Thursday, December 23, 2010

Happy Christmas!

I posted a comment last Sunday morning on Ricky Gervais’ op-ed in the Wall Street Journal entitled, “A Holiday Message from Ricky Gervais:  Why I’m an Atheist.”  It’s a charming, passionate, and at times funny, essay, and it has sparked a lot of comments – about 3,500, to date – as one would expect a provocative piece challenging the existence of G_d at Christmas to do.  I repost my comment here, with my apologies to those of you who’ve seen it already; I believe, if you’ve followed the blog link in it to get here, you’ll appreciate the few (hopefully) elucidating thoughts I’ve appended to it, below (or at least, the slight editing).

“Hi, Ricky. Love the Brit-Com, The Office (and Ghostown, and The Invention of Lying). Never thought I'd be doing this, but I want to answer your question.  Problem is, I don't think this blog gives me enough space.  A sincere question requires a sincere - and full - answer.  If I have to post an incomplete response, please see my Easter 2010 blog (linked in the archive, or in the first line of John Donne's poem, in the blog's sidebar). It's at First, though, let me assure you that I am not trying to convert you - just trying to do as you try to do, which is to give a reasoned answer.  Also, while my blog does deal with the sensitive issue of what it means to be free in America today, I am not an extremist of any kind.  You have nothing to fear.  So here goes.

When I was about five years-old, I was playing in the street with my Super Pinky.  It rolled under a neighbor's car just as the neighborhood bully and his Alsatian came into view.  My brother is 16 months older than me, and so I had had, by then, enough experience with being bullied to know that it only encourages a bully when you back down.  I decided not to run and instead went about trying to shag my ball.  I mean, fetch. (Shagging in this context means retrieving, not knocking boots, obviously).  Sure enough, the inevitable happened.  Joel saw me and decided I'd be his target for the day.

Unfortunately, my experience with bullies wasn't limited to just my relationship with my brother.  My mother was a pretty stressed out, over-worked mess who screamed more than she ever discussed anything rationally.  Before I could retrieve my ball, Joel had managed to roll it out from under Mr. Snyder's car.  He held it aloft, right in front of my face, and began taunting me. ‘Well, look what I found - a brand-new ball.  I guess I can keep it, since no one's around.’  Just then, I realized that Joel and my mom were a lot alike - they had no true friends, and didn't know how to make them, and so that made them even MORE miserable, which misery they felt compelled to share with everyone else; it does love company.  I felt sorry for him.  But not sorry enough to walk away without my ball, to a coward's ignominy.  I thought, ‘There must be a way to get out of this with my ball, without fighting.’ And then, the entire neighborhood receded out of view, and time ceased.

I felt as though there were no longer such things as minutes, or seconds - that I could stay here as long as I needed to for my solution. I was anxious because I didn't know what was happening, but I calmed myself and thought, ‘This special moment is for me.  I can create what happens next here.’  It was the compassion software we all come bundled with kicking in.  I thought about how my older sister engaged my mother when she was being impossible, and I knew then what I had to do.  I looked up into Joel's face and said, ‘Want to play night tag with us tonight?’  He jerked his head to the side, then slowly he turned to me and said, ‘Sure. I'll be there.’  And you know what?  He DID play with us kids that night - and several other nights more that summer.

As you can perhaps imagine, I thought a lot about my moment with Joel. I've thought a lot about it since.  Then, riding home in the car after church one Sunday (mother is Danish-American, so we were raised Lutheran; Dad's from Mississippi and he was Methodist), I asked my father to explain what Pastor Hanson meant when he said G_d is omnipotent and omnipresent. (My father was a construction lineman, a journeyman who worked away from home weeks at a time, so when he came home, I never wanted to leave him, and insisted on being in the church’s sanctuary with him on Sunday instead of nursery school.) Dad said, ‘All powerful and everywhere.’  That was when I realized my 'moment' with Joel had been a moment with G_d. What's more powerful than that which can stop violence, even wars, like the desire for and creation of peace?  That was also the moment I realized that G_d is not - G_d cannot be - an entity of any type.  Entities, like all objects, have space/time limitations.  They can’t be omnipresent, or omnipotent.

Naturally, there are other things I've realized in the intervening 43 years since my encounter with Joel about G_d, such as the fact G_d doesn't just change from Old Testament to New, or even the G_d of Abraham to the G_d of Issac and then back to the G_d of King David.  People have been changing G_d almost since the moment Moses introduced G_d to us:  remember what happened to that first draft of the first top 10 list in history?  Moses destroyed it when he found his followers had reverted to idol worship when he was grooving on Mt. Sinai.  I'm convinced that even after 40 years of trying to get their act together, they STILL were idol worshippers (though their new idol was a man-like being), and Moses gave up trying to get them to worship the G_d that is.  That's why he didn't follow them into Canaan, telling them that G_d wouldn't let him (even if God may have).

I hope this answers your question about why I believe in G_d.  Is it orthodoxy?  Certainly not.  But your love for Jesus will no doubt enable you to appreciate that I arrived at these cherished beliefs by doing as he bade us in the sermon on the mount (and on the hill, and many other places, I'm sure):  I have loved G_d with all my heart, mind, and strength to gain this understanding of G_d, as often as I can, except during (sometimes lengthy) crises in faith - in my writing, my cooking, my work, my relationships, among people I encounter - wherever I can create goodness.  Am I perfect?  Certainly not. Perfection is not what it's about - just better than I was a moment ago, hopefully, in this new moment we call 'now,' where G_d, as Moses told us in Exodus 3:13-14, 'is.'

Happy Christmas!”

It was about 8:30 in the morning when I wrote it, so I was a bit bleary-eyed and, as I’ve said, I’ve cleaned it up slightly.   The blog’s had hundreds of hits since I posted it, so I guess it gets where I wanted it to go even though I would have elucidated a few other points as well if I had known that I had the space to do so.  Here, for your contemplation, they are.

Groovin’ on a Sunday Afternoon.

I can hear it now:  “You can’t sit around, meditating all day and hoping for an ecstatic experience and the kind of enlightenment you had as a five year-old.  Life has to be lived.”  “Too true,” say I.  And then, “Thank heavens, I don’t have to!” And neither do you.

I was a pretty ordinary little five year-old when I had my moment of G_d with Joel – hanging out in the street, playing.  Just playing.  And the fairly typical five year-old experience happened to me – older kid bullied me.  Nothing special about the event at all – except the intensity of my awareness of it, and my subsequent fearless willingness to engage in that awareness.  The payoff?  Activating this little-used awareness “muscle” brought me to that (for lack of a more concise word) transcendent moment, that moment of ecstatic mystery.  Some part of me recognized that I was being led to a ‘space’ in which I could find the answer I then needed.  I call that part of me my soul, or spirit.  It’s the key that unlocks the gnosis, wherever that gnosis may ‘be’ – within my memory of past lives, within the collective subconscious, within both (or are they the same?).  Joel and I couldn’t have faced each other, eye to eye (or, really, eye to knee), for more than a minute, but in all honesty, I felt as though I might as well have been in my jammies, dallying with my toothbrush in the bathroom, reluctantly getting ready for bed while someone nagged me to hurry up.  I was just taking my own, sweet time, waiting for my answer, waiting to be shown what to do.

These are the things I've deduced in the 43 years since my moment of G_d:  (1) this experience of what is ordinarily beyond my perception was as 'real' as any other I've ever had, from the mundane experience of handling a toothbrush to clean my teeth to the more expanded perception of being able to appreciate a line of poetry or another great work of art beyond being merely cognitively assaulted or titillated by it in some way; (2) the full knowledge that this moment was a moment that would change the course of our lives - was the genesis of the alternate 'reality,' or one of the string 'tunnels' interwoven among the parallel universes that quantum mechanics tells us exist, if you prefer - was palpable. I sensed it, it was outside my normal perceptions but there nevertheless; (3) ergo, the fact of this type of human experience existing is just that - a fact - and this existence is a prioi; (4) it takes a skepticism of one's perceptions to be able to engage in this type of encounter with the infinite, the humility we are so much exhorted to in scripture that pietists mangle into some type of abusive self-loathing; (5) goodness comes from engagement with G_d. For me, it was peace. For an artist, it is not only the 'product' of the creative process - whether it is a moving sculpture in dance harmonized with another work of art, or a mind-bending short story (Flannery O'Connor had A LOT to say about encountering G_d through writing, and the belle of gore is probably the LAST person one would think would be able to effectively do so, but she certainly did in her many treatises on writing) - but the actual creative process itself; (6) theologians call this experience the 'hand of [God]' reaching out to us in revelation. Dietrich Bonhoeffer talked of this hand.  Though I am fairly certain he conceived of G_d as a finite being for most of his life,  he certainly had the opportunity - in fact, he made the opportunity often - to understand others' conceptions of G_d, most likely even this type of one, which many native American tribes hold. I base this opinion on the fact he wrote Act and Being.  It's entirely possible he read Martin Buber's 1923 treatise, I and Thou (Ich und Du).  Bonhoeffer was clearly thinking about 'metaphysical' issues. I maintain it's high time we start calling them supraphysical issues.

I’ve heard sculptors, woodworkers and jewelers speak about being led as they worked with awareness to liberate from their material the art within.  Your ‘material’ may be something completely different – the language of math, or, like my five year-old self’s, violence. Biography channel did a fantastic two-hour documentary on Jimi Hendrix that finally showcased Jimi’s thoughts on his creations, such as Purple Haze, and the experience of engagement with creation that gave us – well – The Experience, and the song Are You Experienced?  Some people call G_d source; Jimi called G_d ‘experience.’   And if you’ve ever seen clips of Jimi in concert, you cannot fail to recognize that he had soul - and that he knew how to use it.  You sort of expect a guy who gets what sacrifice is about enough to light is favorite guitar on fire on stage as an offering to have an old soul, but I’ve been a Hendrix fan since I was 15 and I have to tell you, I was deeply moved and incredibly impressed with his ability to express his thoughts about ‘experience.’ (Duh.  What else should we expect from a genius?)  And I’m not doing them justice here; if you have the chance to see the program, do.  Spoiler alert - Sorry, all you psychedelic/acid blues rock haters out there; Jimi wasn’t trippin’ when he wrote Purple Haze; he had just read a sci-fi novel that featured a monster made of purple miasma.

My point is this:  you don’t have to groove on a mountaintop, or in a church sanctuary to find, or to know, G_d.  You don’t even have to be a rock legend to know G_d.  G_d is.  In fact, the guy who’s birthday we are celebrating at this time of year told us, in his words and his deeds, that G_d could not be known but through all of our deeds because ‘the kingdom of G_d is at hand.’  The degree to which we experience G_d is the degree to which we allow ourselves to be aware of G_d.  Louisa May Alcott, author of the Christmas classic, Little Women, said of her experience of G_d, “I had an early run in the woods before the dew was off the grass.  The moss was like velvet, and as I ran under the arches of yellow and red leaves I sang for joy, my heart was so bright and the world so beautiful.  I stopped at the end of the walk and saw the sunshine out over the wide meadows.  It seemed like going through a dark life or grave into heaven beyond.  A very strange and solemn feeling came over me as I stood there, with no sound but the rustle of the pines, no one near me, and the sun so glorious, as for me alone.  It seemed as if I felt [God], and I prayed in my heart that I might keep that happy sense of nearness all my life.”  For Louisa, it was when she ran in the woods around Walden Pond and marveled at creation that she felt nearest the source of creation, when she had one of her ecstatic experiences; who knows when, where or how many others she had, but I can guarantee you they certainly happened when she wrote.  She writes further, “. . . for I most sincerely think the little girl got religion that day when dear mother Nature led her to [God].”

From G_d, goodness comes.  That’s G_d’s chief feature.  In Alcott’s case, we have her immense oeurvre of not only novels for girls and boys but also her gothic horror tales – not, perhaps, acceptable reading material for fundamentalists of the day, but certainly an enjoyable entertainment for thousands of individuals and families in a time before radio, TV, and internet.  She understood the power of creation.  And isn’t this force that which is described in the Judeo-Christian creation myth, the one we are told begets goodness?  This story gives us the first morality lesson in scripture; it’s the first place we see a moral qualifier, the word (translated into English), “good.”  “And G_d ‘saw’ that it [creation] was good.”  Sure – Moses may have personified G_d in this story to give us a retrospective sense so that we could vicariously reflect on the process that gave us this goodness, but he only did it because we cannot perceive all, all the time, and can only conceive of a process retrospectively.  That’s a literary device for which I can forgive Moses because he equivocates in much of the rest of his writing on the personal god, as we see him doing in Exodus 3:13-14 (‘Who should I tell my people have sent them?’ ‘Tell them, I AM THAT I AM hath commanded you.’).  I’ve said it before, and I’ll remind readers again:  G_d is not a Billy Mays-like pitchman in the opening passages of Genesis, who introduces us to his ‘products’ so we can ‘buy’ them.  G_d is.  It’s worth noting that these first monotheists were a group of people who lived in a society that worshipped entities, and Moses knew, just as the Catholic Church a thousand years later would learn when it converted paganism into Christianity, that gods evolve.  ‘Almighty’ G_d in this community was too great a leap for most people to understand, and evidence suggests it’s still a tall order.  There are still plenty of people in the world today that believe G_d is an entity – usually, a capricious and vindictive, old man in the sky – and that’s why Jesus told us that one – and the very first – of the only two commandments we have to observe is to love G_d by using all our mind (cogitation), heart (will) and strength (assiduity), whether we are five, or fifty-five, or 105 years-old. That means, seek G_d everywhere, all the time (because G_d is). People who accept uncritically the beliefs of others – their parents, their church or temple leaders, their cliques – aren’t doing this.   They’re missing out on the dynamism that characterizes the G_d that is, the "one, true" G_d (sorry if this offends you; there's only one infinite).  In this arrogant state, where we just assume that we don’t have to make an effort to ‘know’ G_d, is it any wonder there are large groups of people who deny the existence of G_d fighting with those that say G_d is an entity?  That’s where arrogance gets you – really far away from G_d.  But it doesn’t have to be this way.  We don’t have to fight over G_d, or anything else.  We can change our disposition toward G_d.  All we have to do is to keep one thing in mind: we have to make the effort.  We have to love G_d with all our mind, heart and strength.  And to do that, we have to admit that we don’t know G_d; we don’t have the answers to G_d; we have to mindfully open ourselves up to G_d right here, right now.  We have to be humble.

The humility with which we are exhorted to conduct ourselves in sacred texts has nothing to do with religious observance, or any type of saintly behavior.  This is the type of humility to which scripture alludes:  an ongoing awareness that our mere perceptions cannot give us true knowledge about G_d.  Not our cogitations about G_d.  Not our conversations about G_d.  And certainly, all attempts to craft the perception of one’s saintly character through obsessive religious devotion will result in a false piety that has absolutely nothing to do with the type of humility with which we are charged in scripture to behave.  These admonitions are less against unsaintly behavior than they are practical instructions on how to allow your soul to engage the infinite; less prescriptive and more descriptive.  It’s not a plan, this humility, but an awakened sense of acceptance and expectancy.  And this is what we’re admonished to accept:  that our ability to perceive G_d is going to be restricted because we, ourselves, have space and time limitations (not to mention, mind and personality limitations), and G_d is infinite and does not because (all together now) G_d is. When we run around arguing with others that the god entity does exist, or doesn’t exist, we’re supremely deluded by our limited perceptions, and these admonitions are the reason we are exhorted in Judeo-Christian scripture to be humble – to accept that we have limitations which preclude our total knowledge all the time of G_d.  Now, my father assured me that when he died on the operating table during heart surgery, he saw ‘the old man,’ and I have no doubt he encountered beings in spirit form that were powerfully loving in that realm.  But I am extremely dubious that any one of these spirits was God since the man recounting this tale has never questioned the prejudices about the Almighty that he was given; he’s never abided by that first commandment Jesus gave us, and I can assure you that when a 60-something year-old man who’s never tried to know G_d as Jesus told us we should try dies, that’s not the time he’s going to suddenly know G_d.  G_d is.  Right here.  Right now.  G_d is not ‘transcendent,’ or other-wordly.  G_d (say it with me one more time) IS.  When you accept that you can’t commune with G_d constantly and you must, therefore, dispose yourself to do so, it becomes much easier to ‘know’ G_d and to choose to know G_d whenever you have the chance: opening the door for someone who needs it; writing a poem; making your employees’ lives better.  The way to know G_d is everywhere our actions create a better life because G_d is. That’s what those admonitions to be humble are about.

You don’t have to be Jimi, or Jesus to know G_d.  Go for a run and stop to marvel at nature and you, too, like Louisa May Alcott, will get some sense of G_d, and if some sense is all you can have in a given moment, isn’t it still better than none?  Isn’t it enough?  Artists throughout time have said, ‘yes’ with their creations, and when you create goodness, you have an opportunity to know G_d even more, perhaps even to an ecstatic degree.  You can beat the limitations of most of your time/space and other restrictions, even if for only ‘moments’ at a time – because (well, you know).  So that’s enough about why and how to avail yourself of G_d.

What else? Ah – the negative covenant.

The only way you can be sure you’ll never experience G_d is by exercising your will over others and treating them not as individuals with the capacity for this subjective experience of G_d, but merely as objects for your use; merely as consumers to sell your wares to; the trophy wife or husband; as your most handsomely paid CEOS who run your companies regardless of the devastating “externalities” that pollute, maim and kill; as serfs you recruit into your military to kill for you, certainly – all of which requires you objectify yourself, too, as the bastard boss, or user spouse, or exploitative corporate board.  Exercising one’s ego - because ego is self-objectification – and treating life as a game in which you have to be the winner at all costs, including the cost of life to others you subjugate to your will, ain’t gonna get you knowledge of G_d, or put you anywhere near the neighborhood of the kingdom of G_d.  Though Jimi trained as a 101st Airborne, he understood this, too.  He was about as unconcerned with his image and the impact of his music, or the money he could make from it, as any sage could be; he was universally regarded among his peers as incredibly humble, this inventor of entire genre of music, the greatest electric guitarist in history.  On the other hand, the Bush dynasty/regime and G_d? Ah – no.  Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, and the rest of the regime’s propagandists, both right and pseudo-left (because there is no left, left)?  Again - no.  Don’t be ridiculous.  You can’t approach people with any kind of agenda and expect to experience G_d with them.  Not how it works.  And you don’t have to be a bastard boss; you could be your bastard boss’s victim and quash any chance of knowing G_d with him or her because of your expectations s/he will mistreat you.  Stop worrying about what may never be.  The last line of the Sermon on the Mount, remember, is, “Sufficient unto the day is the evil therein.”  Live in the moment.  But if your problem happens to be that you’re the bastard boss, can you ever expect to completely escape ego? Of course not.  (Sorry you young Buddhists; the middle way is the way.)  All we can do is stop it from getting out of hand, even if we’re the victim of a bastard boss, and stop seeing others, or ourselves, as mere objects.  That takes grace.  Accepting our objectivity when we must, but also not relinquishing our, or denigrating others’, subjectivity.  We don’t have to pimp our misery on 16 and Pregnant any more than we have to vote others off our islands.  Reality and truth are two different things, people, and you’re not going to find the most fulfilling type of human experience clamoring after (or participating in) ‘reality’ shows. (That’s the reason scripture advises modesty.)  Stop objectifying yourselves and one another.  Start experiencing your subjectivity to its fullest.  And accord others the right to do so.   Groove on – whenever, wherever, however.  Could the Bush dynasty/regime know G_d?  Certainly.  Because (are you tired of saying it, yet?) G_d is.  But I see a lot of solemn runs in the woods for each of them individually, a lot of packs of crayons, maybe a kazoo or two, some quadratic equations, ENDLESS community service in their futures, if they ever have a hope in this hell they’ve made for the rest of us of doing so.  Now there's something to pray for.


I blanch when I re-read the messages I exchanged with Davidson Loehr earlier this year, after I found his November, 2004, essay on fascism on the web.  I had asked him what, if anything, he would change in it, and he was kind enough to reply that he would change one or two materially insignificant things about it, but not much else.  It's a comprehensive, concise and accurate essay that I strongly encourage you to read, but I was angry with him when I received his reply.  It's conclusion offers ways of resisting American fascism, but nothing about helping the what is estimated to be the already millions of victims of it.  I thought, “Anyone who’s writing an essay about American fascism ought to be willing to write about the actual experiences of its victims.” But, of course, this was misplaced anger.  I had been rebuffed by a talking head who publishes prolifically on the subject of American fascism, and when Loehr said he originally intended on publishing his essay without the hopeful ending consisting of these suggestions which it now contains, I exploded.  There are those of us out here for who American fascism is a fact - not a theory, or supposition, or possibility - and our stories need to be told as much as we need to tell them (guess why).  For more than 20 years I’ve had to hear from people who’ve reified my body with hideous bioweapons research to hope for a better tomorrow, so I’m a bit dubious of the peddlers of hope.  I want G_d with them now, not tomorrow.  I don’t want to be objectified for their profit, or convenience, or comfort.  I don’t want to be anyone’s cash cow, or object of pity.  Not today.  I could be dead, after all, tomorrow; today is all I have.  But then I realized this covert war that Bush promised us would last in perpetuity is just that – covert – and if it were readily possible for those in positions to do something about it to see that there is a need for them to, it wouldn’t be covert.  Duh.  Likewise, I have always felt I have a right to expect G_d experience with other human beings; it’s what I try to give them – at least, most of the time – even though, cognitively, I know now that not everyone is in the same place on his or her journey to know G_d that I’m in.  This is where a runaway ego gets you, folks – a loss of integrity where you can’t walk your talk.  I never heard from Loehr again (surprise, surprise), and I’m certain I’ve alienated a potential ally.  So go carefully, my friends.  You’ll regret not having done so, and who needs to live with regret and the knowledge you’ve caused another pain?  The knowledge you put not goodness into the world, but more evil that has to be ameliorated?  Go carefully.  If you think you’re the bomb because you put food on your table by pretending to be Jack Bauer, informing on and terrorizing your fellow law-abiding citizens, or propagandizing for the fascists in control of our country, in the covert war against us liberals, you need to make a U turn because you’re only doing evil on behalf of those whose single-minded goal in life is the persecution and subjugation of us all, and you’re never going to know G_d doing so - not ever.  Not asking you to be a saint; a saint is not what you have to be; every “moment” is a potential moment for you to engage G_d: smiling at the barista at Starbucks and creating a pleasant encounter therefrom; watering your ficus and enabling its growth; composing and/or playing a piece of music; crafting a work of art (even a Haiku qualifies); working out a math problem; turning a confrontation into a moment of peace.  It’s all good – and all G_d.  Just asking you not be a menace that helps create hell here.  Go carefully, my friends.  Go carefully.  Be a blessing, not a curse.  Do as Hannah Arendt suggested when she said, "Most people never decide to be good, or bad," in The Banality of Evil - choose to do good and to not do evil.

Where Are We Now?

I’m just a middle-aged, menopausal, chronically ill, unemployed target of the US government’s covert war against liberals who actually oppose its imperialism, and if you don’t want to take my advice, you don’t have to.  But you should know that others besides Moses, Jesus, Jimi, Louisa and I have experienced G_d – many, many, many others all over the world, in every culture and every period of recorded history, and then some.  If the only person you will esteem with your trust on the subject of G_d is a white man, then I encourage you to read Martin Buber’s I and Thou, which expounds much more poetically than I have on the “is-ness” nature of G_d.  But if the only thing you do after reading this essay is one thing, I pray that it be that you understand that G_d is.

Next week’s post, my final of the year, will be like that most popular of hairstyles in the American south, the mullet – business in the front, party in the back.  You won’t want to miss it.  Happy Christmas, everyone – and may every moment of your holiday and new year find you in the kingdom of G_d.


Anonymous said...

I read your reply to Ricky Gervais' post, but not much of the extra stuff here, and I have two comments.

One is that there is nothing in your five year old epiphany that suggests to me that G-d had anything to do with it. It probably does to you because you are predisposed to see the hand of god (omnipotent & omnipresent, as your dad said) in action.

Also, if I recall correctly, Moses was not allowed to enter the promised land because he disobeyed G-d, striking a rock to get water from it, rather than speaking to it, as he was told. Numbers 20:8-12

Saoirse, said...

Congratulations – you caught me. I am not, as anyone who reads my blog would deduce, a fundamentalist literalist who’s read the Bible multiple times. So I had to go back and re-read Numbers and do a little text analysis [link] before replying to your comment, for which I thank you. After all, I’ve only read the Bible in its entirety once and thereafter only on those occasions I’ve needed the support its wisdom can provide, and even though that’s still one more time than Jesus did (since most of it was written long after his death), I still find I need the guidance of others equally as wise as Moses and the other authors of the books of the Bible, such as Martin Buber and his I and Thou. [link] I have no problem doing what Jesus advised us to do when trying to understand G_d; I love to use not merely my mind, but my heart and perseverance as well. Though this is the only comment I have received (or have been allowed to receive) on my Christmas blog (see sidebar for explanation), herewith is my reply.

Though you are correct that Numbers 20:8-12 describes Moses’ belief that G_d is punishing him for his lack of faith in G_d’s ability to provide a permanent source of water for him, his people and their livestock, what you fail to mention is (1) that this ‘punishment’ was meted out to all the Israelites, not just to Moses, and consisted of them being ‘forced’ to continue their wanderings for what we now have determined to be another year or so and to make war with those who impeded their journey to the ‘promised land;’ and (2) though Moses faltered in his faith in G_d’s ability to provide for them in this passage, G_d nevertheless did provide the water Moses and his people needed – it just wasn’t as easy to get, or reliably abundant, as they had seen other water sources in their wanderings. That word, ‘forced,’ is in inverse quotes because it’s a word that must be qualified. It’s unclear not merely to us but to them as well whether, if they simply had waited for the three springs at the juncture of this rock to fill up again, they would not have been rewarded amply for having done so, if only by not having to go to war with the goodly numbers of people whom they subsequently encountered and fought with for access to more abundant supplies of water. War was something they could little afford since the elders of this first generation of free Israelites were dying off, as the death of Miriam (Aaron’s wife) in Numbers 20 indicates. Here, we at least see Moses justifying to his people why they would have to continue their journeys. It was either that, or stay and have merely some water which they would have to constantly dig for in the dry season. Moses knew his people needed a never-ending, free-flowing, unimpeded sources of water and he also knew that there were such sources elsewhere – sources that had given birth to other thriving civilizations such as the one he coveted for his people. What’s interesting about this passage is that it is a passage about being impatient and greedy – and having to suffer for one’s impatience and greed the consequences of them. It is clearly not the Biblical passage to which my comment on Ricky Gervais’ essay refers, which is Numbers 27:12-14 (and Deuteronomy 1:37, as well as Deuteronomy 3:25-27). Those are Moses’ musings about why he forfeited the opportunity to go with the Israelites into Canaan after this difficult 40-year trek. But since you’ve offered us this passage to analyze, I shall oblige.

Saoirse, said...

Numbers is an incomplete record of the Israelites’ 40-year journey through the desert. It records the first two or so, and then the last, years of their nomadic journeys, which is significant because we don’t know how many other times Moses’ and his people’s ‘faith’ may have flagged in these years, and we certainly don’t know how they would have perceived the results of having fallen away from G_d, or what, if any, were the consequences to them for having done so. Indeed, the ‘punishment’ G_d ‘gives’ the people of Israel in these passages – to continue their wanderings and be at war with all those they meet – seems really very merciless considering that the infraction which led to it was the simple act of hitting a rock instead of ‘speaking’ to it so that it produced water (this passage, interestingly, has long been cited as the first in historical writings of an account of water witching, or using divining rods to ascertain the location, depth and flow of water veins – a very frustrating activity that can make anyone want to hit rocks, I can assure you). But in Exodus 7:15, G_d instructs Moses to strike rocks in order to bring forth water. So, just as these people’s understanding of G_d is clearly still evolving, so, too, is their understanding of G_d’s will for and instructions to them (not to mention, their dowsing skills), the further proof being that in Numbers 6, there is the suggestion that the Israelites were again beginning to fragment and lose their ‘faith,’ so that Moses and Aaron took refuge up a mountain once again to confer and commune with G_d for guidance. G_d is difficult to know and requires just what Jesus said of us – an application of all of our mind, heart and strength. The sacrilege referred to in this story isn’t that the people in it doubt that god exists; it’s that they doubt that G_d exists. They doubt that their patience and forbearance can create in a place of questionable hospitality the society of peace and freedom and abundance they dream, and it is this doubt that forces them to keep wandering around in search of a better place to settle, to their detriment. Were they forced by a puppet master type G_d to leave these springs, or were they disinclined to stay because water, they believed, was easier and more abundant elsewhere, notwithstanding the wars they would have to fight to get it? Clearly, their dowsing skills, if nothing else, needed honing.

Numbers 13-14 tell us Moses sent a messenger to the King of Edom to arrange passage through Edomite and then down around Moab to Palestine, their ultimate destination goal, and after having been refused by King Edom, there follow other passages detailing the struggles of the Israelites to find a safe passage through and/or around one kingdom after another. If you were traveling in the desert, wouldn’t your chief priority be to find water? That’s what they were looking for – that’s what would indicate to them that they had found “the promised land.” In fact, what becomes clear as we read further into the book of Numbers, is that this war for water the Israelites must wage against one nation after another (whose borders they breach to attain the vital material or passage to a land that had it) is the punishment these people endure for not being satisfied with the water they were given. Good things come to those who wait. To those who don’t, well . . .

Saoirse, said...

Numbers 21:1-35 deals entirely with the attack the Canaanites led against the Israelites and the Israelites’ determination to defeat them and take their resource-rich land (why wait to find out if your water source is going to be sufficient to support a new country when you can simply take a proven one?), which they espied in their continued wanderings. And so it goes – in the City of Hor, in Arnon and Jabbok (now, Zurka), in Bashan (now, part of Jordan), etc. – the Israelites fought with everyone to either be allowed to stay where they were, or to move through some water-bearing land on their way to this as-yet-undecided promised land which turned out to be Canaan. So the likelihood of this first place “G_d” forced the Israelites from being Canaan – the actual land of promise that I referenced in my comment on Ricky Gervais’ essay – is nil, which means that you are selectively reading your Bible to suit your own needs – not to mention, my comment. I’d say this gives us more in common than it separates us, but that would be a lie since I read the Bible for what it is – a fascinating piece of literature that records the ancient wisdom and history of a people whose influences we feel today in so many ways. You read it to use as a weapon against others. Very anti-Christic.

Saoirse, said...

As for Numbers 27:12-14, again – what’s most fascinating about this passage is not what we’re told G_d ‘tells’ Moses he can’t do, but what G_d ‘tells’ Moses he must do: go back up the mountain he’s gone to time and time again to commune with G_d ‘for the sake of the people.’ Someone once said great souls grow great alone, and certainly, this monastic contemplation we see Moses engaging in right up until his death is what made him a great soul – a ‘servant of G_d.’ Here, we see Moses getting a metaphorical ‘time out’ to think about the consequences of what he’s done – he’s dragged his people around from one place to another, looking for a more habitable place than the place where he struck the rocks to get the water his people needed, and then dragooned them into wars with the Canaanites and others for better access to that precious resource. What other course of action would we expect of a contemplative – “for the sake of” his people? Of course he felt compelled to take himself out of a position of leadership and go and do some ‘soul searching;’ he’d almost destroyed his people, needlessly. What Moses was writing about in Numbers 27 and in Deuteronomy was his misgivings about having been too hasty with his people and G_d when he decided the water they had discovered wasn’t good enough for them (gee, that's an implausible theory isn't it - Jewish guilt?). Even after all his people and their livestock were satiated, Moses decides they still have to wander around for a better source – one that didn’t require much in the way of effort, or even much faith, to provoke. He was regretting having led his people from a perfectly peaceful place with which they could have made due and built their society to a more abundant, more established place where their future would be assured – but only once they had conquered the people already there. Why didn’t he just say he was sorry? He didn’t say he was sorry for having led his people around on sometimes needless quests because he was allegedly doing G_d’s work; it was G_d that made him lead his people certain ways, not he, himself, and to deny G_d’s influence after all those years would have been to question G_d’s existence. Moses wasn’t about to do that just at the moment his people finally fulfilled their quest. After all, the truth that G_d is is just that – truth – and if he and Aaron could understand this, he knew there would be others who understood it, too.

So I maintain that, however Moses wavered in his writings over his conceptualization of G_d, it is most certainly knowledge of the living G_d that prompted him to continually seek to know G_d’s ‘will.’ And knowing doesn’t mean talking or writing about G_d. An image is an image. God is an image of G_d, not G_d. What requires engagement in the here and now cannot be discussed to be understood, not even if we use images to do so. If we propose to discuss G_d, we must take care when we do not to degrade G_d as God. That’s why Moses wrote Exodus 3:13-14. When Moses engaged G_d in his contemplations, this is what he struggled with – how to impart the wisdom he received to a people who themselves were unused to engaging in the here and now to know G_d; these were former idol worshippers, remember. Moses had a lot to think about once his term as the Israelites’ leader ended, and he couldn’t do it while living amongst those people who expected perfect and divine intervention delivered from a perfect puppet master through him – even if the only way he could explain his departure from them was to use this image of G_d. This is what forced Moses into exile, not God.

Saoirse, said...

Whether or not we agree to read Numbers (or any of the Bible) literally or critically (as one should read all literature; there’s that call to use our hearts and strength and not just our minds that Jesus talked about), one thing we cannot deny is that Numbers 20:8-12 outlines the consequences that redound to us when we force our will against G_d. Whether we see the motive action as Moses’ refusal to simply let the water flow and be satisfied with what came, or whether we see the motive action as Moses’ clear dissatisfaction with what he and his people were given, the consequence is the same: continued exile and strife over crucial resources. I very much claim that G_d, here, is the G_d Moses introduced to us in Exodus 3:13-14 which is the living G_d and is dynamic and immersed in (not removed, or transcendent in the sense of being removed entirely from) all of life, AND that if Moses had paid attention to G_d, he would have stayed where he was and would not have subjected his people to continued needless struggle, and other people to his people’s craven desire for their land and resources. Difficulties follow when we do not work with G_d – difficulties such as instability, fragmenting communities and wars. That’s the message of the passage you cite, which is extremely interesting from a psychological point of view since, when you denigrate my experience of G_d as worthless and exalt yourself above the community which G_d otherwise makes possible with me by happily dismissing my latest essay without reading it, you, too, are rejecting G_d and inviting violence against yourself. Your clear intent is to provoke a violent reaction in me, and violence, as we can see from the passages you cited, will get you nothing but more violence and confusion. All that is left to say is thanks for degrading yourself and proving my point: that those of you who force your will against the living G_d by choosing to do violence to others do nothing but put yourselves outside of G_d’s presence by creating enmity in others and destroying good will. I guess the moral of the story is that if you’re going to read literature, then read it; if you’re going to worship G_d, you could do no better than to do as Jesus bade you, which is to use all your mind, HEART and strength.