The End of History 

While many might believe life on Earth would be simpler if we could all be brought together under a single, unifying philosophy, no one can come to any sort of agreement on what that should be. Every social, political, economic, and religious movement since the dawn of civilization has sought to unite people under a common set of beliefs, or economic system, or way of life. Utopian movements speak of such a time, when everyone finally agrees on a guiding set of principles as the end of history. This does not mean the end of human advancement, just the end of our struggles to find a system which best promotes that advancement.

Few can doubt that the old order is swiftly passing away and a new one is taking its place, but rather than controlling how the future will develop, I see people like the current administration in the US as a catalyst for finally destroying what’s left of the old ways of thinking. They’re the last gasp of the tribal mentality dying out. Once they and their cronies are done, it’s up to the enlightened throughout the world to pick up the pieces of what’s left and start over.

We are seeing, on the world stage, the beginnings of a global movement aimed at protecting the environment, insuring peace and prosperity for all, encouraging women and protecting them from such brutal practices as enforced marriage and genital mutilation, and respecting individual rights and beliefs. We need to take the initiative to insure that what develops promotes the goal of uplifting and empowering all people. Philosophies such as that of the Taliban, which holds that it’s okay to shoot a teenaged girl in the face for wanting an education, are so abhorrent that they deserve no place in the discussion, and humanity will be best served when such ideas are wiped from the face of the Earth.

Race, religion, politics, gender, national origin, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status, are all used to exclude people. Remove these as barriers and we all have a seat at the table. The truth is constantly being revealed to us. It’s not written in any particular book nor does it come from any particular period of world history, but it’s always there, always speaking to us in everything that exists, and all that occurs. We should stop assuming any one set of beliefs should predominate and start embracing the uniqueness of each individual. In a universe of infinite possibilities, we exist. We should strive to make the most of this opportunity.

Here and Now

I was raised in a conservative Christian household, in an evangelical church, in the Southern United States, in the 60s and 70s. It’s doubtful anyone can tell me anything about Jesus I haven’t already heard. People ask when and why I lost my faith and my response is, I didn’t. I never really had any faith to lose. It’s easy to believe in a concept when one is only presented with a single point of view and simply accepts what one is told, and I did. People I respected and admired helped to form the basis for my initial “faith” and I had no reason to question what they told me. Once I started to scratch the surface, however, what I thought was my faith started to evaporate.

I have heard the explanations and the arguments in favor of a benevolent father figure watching over us, and I have rejected them. The universe is a vast and chaotic place which exhibits no signs of enforced order. I came to this conclusion totally on my own, of my own free will, and based on many observations with much study and contemplation on my part. My mind is my own and I take responsibility for the decisions I make. While I have read much on the subject from many diverse sources, I chose the lessons I took from those sources. I accept nothing at face value, and know that each person has his or her own perspectives, biases, thoughts, feelings, and limitations which color how he or she sees the world.

I believe all “holy” texts to be the work of the people, mostly men, who produced them, and were developed to serve a particular community at a particular time and place. According to the strictures of human nature, they are affected by the limitations and biases of those people. It’s dubious to accept a piece of literature as “the truth” when we are several thousand years removed from the original context in which it was written, and not reading it in its original format or language. What we call “The Bible”, for instance, has been edited and reedited throughout its existence and translated into languages that didn’t even exist at the time of its original conception. The translations with which we’re most familiar often come from translations of the original source material which has been lost to history. Faith in such a text means faith that every single individual or group who wrote, rewrote, edited, translated, or transcribed it always did so perfectly and without ulterior motives. Since humans are fallible, the work they produce cannot be without errors even if they believe it to be divinely inspired.

I believe that most creatures have some form of consciousness, but humans have developed a method of recognizing and documenting it. Anyone who has an animal in his or her household can attest to the fact that animals dream, and respond to those dreams. Do they recognize them as dreams, however? Humans do. We also have the capacity to examine the world around us and draw conclusions based on those observations. Despite this, we leave far too much to chance, hoping for a desired outcome, when, with a little ingenuity on our part, we could have more easily defined results. Science is one such method for insuring more predictable outcomes, yet many dismiss science or ignore its conclusions when they don’t match with a given set of beliefs.

If the conclusions of many contemporary religions are correct, then the only purpose for our lives on this Earth is to be tested to demonstrate our worthiness for entering heaven. Much like the Green Stamps my mother used to collect when I was a child, we’re storing up our thoughts and deeds in order to cash in when we get to the next world. To believe this, however, runs the risk of making life on this Earth totally meaningless in and of itself. I believe if we can train ourselves to live in the here and now, not focusing on some imagined future nor worrying about mistakes from the past, we may find a level of contentment we never before knew existed.

The Bible Tells Me So

Some years ago, the Reader’s Digest caused quite a stir by issuing a condensed version of the Bible. Televangelists were up in arms, some going so far as to burn the book and calling for an all out boycott of the Reader’s Digest organization. Despite all the outrage, no one seems to care that there are numerous versions of the Protestant Bible, different translations, different interpretations, different concordances, each of which alters the meaning of the text, sometimes significantly. Many still view the authorized King James Bible as the official version, totally ignoring that it was based on Greek and Latin texts which may not have agreed with one another.

Marcion, an early Christian leader with Gnostic leanings, in the second century, made one of the first attempts at organizing a canonical version of the Bible. His list included mostly Gospels and Epistles and none of the Hebrew scriptures. While his version was never considered authoritative by the emerging Western Church, it served as the scripture for his congregations for several centuries, and Marcion is credited among those who began the discussions that led to the Christian canon being formalized. Thomas Jefferson compiled his own condensed version of the Bible that included the sayings of Jesus and rejected books such as Revelation, which he described as “the ravings of a maniac”.

Scholars agree that the earliest versions of most of the Gospels were written in Greek, a language neither Jesus nor his closest followers spoke or wrote. This would not have been unusual for the time, since only the most educated and specially-trained in society would have been able to write in Latin or Greek and most people spoke in the dialects common to the region in which they lived. Scholars have also noted many changes, transcription errors, and additions common among different texts of the same Gospel. Mark, for instance, in its familiar format, has sixteen lines added to the end of it that don’t appear in the earliest known versions, and once had a secret version that included extra lines, which was written about by early church fathers who considered it problematic but nonetheless regarded it as authoritative. The Gnostics claimed Mark had three versions, the commonly known version, the secret version, and an oral version Mark would only share directly with believers.

For many Christians in the United States, the English translation of the Protestant Bible is considered to be the inerrant word of God. This is despite the fact that the English language as we know it was not spoken by anyone when the material that made it into the Bible was being written and compiled. There is significant evidence to show that the works in the Bible are not rendered in their original form. One such example can be found in Richard Elliot Friedman’s work, The Hidden Book in the Bible, which recreates what Friedman has called the world’s first novel, that was chopped up and dispersed throughout the early books of the Old Testament. The Bible itself speaks of its incomplete nature, citing in Kings and Chronicles the very works on which these summaries are based and referring readers to them, and in other places, mentioning sources that are now lost to modern readers.

With any translation there are two problems to confront: comprehension, or, does the translator understand the material he or she is reading, and interpretation, is the translator accurately conveying what the material is saying. Translating from Spanish to Italian, for instance, may not yield many overt problems, because the languages are similar and come from the same root, Latin. Translating from Spanish into German will most likely pose more problems, since the languages have very little in common. Even so, the material being translated can have a huge impact on how successful the translation will be. A shipping list of common household items will likely be easier to translate than an epic poem, since objects are much easier to describe than ideas.

The task is compounded by cultural differences. People who live in a land-locked mountainous region are likely to have ideas and concepts that would be foreign to coastal, seafaring people, even if they speak the same language. If one is trying to convey a concept to someone unfamiliar with it, it’s helpful to have concepts with which to compare it, and it’s not always possible to find a reliable comparison. Perhaps the mountain dwellers have a word to describe the sound the wind makes as it rustles through the trees. Relaying that word to the seafarers will tell them what it means, but simply knowing the meaning would not convey the memories or sensations the mountain dwellers invoke when using it. Another example would be equating the Jewish concept of a Messiah, that is a ruler from the Davidic line of kings with the Pagan concept of the Christ, a dying and resurrected savior-king such as Attis.

The people who wrote and compiled the Bible lived in a much different world, under vastly different circumstances than we do. Ideas and concepts we take for granted would be as foreign to our ancestors as theirs would seem to us. We have their static words, but not how they used their language for day to day affairs, or to communicate important beliefs or rituals. Words can sometimes lose certain nuances when written rather that spoken, as anyone who has ever misread a text or Internet post can attest. Since many of the stories which comprise the Bible started out as oral folklore, how the storyteller told the story was often as important as the words being said. Describing a leader as “great” has a different meaning if the person saying it has a sarcastic edge to his or her voice and unless this delivery is recorded with the words, the meaning will be lost. Since we were not present to hear how these stories were told, we cannot be certain how they were intended. Finally, people in a culture can develop shorthand in communicating where they leave out concepts that are generally accepted in their society, assumptions a native would know without being told. Our society takes cars for granted. If we’re communicating with an isolated tribe in the Amazon which has mostly been shielded from modern technology, telling them we “drove” someplace won’t have much meaning for them.

One cannot claim the Bible is the inerrant word of God when there are multiple official versions of the Bible that are accepted as authoritative and which do not always agree with one another. If the Protestant Bible is the inerrant word of God, then how does one assess the Catholic Bible, which is older, contains more material, and which includes the Septuagint, which was the authoritative Greek translation of the Jewish scriptures for several centuries, up to and including the time of Jesus. While one can isolate portions of the Bible which may have sprung from what seemed to be divine inspiration, such as the Psalms, or Ecclesiastes, there are many more portions that exhibit obvious editorial oversight, such as the book of Judges, which constantly reminds its readers that the stories took place before Israel had a king. Mark is believed by most scholars to have been the first Gospel and was the basis for Matthew and Luke. In his Gospel, Matthew corrects instances where Mark erred, such as in relating the pronunciation of Jesus’ final words on the cross, or when Mark, not familiar with the geography of Judea, got place names wrong. Apparently the author of Matthew did not regard the author of Mark as infallible.

Real Bible Studies: Genesis, Isaac

Isaac is almost a footnote in the history of Israel. He’s born; he’s almost sacrificed by his father; he marries Rebekah; he buries Abraham; he fathers Esau and Jacob; he almost gives Rebekah to Abimelek; he’s tricked into giving away Esau’s blessing to Jacob; then he reconciles with Jacob and dies, all in the span of a few chapters. Abraham’s story takes up most of Genesis 12-25, from the call of Abraham to his death. Isaac’s story overlaps Abraham’s in chapters 21-25 and by chapter 27, the story of Jacob is starting to overlap that of Isaac. By chapter 28, the focus of Genesis has shifted to Jacob, now on his way to his uncle Laban’s household, where many of his adventures will occur, and we only have a few mentions of Isaac from here on. The only story about Isaac that’s not tied to either Abraham or Jacob is Genesis 26, which is a verbatim retelling of the story of Abraham and Abimelek, from Genesis 20, but unlike his father, Isaac doesn’t get cattle or grazing rights out of the encounter. The incident with Abimelek adds nothing tangible to the story of Isaac, and seems to have been inserted simply to give Isaac an adventure of his own before skipping to the story of his son Jacob.

Even in stories where he’s featured, Isaac takes a secondary role. When YHWH tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac (something that was never done with Ishmael, the oldest) it’s to test Abraham’s faith. Abraham accepts the request without question, which seems rather odd. Recall that in Genesis 18, when YHWH tells Abraham that Sodom and Gomorrah are to be destroyed, Abraham barters with YHWH to gain concessions for the denizens of those towns, yet here, YHWH is telling him to sacrifice the son he’s waited until his old age to have and Abraham seems totally okay with it. We’re not told how old Isaac is, but at one point, he speaks to Abraham, so he must be at least five or six years old, and maybe as old as eight or nine. Despite this, he doesn’t say anything when it becomes apparent Abraham is about to sacrifice him.

In the ancient world, whenever a town was founded, often the founder would sacrifice his oldest child, usually a son, to become the guardian spirit of the town. There’s a mention of this practice in 1 Kings 16:34, describing the rebuilding of Jericho. In this instance, however, Abraham is not founding a city, as he’s still depicted as a nomadic herder. There are clues to suggest that in the original legend, Abraham sacrificed Isaac, and this fact was altered by the author of Genesis, who was writing after human sacrifice had been abolished. The death of Sarah immediately follows the story of Abraham being tested, and the death of a son she had at an advanced age, combined with all the other factors working against her, might have been sufficiently stressful to hasten her end. If this is so, it placed quite a burden on the author of Genesis to account for an individual who wasn’t originally in the story line.

The solution seems to have been to make Isaac the conduit through which Abraham was connected to Jacob. Either that or there was a tradition among the tribes that Isaac was the father of Jacob but that they were somehow descended from Abraham, so the author of Genesis made the logical leap. In genealogy, it’s often a common error to attribute a child to a nearby family with a similar name. It’s also possible that then, as today, many different people claimed descent from Abraham with no rhyme or reason as to how and Isaac was used by the children of Israel to make their connection. Unlike Abraham, who started out as Abram, and Israel, who started out as Jacob, Isaac is not given a new name, signifying a covenant with YHWH. His “covenant” was through that of his father, and fulfilled by the descendants of his son.

In all probability, these stories are based on authentic legends about Isaac and Jacob, since they don’t show Jacob in the best light, being deceptive in taking his brother’s birthright and later in deceiving his uncle Laban (who pretty much deserved it) into giving away the best of the flock when they divided their assets. Most of the story of Abraham and his descendants through Jacob are part of the “hidden book” discovered by Richard Elliott Friedman in the pages of the Old Testament and chronicled in his work, The Hidden Book in the Bible.

Big Bang

Trying to discern the origins of the universe from within the universe is like trying to figure out how a cake was made using only the evidence of the finished cake. It’s there; we see it, but deciphering all that went into it is difficult, because the finished product is more than just the sum of its parts. We can speculate, based on our senses, what some of the ingredients were; we can develop theories as to how the various elements came together, but we can’t know for sure how it came into being unless we’re there to observe the process of creating it. Of course, in the case of a cake, we can be there to observe how one is made. Not so with the universe. 

Religion tells us God created the heavens and the Earth; science shows us the nuts and bolts of what went into building the universe. Religion says it began with light; science says it all began with a bang. With sound moving much slower than light, it’s possible to still hear echoes of the big bang provided one has the right equipment. What set it off, though? What was the catalyst that put everything in motion? To date, no one on either side of the debate has a definitive answer that satisfies everyone. All anyone knows is that it’s here; we inhabit it; all living things are a part of it. 

Most of what we see, hear, taste, touch, or smell is an illusion, created for us by how our brains interpret the signals the environment throws at us. How one person perceives the world may be vastly different than another person. We use language to help bridge the gap, but even language is a tool we’ve invented to serve a specific purpose, and often falls short in conveying an accurate description of the sensations of living. Time is another tool designed to give us reference points in our perception. In truth, we live in neither the past nor the future but in the eternal present experiencing what goes on in the world as it happens. Our brains allow us to store memories and recall them, perhaps with a bit of alteration, and to imagine outcomes not yet realized, giving us a semblance of a past and future. 

We created the notion of God because humanity believes it needs a parental figure watching over us, someone to tell us who we are and why we’re here. Everything has a beginning and an end, and individual humans have parents, therefore humanity has to have such “parents” from whom we sprang. This model is already faulty, though, because individual humans have two parents, regardless of whether both are known, whereas most modern religions only mention one parental deity. In much of nature, it’s the female who bears the responsibility for giving birth, but in many modern religions, the female deity has been erased from the equation.

As humans, we have an inherent need to understand our origins. Where we came from and why is at least as important to us as what we’re here to accomplish. There are no easy answers to the question. It remains for each individual to determine the answer for himself or herself. We may, one day, come to definitive conclusions about our common origins, but in the meantime, we should do all we can to enjoy the pursuit.