Monthly Archives: April 2015

Who wrote Genesis?

My college education was long and chaotic. Some might call it eclectic but it would more accurately called undirected. For a good part of the time I was an anthropology major at Wayne State University studying under Dr. John Cole, a student of the famous social anthropologist Leslie White. One of the foundational principles in studying other cultures is never to bring your cultural biases into your field work. Most of the field work of the nineteenth century was terribly flawed in this regard. “Civilized” anthropologists went out to study “primitive” cultures, imposing their values on what they observed. 

One of the most common errors was to treat oral traditions as “myths” in the sense of being fables or legends. They assumed that the indigenous people “believed” literally the stories they told. This was a bias made by members of a literate culture observing a non-literate (not illiterate) culture. The meaning of the concept of “belief” they held was much more concrete than the understanding of the speakers. 

The role of story-telling in preliterate cultures has a distinct evolutionary advantage. Stories are the means by which the deepest truths of the culture are preserved intact even after many generations because stories contain a relatively small number of details which must be preserved if the story is to make sense. Let me illustrate

Have you ever had the experience of hearing someone describe an event at which you were also present? Did you notice that the other person always got it “wrong” by leaving out facts, adding new ones or distorting some? Personal memory is a very unreliable way to store information, so if we are to transmit cultural wisdom we have to have some way to ensure that information is preserved intact through countless generations.

If you have children or grandchildren you must have told them some classic bedtime stories which are pretty much known throughout our culture. And did you notice that when someone else told them the details were pretty much exactly intact? Why? Because unlike the memory of actual events, they are not dependent on personal recollection but rather on the fictional details, repeated time after time.

So in preliterate societies, the story tellers were responsible for passing on the culture And we call these stories”myths.” Myths are not untrue in a modern Western sense, but rather they contain essential truth wrapped in a fictional structure that protects that truth from distortion. As a culture begins to develop writing, these myths start to be written down, not so much as a historical record as a modern person would define it, but as a memory aid to ensure even more the accuracy of the story. When we approach these texts as modern Westerners, we tend to bring our understanding of textual criticism with us. And many people approach early texts incorrectly with that bias.

Creation myths are cultural universals, that is they appear without exception in all cultures. I happen to believe that the creation myths of the Jews were in fact inspired by the Holy Spirit and provide infallible information about God and our relationship to Him. I don’t think one needs to read them in a literal, Western sense to understand the truth contained within. For instance, I do not need to believe in a literal Garden of Eden with a literal serpent in order to accept as true the fact of Man’s fallen nature. I also believe that God is revealed to us in two manners: via the direct evidence of His magnificent creation, and by direct revelation through the Holy Spirit. They are each true in their own way and cannot disagree. When science seems to conflict with Scripture, I think it is reasonable to assume that our reading is where the problem lay. Bear in mind that God can only reveal Himself in the language and the mental constructs of the men (and women) he inspires. The fantastic vision that Ezekiel saw, of wheels within wheels, would have been described entirely differently by a native of of a mesoamerican culture that did not yet have the technology of wheels. God’s revelation is so immense and so entirely beyond our ability to express it in words that anything we say is in one sense “mythic,” not that it speaks of the untrue but rather of the unknowable.

So to answer my question, it would be entirely correct to say that God “wrote” genesis since He was the only one around at the time. But I also believe it was the earliest writers of the Pentateuch who received the revelation of God and passed it faithfully to us. For me, the most important thing is that God the Holy Spirit can speak directly to us via the Scripture in order to know Him and, in so doing, begin to know ourselves. 

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Did you say “myth?”

I was reading last night’s post and realized that I had used the term “myth” in a way that it is not commonly understood so let me back up a little and elaborate on that. If you are a literal interpreter of Scripture this post is not for you.

When I was studying anthropology (that again) I was taught a very important lesson about the biases of literate cultures, that is those who have a permanent means of storing speech. We have possessed the technology of writing for so long that we don’t think about how preliterate societies transmitted knowledge. The means by which they did this was by oral tradition, in other words “stories” told from one generation to the next. Keep in mind that each culture is uniquely adapted to its own environment and that transmission of these aspects of culture are critically important for survival.

Have you ever had the experience of hearing someone describe an event at which you were also present? Did you notice that the other person always got it “wrong” by leaving out facts, adding new ones or distorting some? Personal memory is a very unreliable way to store information, so if we are to transmit cultural wisdom we have to have some way to ensure that information is preserved intact through countless generations.

If you have children or grandchildren you must have told them some classic bedtime stories which are pretty much known throughout our culture. And did you notice that when someone else told them the details were pretty much exactly intact? Why? Because unlike the memory of actual events, they are not dependent on personal recollection but rather on the fictional details. Stories turn out to be a mechanism by which information is handed down in a reliable and consistent way because they contain a relatively small number of details structured in such a way that the story itself is radically changed if even one of these details is distorted.

So in preliterate societies, the story tellers were responsible for passing on the culture And we call these stories”myths.” Myths are not untrue, but rather they contain essential truth wrapped in a fictional structure that protects that truth from distortion. As a culture begins to develop writing, these myths start to be written down, not so much as a historical record as a modern person would define it, but as a memory aid to ensure even more the accuracy of the story. When we approach these texts as modern Westerners, we tend to bring our understanding of textual criticism with us. And many people approach early texts incorrectly with that bias.

Seen that way, the first five books of the Old Testament are probably the earliest written versions of the creation myths of the Jews that stretch back hundreds of generations. I personally believe that the ancient Hebrew myths were in fact directly inspired by God and as such contain tremendously important truth about His nature, His creation and His creatures. For example, I do not have to believe in a literal Garden of Eden to accept the truth of man’s fallen nature. (my theology, but maybe not yours)

Because God himself is unknowable, any stories about God are necessarily mythical, that is, they reflect the total mystery of God. Theology, or the “study” of God, is really the study of the truths contained in the myths, or sometimes the creation of entirely new myths shrouded in academic credibility.

So when I refer to the “God concept” as a benevolent myth, I do not mean that belief in God is a belief in the untrue, but rather a belief in the unknowable. And as I said in the previous post, this “myth,” this story about God, is such a fundamental part of our human nature that we are never entirely complete until we embrace a story about God that fulfills our deepest longings.

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The Great Reality

Actually we were fooling ourselves, for deep down in every man, woman, and child, is the fundamental idea of God. It may be obscured by calamity, by pomp, by worship of other things, but in some form or other it is there. For faith in a Power greater than ourselves, and miraculous demonstrations of that power in human lives, are facts as old as man himself.

We finally saw that faith in some kind of God was a part of our make-up, just as much as the feeling we have for a friend. Sometimes we had to search fearlessly, but He was there. He was as much a fact as we were. We found the Great Reality deep down within us. In the last analysis it is only there that He may be found. It was so with us. – Alcoholics Anonymous – p. 55

“For you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” – Augustine of Hippo

I find it very amusing that people who would never use the word “god” to describe a creator nevertheless substitute the word “Nature” (often capitalized, no less) as if “Nature” itself were a form of creative intelligence. I say this not to argue for or against either position, only to demonstrate how ingrained the concept of “god” is.

I’m going to play cultural anthropologist here. (That was actually my major at WSU for a time.) The concept of “cultural evolution” says that, in the same way that organisms adapt to their environments, cultures do so as well. And certain adaptations (like kinship systems and cooperative labor) are so advantageous that they occur in every culture. Belief in deities is one of these cultural universals. It finds many expressions, everything from totemic beliefs to our more familiar Western religions, but it is always there. Yet there doesn’t actually seem to be any particular evolutionary advantage to it. It just seems to be a fundamental and necessary part of the human mind (or of the human heart, if you will).

Why do I say all of this? Because I very firmly believe that human life divorced from a sense of the divine is incomplete. Bill said it, but he was echoing Augustine (with whom he was quite familiar). And as Carl Jung himself said in 1932,

Among all my patients in the second half of life—that is to say, over thirty-five—there has not been one whose problem in the last resort was not that of finding a religious outlook on life. It is safe to say that every one of them fell ill because he had lost what the living religions of every age have given their followers, and none of them has been really healed who did not regain his religious outlook. This of course has nothing whatever to do with a particular creed or membership of a church.

(Bill was, of course, a devotee of Jungian psychology and corresponded with him on one occasion.)

This in no way proves the existence of God, but it very strongly argues for the necessity of some form of spiritual belief if we are to live a fulfilling life. So there are two ways of looking at it. On the one hand, if God truly exists then faith becomes the only real foundation upon which to live one’s life. If, on the other hand, God is a myth, then it is a most benevolent myth and one we ought not discard in our lust for autonomy.

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Professor Langley’s flying machine

Did not Professor Langley’s flying machine go to the bottom of the Potomac River? – Alcoholics Anonymous – p.51

As the Big Big enters it fourth quarter of a century (seventy-six years, to be exact) some of the reference are becoming more obscure and unfamiliar to many new members. It would be a good idea if we could read up on these references in order to make the points Bill intended in a more comprehensible way. Here’s a link to a Wikipedia article about the above quote. What Bill is saying is that people often ridicule that which they do not understand. Or, worse yet, they ridicule it because they don’t want to understand it.

Bill lived in an age when the religious culture of the United States was coming under heavy attack. It was the age of prolific scientific discovery. In fact, in Bill’s Guest House talk he refers to the way in which Science was his God.

The point of his citation is that people deride what they can not conceive. Langley was a laughingstock because his failure reinforced the beliefs of people who did not think flight was possible. And rather than attempt to prove their point, it was easier to point to another’s failure.

Christianity had been such an unspoken assumption in our culture for so long that when it became more acceptable to hold anti-religious views, the handiest expression of those views was to ridicule it.

“Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.  – Matthew 7:6 NIV

It’s not just that the pearls are wasted on the pigs, but rather that if you do that they will turn and attack you. It’s an odd fact, but one borne out by experience, that spiritual things don’t bounce off unbelievers but rather pierce them. And the reactions are generally disproportionately hostile.

And it was in this primitive mindset that I viewed religion in general and Christianity in particular. I was a pig and not only did I trample on the good things people tried to give me, I attacked them for even trying. It took nothing less than the complete collapse of my life to see through this irrational bias. And that’s exactly what it was: irrational. I had always argued that rational people didn’t believe all that God crap, yet my attack was entirely devoid of reason. It was visceral, it was mindless and it was, once I admitted it, embarrassingly shallow.

So rather than point out the ugliness of the trees, I could begin to see the beauty of the forest. Instead of laughing at the spiritual “Langley’s” whose silly beliefs reinforced my prejudices, I began to see those who soared on the wings of the angels.

As a little footnote, I am soaring on the wings of a United Airlines 737 on my way back home and crammed into a seat too narrow to hit the “a” key on the keyboard comfortably. Why do I bring that up? Because despite his failure to demonstrate it, Langley was right, I wouldn’t be sitting here if he weren’t.

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A couple of nuggets

When you stop running away from reality don’t be surprised if you get rear-ended.

A camera can’t take a picture of itself. It needs a mirror.

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I am not alone

I ran across this site in the christiannews.net comments threads and am happy to post a link.

http://truecreation.info

Not exactly what this site is about but close, and I recommend it as a well written and thoroughly researched defense of Christian faith and reason.

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A Dubious Path

We, who have traveled this dubious path, beg you to lay aside prejudice, even against organized religion. We have learned that whatever the human frailties of various faiths may be, those faiths have given purpose and direction to millions. People of faith have a logical idea of what life is all about. Actually, we used to have no reasonable conception whatever. We used to amuse ourselves by cynically dissecting spiritual beliefs and practices when we might have observed that many spiritually-minded persons of all races, colors, and creeds were demonstrating a degree of stability, happiness and usefulness which we should have sought ourselves. – Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 49

I think it would be important at his point to ask ourselves just how we atheists and agnostics came to faith. I love that line about “cynically dissecting spiritual beliefs.” That was a great amusing hobby of mine, an ego feeder for sure, but also a way of whistling past the graveyard. Keep in mind that my decision to reject God was not based on any facts or study. I merely decided that such was the case and I surrounded myself with people who reinforced that mindset. As I’ve said earlier, people who hate God and people who love God are both passionate about spiritual things. These are people for whom the issue of God and religion triggers either disproportionate hostility or an equally strong desire to share what they have found. Neither is lukewarm.

When I was in the former category it was not the people preaching to me that had any effect. In fact, I found them repulsive and, rather than winning my heart, they hardened it. Instead, it was the people who said nothing but rather showed God by the “stability, happiness and usefulness” in their lives. I wanted it for myself but I did not want it in they was they obtained it. To do so wold be to admit that I had been living my life based on an erroneous assumption and a malevolent one at that.

In order to effective in carrying the message, we must remember that “cheerfulness makes for usefulness” and that we ought to have stable lives. Remember that the Third Step prayer asks that our difficulties be relieved in order to demonstrate God’s power. If we sit in meetings talking about the ongoing chaos in  our lives without sharing how much more stable we had become, we are carrying a very dubious message.

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Back and Forth

I just got off the phone with Pat. T. (Congratulations on twenty-two years!) I was expressing my frustration about feeling as if no one was reading this blog. She assured me that people were and that they missed my posts. I assumed from the absence of comments or emails that no one was reading. Yet I saw page hits and wondered where they were coming from.

I have been very discouraged of late about not becoming a part of AA here in Arizona. I took a position with intergroup (I am the web servant) but I have had little opportunity to sponsor anyone here. Couple that with the gnawing feeling that I am becoming more and more irrelevant to my friends in Michigan and you might sense some of my melancholy.

Part of this is due to the fact that it is difficult for me to be understood on the phone and it takes a lot of effort to talk for any length of time. It’s not that I couldn’t do it, but I shy away from it as an unpleasant obligation. To help with this I have started writing to AAs in prison and that has been a great help. But even there I can become lazy and discouraged.

So once again I am encouraged to return to this blog and ignore the fact that I am getting no feedback. My email still works (sclarkaz@gmail.com) so I would appreciate a note here and there. But my blogging will no longer depend on that.

Truth be told, it is actually the sin of pride that holds me back. I want to be recognized and praised and, of all the reasons there might be for doing this, that one is the least noble. So I will resume blogging as an act of spiritual discipline and assume that even if no one else reads it, God certainly is.

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Traditions aside

Here’s a post I wrote some time ago but never published.

Last Thursday I attended our local Intergroup meeting. It was a good reminder of how “a loving God may express Himself ion our group conscience.” I wrote a little article for the newsletter on the subject, but since it is on my mind I would like to stray briefly from our walk through the Big Book to discuss an interesting way of looking at the first several Traditions.

The expression of God in our group conscience is anything but nebulous. If there were no tangible way for a Higher Power to guide the fellowship then all this talk about seeking and doing God’s will would be pointless. When I was a newcomer, this idea that we could receive direct guidance from God seemed to be silly at best and a delusion otherwise. But I saw that AA had somehow survived all these years governed from below by a pack of fractious drunks. If I could understand how God managed that minor miracle, then maybe there was an answer to this question of guidance.

I grew up in a musical atmosphere. My home was filled with it constantly and my mother saw to it that her children knew the classics, understood jazz, could play an instrument and sing. Christmas was an especially musical time. We broke out all the Christmas albums and sang along with all the carols. Why am I telling you all this? Because I noticed something very odd. We had different groups, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians, a couple of others I can’t name, and they sang some of the same songs and they ALL SOUNDED ALIKE! How was that possible? How could groups of totally different people sound so similar?

I eventually found the answer in the physics of sound and human perception of it. (Stay with me here.) What was happening was very simple. Every individual voice was different, but when they sang together the individual differences cancelled out and what you heard was the distilled essence of human voices. And so it is in the AA group. In any group of people seeking to do God’s will as they understand it, there will be differences, sometime great ones between people but if you listen carefully to what is common in the voice of the group you hear what I believe is the purified essence of the voice of God. That’s why we can’t trust our own direct guidance. It has to filtered through our experience in the group.

So this business of divine guidance starts to make sense in the context of the group and the Traditions actually provide a very clear model for how this functions in the real world. I want to examine the first several to show how this plays out.

Tradition One

Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery depends upon A.A. unity.

If God is to speak through the group, there first has to BE a group, a group of people who put unity ahead of their own personal agendas. The cornerstone of all the Traditions is this inviolable necessity of unity.

Tradition Two

For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority—a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience.

There it is in black and white. There is only one authority. And that authority finds its expression ONLY in the group conscience.

Tradition Three

The only requirement for A.A. membership is a desire to stop drinking.

The unity of the First Tradition arises organically from our need for a common solution. If God is to express Himself in the group, then the members of that group must be clearly defined. We can’t be all things to all people, but we must be one thing to ourselves.

Tradition Four

Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or A.A. as a whole.

If the group is to express the voice of God, it MUST be free from coercion. And the converse is true as well. No group can interfere with another group’s expression. Autonomy seems like a troubling proposition. How can an organization composed of stubborn drunks possibly survive if all its authority is decentralized? Yet that’s precisely why we have survived. Within the minimal confines of the Tradition, groups can express God’s will. And if we are all growing toward God according to the light we have been shown, then we are growing closer together as well.

Tradition Five

Each group has but one primary purpose—to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.

The group carries “its” unique message. The group should certainly strive to carry the AA message, but it does so in its own voice. That is its primary purpose. And we should never criticize another group’s message, no matter how wrong it may seem to us. Unity is the inviolable principle here. Trust God to carry His message, even if it is filtered through human weakness. That is as true for the groups I agree with as it is for those whom I don’t.

As I have heard, the Steps keep us from killing ourselves and the Traditions keep us from killing each other.

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