when he began to reign and that he reigned for eight years before he came to a rather untimely (and gruesome! – I’ll spare you the details) death.

Ahaziah then took over as a successor to his father. The Hebrew text of 2 Chronicles 22 tells us that Ahaziah was forty-two when he began to reign.

So…lets stop and do some basic math here. Since his father began to reign at thirty-two, and he reigned for eight years, Ahaziah’s father had to have been about forty years old when he died. At forty-two, that would make Ahaziah two years older than his father. That can’t be right.

So what happened here?

Bible scholars generally explain it this way: if you look at the account of Ahaziah’s reign in 2 Kings, we are told that he was twenty-two at the time his reign begins. The consensus is that, when  2 Chronicles was written, the writer used 2 Kings as a source, but failed to put the correct number down when he got around to reciting the age of Ahaziah.

In other words, the best explanation is that the writer of 2 Chronicles made a mistake. An error.

Some years later, when a scribe undertook to translate the Hebrew text into Greek, the error was discovered and “fixed.” Thus, the subsequent Greek version of 2 Chronicles (called the Septuagint) will tell you that Ahaziah was, in fact twenty-two when he began to reign.

Most translators of modern English versions of the bible have also taken it upon themselves to correct this error. Several translations, such as the NIV, will tell you in a footnote that the original text recited forty-two as the age of the new King, but some translations won’t even bother to tell you what they have done. The reader is simply led to believe that the writer originally stated that Ahaziah was twenty-two, when he did not.

Now…at this point, some of you may be thinking something like this: So somebody wrote down a wrong number on a scroll 2500 years ago? So what? It is an insignificant statement. Can’t we still learn lessons about the need for responsible leaders who have integrity within a spiritual community even if the details are wrong?

Others, however, may be thinking something completely different: Well, if this is wrong, what else could be wrong? If the bible’s writers did make mistakes, could they have been wrong about other things? How can we count on anything that we are told in the bible if we accept that it contains mistakes?

I’ll begin to examine these questions – and the reasons why some translators want to keep from drawing “problems” like this to our attention – in the next post.