Friday, May 26, 2006

Moses and the Burning Bush: Existential Questions from the Divine-Human Encounter

Now Moses, tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian, drove the flock into the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. An angel of the LORD appeared to him in a blazing fire out of a bush. He gazed, and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed. Moses said, "I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight; why doesn't the bush burn up?" When the LORD saw that he had turned aside to look, God called to him out of the bush: "Moses! Moses!" He answered, "Here I am." And He said, "Do not come closer. Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy ground. I am," He said, "the God of your father, the God of Abraham,, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

And the LORD continued, "I have marked well the plight of My people in Egypt and have heeded their outcry because of their taskmasters; yes, I am mindful of their sufferings. I have come down to rescue them from the Egyptians and to bring them out of that land to a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey, the region of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perissites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. Now the cry of the Israelites has reached Me; moreover, I have seen how the Egyptians oppress them. Come, therefore, I will send you to Pharaoh, and you shall free My people, the Israelites, from Egypt."

But Moses said to God, "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?" And He said, "I will be with you; that shall be your sign that it was I who sent you. And when you have freed the people from Egypt, you shall worship God at this mountain."

Moses said to God, "When I come to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is His name?' what shall I say to them?" And God said to Moses, "Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh." He continued, "Thus you shall say to the Israelites, 'Ehyeh sent me to you.'"

-Exodus 3:1-14 (JPS)


________

This story is very rich and full of meaning, and is found in a number of different contexts. The first context which we ought to look at, as a way of setting the stage for the story, is its context within the Torah.

Genesis, the book of beginnings, begins with a focus on the relationship between God and creation, then shifts to the relationship between God and humanity, before finally shifting to a focus on the relationship between God and a particular collection of humans. It ends with ambiguity, as these humans, through the aid of Joseph, whose story we ought to look at sometime, find themselves in Egypt, with limitless potential.

On the one hand these people are now strangers in a strange land, having left their home because of a famine. On the other hand, this new land is, at least for now, a land of salvation. Because they have connections with the power structure of Egypt, they are a protected people. Because Egypt, through the work of Joseph, had prepared for the famine, there is more than enough food for them to eat.

So, in the context of their relationship with God they have been led from their home to this strange land, to live for a time as strangers. But they are protected strangers, and well fed strangers, saved from the slow starvation of famine.

The ending of Genesis is then full of hope and full of promise. It is not unambiguously good, as so much has been lost when home was abandoned. But it is certainly not bad, and it fails to anticipate the beginning of Exodus.

Exodus, a book of liberation and formation, begins by disillusioning us of the hope promised at the end of Genesis. The strangers are protected no longer. Rather they are enslaved. What began as a land of salvation from famine has become a land of oppression and exploitation.

It is within this context that we find another context for our story: the life of Moses. While Moses was born a stranger in the land of Egypt, subject to infanticide, his life was spared as he was taken in by the ruling household. He grew up a part of the power structure of enslavement and oppression. Rich and powerful, sure, but his wealth and his power came at a price: the oppression and enslavement of his biological brothers and sisters.

Unable or unwilling to cope with the existential conflict which must have followed from the knowledge that all of his advantages came at the expense of his own enslaved people, Moses became a criminal, a murderer. On the lam in the wilderness, Moses carves out a new life for himself, removed from the wealth, power, politics and economics of oppression in Egypt.

But as we enter into our story, Moses cannot escape his calling. He cannot escape the dichotomy between his family of birth and his adoptive family, nor can he escape the moral duty to use his priviledge to help break the chains of oppression. Moses ran to the wilderness, and in doing so ran from himself. But in his running, and in his wilderness, he ran right into what Marcus Borg calls a "thin place," a place where the line dividing the secular from the sacred is very thin indeed. And in his thin place, Moses has an encounter with the divine.

Moses drives his father-in-law's flock to Horeb, another name for Mount Sinai, a sacred place, designated the mountain of God. Not only, then, is he psychologically in a thin place, but he is also geographically in a thin place, a sacred place which helps facilitate the divine-human encounter. In this convergence of thin places, in this spiritual and physical space, he sees a strange sight. A burning bush may not be all that unusual in a desert wilderness, with the hot sun baring down on the dry twigs, scorching the earth and its vegetation. But fire consumes, fire destroys, producing heat, smoke and ash. This strange bush in this sacred space, however, while ablaze, was not reduced to smoke, heat and ash. It burned, but was not consumed, calling for Moses' attention and capturing his imagination.

And just when things couldn't get any weirder, a voice rises out of the bush, cuts through the space between Moses and the bush, and echoes inside his head, calling his name. Moses! Moses! cries the bush, and perhaps Moses wonders whether he's hearing an external and audible sound or just some voice inside his head. Encounters with the divine are like this, frustrating our expectations and undercutting our understanding. Is it real? Did it happen? Did that bush really say my name?

The description in our story is absurd, but no less absurd than any other human attempt to describe an encounter with the sacred, the divine. When we try to render these moments into language we start to see how our language, so efficient at communicating our shared experiences, is totally unable to share these strange moments, which can't be intersubjectively verified. Rather than using rational language, then, we aim for story, for metaphor. Rather than saying how it was, we say how it felt. And, more often than not, when we reach the end of our story we say something like, "It wasn't really like that at all, but that's the best I can do."

This strange encounter, this divine-human encounter, in which Moses stands before the sacred, in a sacred place, hearing a sacred voice calling out his name, drove him to ask a couple of questions. These questions are existential questions, and they are the questions which we all ask in the face of such meaningful and meaning-filled encounters. They are questions which cut to the heart of being and becoming. They are universal questions, and related questions. They are:

1. Who am I? and
2. Who are You?

"Who am I?" Moses asks God. "Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?" Perhaps this question, coming from Moses, isn't an entirely honest question. Perhaps he isn't asking for information as much as he is begging to be let off the hook. After all, Moses is beginning to get a pretty good idea who God thinks that he is. This is because Moses asks the question "Who am I?" the question which burns in our souls every time we wake up in the morning and stare into the face in the mirror, wondering who it is that's staring back, after God calls him to a mission.

Before Moses asks God who he is, God already tells him. Moses is an answer to a prayer. A prayer that those praying it may not have even known was a prayer, the silent desperate cry of the oppressed and exploited. But God heard this silent prayer, this desperate, voiceless cry, and God is now responding. But God's response is Moses.

This is a heavy calling, a calling which forces Moses to turn inward and ask, "Who am I? Who am I, that I should be an answer to prayer, God's response to suffering, oppression, exploitation and enslavement?"

Moses is asking an existential question, and existential questions rarely have rational answers. God cannot answer Moses' question with some fixed definition. God cannot say, "You are..." and have anything that follows make sense or help out. And, even if God could, Moses couldn't understand the answer.

Instead of answering Moses' question the way it was asked, God skips past the question and answers the concern, with a promise and a calling. Moses asks "Who am I?" and God answers "I will be with you!" In doing so, God affirms Moses' concern, while also affirming and holding him to his calling. Moses' identity is then to be found in the context of a relationship with God, a relationship that carries with it a calling, a journey, a task.

As such, this question, "Who am I?" is connected to the second question, "Who are You?" As Moses' identity is found in the context of his encounter and relationship with, as well as calling by the divine, so too the existential question concerning human identity is answered non-rationally by the divine-human encounter. As we ask "Who am I?" we also ask "Who are You?" The answer to these two questions are, by virtue of our interconnected and interdependent nature, linked to each other. We are found in the context of our relationship with the divine, and with each other.

"Who are You?" Moses asks God, and God answers, "Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh." This is not a name, but a mystery. It neither defines nor describes God, but it does help us to explore the mysterious nature of God. This phrase is often translated "I AM THAT I AM," a translation which is good insofar as it captures the perplexing mystery of the answer. To answer the question "Who are you?" with "I am that I am" doesn't answer the question at all. It barely even pushes it back a step. After all, if we didn't know that you are, we wouldn't ask what you are.

But the static English translation doesn't capture the full, rich meaning of the Hebrew. The Hebrew, I am told, is not static. It doesn't speak to being, but rather to becoming. As such, it could just as easily be translated "I will be what I will be," an answer which while as enigmatic as the static answer does not even attempt to fix God into a single position. Not only is God a mystery, but God is a constantly moving, constantly changing mystery. God is not an undefined but fixed point, but is rather an unfixed enigma.

But the Hebrew, I am told, is even richer than that. The Hebrew is not just an answer, but a promise which continues on the theme of the first promise made by God to Moses. When Moses asks "Who am I?" God answers "I will be with you." When Moses asks "Who are You?" God again answers, "I will be with you." This is because Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh not only conveys "I am what I am" and "I will be what I will be," but it also communicates "I will be where I will be." And, God assures Moses, where I will be is with you.

Names are very important throughout the Bible, and nowhere are they more important than in the Torah. Take Moses' name, for instance. The Hebrew is Mosheh, which comes from the Egyptian for "born of," and is, according to the Jewish Publication Society, associated with mashah, "draw out." His name, then, is not only that by which he is called, but it also points to a fundamental truth about him, the dichotomy between his birth and his adoption. Born into an enslaved, oppressed and marginalyzed group of strangers in Egypt, but "draw out" into the dominant household. He is empowered, and with that empowerment comes his eventual calling. His name is significant, and certainly not accidental.

Elsewhere in the Torah names also have great significance, as do changes in names. See for instance the move from Jacob to Israel, and the change in character that accompanied the change in name. In the New Testament we see a similar change in a character, from Saul (a Hebrew name) to Paul (a Greek form of that Hebrew name). This change anticipates Paul's new role as an apostle to the Gentiles.

While names can change, names serve as a kind of definition of the character, communicating some deep truth about the character; their fundamental identity. This is why, so often, when there is a fundamental shift in the nature or calling of a character (see also the shift from Abram and Sarai to Abraham and Sarah) there is an accompanying change in name. So, even when names are fluid, while a name is in place it, in a sense, limits the character to the definition given by the name. It fixes the character, providing boundaries and limits on who they are.

Even and especially when names in the Torah are not exactly names, they are significant. For instance, in the second creation story in Genesis we are introduced to the mythological first pair of humans, a man called Adam and a woman called Eve. The Hebrew word adam, however, is not a name, but rather a generic term often translated "man" or "mankind," or in more gender inclusive language, "humankind" (thanks again, Johanna!). This word is related to a Hebrew word for earth or soil, adamah, which is significant because this creation myth tells us that God made adam, "humankind," out of the dust of the adamah, "earth." It is also significant because, in having a character in a creation myth literally named "humankind," we can be certain that we are here dealing with the character as a literary device representing a type (much like the apostle Paul's typological use of the "old Adam" and the "new Adam"), rather than a historical person.

There are throughout the Torah names given to God. Some of these names, such as El Shaddai (traditionally rendered "God Almighty," but probably originally meant "God, the One of the Mountain," and is well known in Cannanite literature) are even given to God by God. But when Moses inquires about the name of God ("Who shall I say sent me?") God, as we have seen, gives a name which isn't a name. A name which is fluid instead of static, and is so enigmatic and mysterious as to provide us with no information about the bearer of the name.

In offering only a mystery, and the promise of the divine presence, to Moses' two great existential questions, God frustrates our expectations. That frustration, that refusal to come out and define the divine and human natures, drives us to ask the existential questions with Moses, in light of our own mysterious encounters with the divine.

Like Moses, each of us from time to time wonder who we are, and who the Other is. Like Moses we long to have a direct encounter with that holy Other, and to ask those great questions. But from the Moses story we know that the answers to these questions are lived rather than said. But, as we study the story deeper, we can begin to learn how to live out the answers to our questions, and to find ourselves in the context of a relationship with the mysterious divine. This relationship comes with both a promise and a calling, and the two together, lived out are the answer to our questions.

When Moses encountered God at that sacred site with the burning bush, God said to him, "I have marked well the plight of my people in Egypt and have heeded their outcry because of their taskmasters; yes I am mindful of their sufferings. I have come down to rescue them from the Egyptians..." How is God going to do this? "Come, therefore, I will send you to Pharoah, and you shall free My people, the Israelites, from Egypt."

God heard the cry of the suffering and the oppressed, those enslaved in Egypt, strangers far from home. And God decided to act. But while the Exodus story contains many "signs and wonders," many stories of miracles, plagues, and divine intervention; God principally chooses to act through Moses. Moses is God's answer to human suffering. Moses is God's answer to injustice and oppression.

In our own lives it is very easy for us, if we are honest, to identify people who desperately wish that God heard their silent screams. As Christians, people who identify with the mythos of the Exodus story, and who say that when we were enslaved and sorely oppressed, God broke us free from our bondage, we must understand that like Moses we who have escaped from our metaphoric Egypt are called to be God's answer to oppression and exploitation in our communities. Like Moses we who are privileged are called to see that much of our wealth was acquired by our participation in an unjust economic system. We who have advantages are called to see how those advantages have disadvantaged others. And, like Moses, we are called to face the worldly powers with the prophetic voice of our encounter with the divine, as God's answer to human suffering.

This calling, and the promise of the presence of God which comes with it, should not, however, make us morally arrogant. Rather, it should force us to ask, with Moses, "Who am I? Who am I, that You would send me?" Moses was not called by God because he was good. He wasn't particularly good. He grew up in Pharoah's house, oppressing and enslaving his biological family. When he couldn't live with the distance between the status of his birth (part of the enslaved community, marked for death) and his adoption (part of the enslaving community, doling out death), he lashed out in anger and killed a man.

In the same way, each of us have hands so stained that we need never look down on another just because we have a sense of divine calling. Our calling should instead drive us to look into our own nature, and finding it wanting, looking into the mysterious nature of God, which molds us, shapes us, and fills us with meaning. Then, in humility we should do our best to live up to our calling as part of God's answer to human suffering.

12 comments:

Tyler Simons said...

Thanks be to God! That was excellent. I'magonna try and get a few of my classmates up in here to read this.

Tyler Simons said...

My classmates are writing papers.

Tom said...

I'm back at work, so I got the chance to read this. I'm so damned motivated! All I can say is amen.

Troy said...

Chris,

this is very good, pastoral, homiletic, and appreciated. As I read, all the questions regarding reading and interpretation come to my mind: what is the origin of this story? what may be the mythic, non-historical elements? does it derive from any similar accounts?

All the rational baggage, in short.

When Moses says he's not the man for the job, 'who am I?' he is of course unsure of his own ability, afraid of the mission back to Egypt (not a common detail for a folk hero). When God says that he is what he is or will be, you note correctly that that is one slippery answer. In one sense, it is utterly final: I exist in the fullest sense of the term. I can't think of a better designator. At the same time, it is also no answer as you note.

What intrigues me is the transcendent nature of the answer (I hear echoes of Isaiah, laughing at the little wooden gods). The I AM is not associated with local phenomena, the sun or moon or flood cycle, not with the seasons, not with human or animal reproduction, not with any human emotion or activity, but simply IS. To me, that answer implies great contrast. Unknowability, yes, and a near-defiance toward humans reminiscent of Job, but above all contrast.

Moses, I exist.

As you discuss, scholars have seen the no-name answer as a way of showing superiority and power: God refuses to reveal his name so that he cannot be subordinate to Moses, whose name you discuss thoroughly.

Still, is that all? Is retaining name-power according to ancient magic all that the puzzle-name means? Perhaps. But then God could have simply not answered, or given some cryptic association, or spoken about his deeds in the weather or human experience. It seems, and I hope I'm right, that the I Am designator is the single greatest, certainly the most concise, answer in world religious literature.

Brahma, yes, is a plurality of all things, but they are things humans experience with the senses, love and death and war and creation and sex and destruction. But surely the writers of the Gita were trying to provide a grand and universal vision. For me, the original author of the I Am Name goes, quietly and subtly, beyond the Hindu beatific vision. I Am is so far removed from human teleology; God is not good, or loving, or compassionate, or judgemental, or all-powerful as Allah. Nope. He speaks for himself, and all he says is I Am.

To me, the fact that it could be rendered I Will Be at the same time makes the nomenclature that much more elegant. It's an amazingly humble beatific vision: here, it's a talking bush, but what the bush says! That's something else. A nugget of wisdom in Jewish religious literature I have not seen elsewhere.

It may exist elsewhere, though, it may have precedent, but still, the story as we have it stands.

And I'm ending with what you say throughout: God uses Moses and puts the responsibility for acting on God's behalf in this world in his hands. And Moses isn't ready. And he's not all that qualified. But he's called and he goes.

Jesus certainly saw things the same way: he sent out human beings to accomplish the work of the kingdom. Why? I don't know. But I agree with what you say on that topic and am hoping I find a more distinct call and certainly more courage myself to know where to go, what to do, where I'd fit best.

And I'm 41!

How I covet your age, Chris.

Be well, brother. Thanks for the link to this. My first volume of Wright showed up today and the first two pages alone show an intellect and attention to detail I've rarely seen. Here's to hoping I can read most of the thing without my brain exploding.

All the best.

t

Sandalstraps said...

Troy,

First, to your comment about the volume of Wright: I felt the same way when I got Hans Kung's Christianity: Essense, History and Future, a massive and very thorough tome, which looks at history and theology side-by-side, as in the church those two are always linked. Our history drives our theology, and our theology directs the course of our history.

I made a bold effort on that work, reading the first 593 pages (very small print, too) in just over two months. I lived with it. I dreamed it. I meditated over the contents, and allowed some of Kung's insights into how history and theology shape each other to inform my attitude toward both of them, more firmly grounding my own theology on historical developments within our tradition.

But I have too many interests. I eventually ran out of steam, and just couldn't bring myself to finish the last 200 or so pages. That is why I miss seminary, or even college. If I had something riding on finishing it, some paper or exam or something, then I would have pushed through the mental fatigue. But working on my own, when I lose interest in something that interest is gone.

Finally, to get to a more pressing question:

As I read, all the questions regarding reading and interpretation come to my mind: what is the origin of this story? what may be the mythic, non-historical elements? does it derive from any similar accounts?

As best as I can tell, the story - and for that matter much of the rest of the Exodus story - is unique to ancient Israel. We can find the historical roots of the laws of Israel, and of some of the myths (most famously the Flood narrative), but this particular story and the broader story in which it is contained seems unique to ancient Israel. Not being an expert on the myths of the ancient Near East I can't say that with any certainty, but I've never seen any argument indicating that this story has any roots outside of ancient Israel.

The story of Moses' encounter with the burning bush is almost certainly entirely mythical. I say that not just because I doubt that a bush can literally burn and sot be consumed while also speaking to someone, but because most scholars that I know of don't treat Moses as a historical figure. That is not to say that the Exodus story - or even the tales of Moses in it - is not rooted in real history. Very few scholars seriously doubt that the roots of ancient Israel are found in a collection of slaves from Egypt who break out of bondage and then look for a home.

There is also no doubt about the way in which these people approached history - it was connected to their mythology. That is, their view of history was seen through the lens of their relationship with God. As such it is impossible to draw a firm line between what is for them a foundational myth (the story of the Exodus) and what is an account of their history as a people (again, the story of the Exodus). Myth rooted in history, and history seen through myth.

Once again, as Kung argues of Christianity, theology and history are here interrelated driving forces, which cannot be safely viewed apart from each other.

But a good question comes up: if, as most scholars argue, there was no man named Moses, what are we to make of the historicity of this myhtologized history? Johanna W.H. van Wijk-Bos argues that Moses, while not a historical person, is best seen as a composite figure compiled from what she calls "authentic memories" of early leaders in ancient Israel, before the political formation of ancient Israel. These stories would have been in circulation for a very, very long time before they were compiled and recorded, but they would ultimately have a basis in history. That is, these stories spring out of events which really happened, even if they did not happen in exactly the same way as they were remembered to happen or recorded as happening.

In this way, the history and the myth merge: you can no longer make a distinction between the two. As such, there is no objective way to say that God actually worked in the way that the stories describe. But we can say that these people experienced God working in this way, and that that experience of the work of God helped form their identity as a people.

In the same way we have our own experience of God, an experience which is rooted in part in their experience as it is rooted in their mythos. Studying their myths, then, helps us to understand the culture which gave rise to our way of seeing and experiencing God, and it helps us to understand our experiences. It roots us in history, and it broadens our experience to include a very ancient tradition.

Thanks for asking such great questions.

Troy said...

Chris,

sincere thanks for mentioning me in your post.

I read Kung's Does God Exist many years ago and was impressed, probably I was bothered by his biblical non-literalism (so this is a liberal, I thought) but I remember he takes on Feuerbach and Freud and others.

The thing enticing about Wright, of course, is his mix of erudition and orthodoxy. But I have been out of town and haven't gotten past those two pages. I plan to bring it on my vacation down south if I have any time.

Your blog, as always, is a great place to be. Thanks again for writing.

t

DavidD said...

"It is what it is" was declared sports quote of the year by USA Today in 2004. There have been various comments about that phrase, some trying to help it along by saying it is the same as, "The thing speaks for itself," others missing the point entirely.

I have to think God smiles some at something so much like, "I am that I am," becoming a cultural icon. Of course it could be this part of the Bible is as wrong as Genesis 1:1, and God really does have a favorite name or a favorite name from any particular person. God reminded me just now of what He likes me to call Him or Her, but I'm not going to repeat that. Context matters so much.

Sandalstraps said...

DavidD,

Thanks for your comment - I was particularly amused with the meaningless sports phrases. I wonder if the athletes who give such evasive answers are being as coy as God sometimes seems to be.

I also wonder what you mean by Genesis 1:1 being wrong. The JPS translation reads:

When God began to create heaven and earth -,

a statement which is hardly subject to truth or falsehood.

Of course the most familiar rendering is found in the Old King James,

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

Such a statement might have a definite truth-value; either God made heaven and earth in the begining, or God did not make heaven and earth in the begining. But I suspect that you're not parsing that sentence to see if the following claims which can be drawn out of it are true:

1. Heaven and earth were made.
2. Heaven and earth were made "in the begining," (whatever is meant by that).
3. Heaven and earth were made by God (whatever we mean by God).
4. God made them when they were made, which is "in the begining."

If heaven and earth weren't made, or if they were made, but not "in the begining," or if they were made "in the begining," but not by God, then the King James version of Genesis 1:1, if it is read as a literal representation of some historical event, is false.

But I suspect, and correct me if I am wrong, that while you're reading Genesis 1:1 in a way similar to the second version offered here, when you suggest that it is false you mean more than just that the single verse is incorrect on one of the four identified points. I suspect that you are responding not just to the verse in question, but to the creation myth of which it is a part; and even more, that you are responding not so much to that myth itself as to the way in which is has been read and interpreted by some people who can't help but try to read an ancient text with modern expectations.

Since the "Enlightment" people have read the Bible through a "modern" lens, as though it were a scientific or encyclopedic work, a collection of divinely revealed facts. Seeing this mode of reading as the normative one conveniently overlooks the fact that while the texts contained in what we call the Bible (which is not a single work, or even a single canon of works) have been around for thousands of years, this mode of reading has been around for only roughly 300 years.

The creation myth in question has been around since probably before any written form of the Hebrew language; and Hebrew is a very old language. Yet it has been read in the "modern" way - the way in which both creationists and modern critics of the myth read it - for a relatively short time. For more than 90% of its history it has answer questions which we no longer ask of it.

There is no telling how old this story, this creation myth, is. While modern textual critics speculate that it entered its final form sometime between 586-538 BCE, there is simply no way to know how much earlier people started telling each other a version of this myth. It was certainly part of the collective Hebrew culture many, many hundreds of years before it was written in its final form.

I mention its extreme age to say that the world in which this story was first told was a world vastly different from our own; and the culture in which this story was first told - the culture that was shaped by this myth as much as it shaped the myth - was a very different culture from our own. When we read this story in our historical and cultural context, we have to understand that we ask very different things of a story than the culture which collectively composed this myth asked of their stories.

We are very literally and historically minded. When we hear an explanation of the origins of all that exists, we expect that explanation to address those literal and historical claims. But this particular story is an existential story, addressing the needs of a spiritual community which was less concerned with conveying what exactly happened (as though they would have at their disposal the means by which to discern the physical origins of the universe) and more concerned with answering why things happen at all.

Of course, by being part of the sacred scriptures of two major religions (Judaism and Christianity), and by being part of the mythical fabric of a third religion (Islam), this story comes to us loaded with the baggage of being declared God's Word. You have seen how such baggage causes otherwise reasonable people to fail to appreciate the limits of any myth, and read this myth as a scientific and historical account of the origins of the universe, rather than a meaningful ancient story. As such we expect that this and other parts of sacred scripture are either literally true or literally false. But expecting truth or falsehood in such stark terms from a myth is setting yourself up for disappointment, and failing to see why the myth in question has endured for so long.

This particular myth points to an order in our experience of life; calling forth order out of chaos, meaning out of meaninglessness. It points to a transcendant God as the source of such order and meaning, and communicates the centrality of that God in the created order. It does not, however, lay out a literal handbook on the formation of the universe.

DavidD said...

I actually meant to write Gen. 1:11-25, where I have my greatest confidence that Genesis is wrong involving an order of creation that doesn't match the fossil record. Flowering trees were a late development. Not all sea creatures and birds preceded land animals, regardless of how old someone thinks life is.

At the same time, I let it go at Gen. 1:1 because one could object there, too, and it is the first opportunity one has to do so. The Earth was not created at the same time as the heavens. We benefit from all the elements heavier than helium having been made in several life cycles of stars going through their life and supernova before there was an Earth. I also don't define God as the creator. My favorite definition of God is that God is the one who answers when I pray, "God help me!" He tells me He doesn't remember creating the universe, but He wouldn't put it past Him to do that. He's a lot more in the present for me than He is for some, I guess. It's good enough for me.

One could say that's close enough between my understanding of all that and the Bible's. I don't think so. I have no problem with saying that it was fine for those who used it 3000 years ago to celebrate God, to be a reason to rest on the Sabbath, for whatever purposes people had. Today it's used not only for atheists and liberals to object to, but to substitute for God, to be His Holy of Holies, to define faith not as trust and devotion to God, but to believe every word in a collection of books that don't blend together that well, regardless of how that might hurt some people.

Many of my fellow liberals write as you do that there is this third or more ways to look at it as mythology or metaphor. I think that can go too far. Did God say to Moses, "I am that I am"? It may sound like whimsy to ask that, but it is really asking something like, "Father, may I touch you? I need to be sure you're real," His reality being confirmed either if the answer to what His name is yes or no. If the answer is nothing, what is that. As you mention it is this transcendent God who is too far away from me to answer. Maybe Jesus can answer. Maybe a saint can answer. Maybe a religious leader who is still alive can answer. There are problems in being so far removed from God.

I never expected to have a relationship with God where He spoke to me in words, but His presence in my life built up over twenty years, first in prayers, then elsewhere to where I experience that now. Now I ask God, and He says He remembers saying "I am that I am". It wasn't as a burning bush. It wasn't to Moses, but He remembers. It wasn't in English, and it's more than language that keeps me from understanding God fully about what happened in another place and time. My experience is that hearing from God is a much more cooperative experience than tradition predicts, both in terms of the process and in God not being the databank of facts some expect Him to be.

Now some may see this as creating my own myth. I'm not creating it. Maybe my life is creating it, an experience that will die with me, and God knows little about. That might be. It also might be that atheists are right, that there is no God, and everything I see in Him is just some better part of me. It's possible.

It's also possible that my experience of God is as real as the physics of everything around me. To see things as metaphor and myth is a way of saying there is some greater reality out there which is touched by this metaphor and myth. Yet my tendency towards the explicit is also touching a greater reality. I see one face of God, if face is the right word. He is much more than that. Maybe far away from me He is a databank that knows all these things He doesn't necessarily remember with me.

Still with me He is explicit. He knows all of my consciousness, all the science I know. So He knows the Bible is wrong. Maybe every word in Genesis is fiction, some of it useful as fiction can be, but some of it just wrong as one can point to an airplane in a western movie and say, "They got that wrong."

I can be accused of being proud, insane or even frivolous, but I'm not disappointed. I can ask God anything. I won't necessarily repeat in public what God says, but He answers me, and they aren't my answers. I've known that for a long time. People are skeptical because it's not a common experience. It may just be for my faith. It may be more for God than for me.

But when anyone asks who I am to make such claims, I know what to say. I am who I am. Anyone wanting to know why I might experience this and not someone else could get to know me and find out. God can say the same thing. How many try to get to know Him, and how many settle for a conventional image of Him, either explicitly or as mystery?

Myth and experience are different. I prefer experience. It wasn't my idea. It's just worked out that way. But having worked out that way, I can appreciate much more that it's not a matter of our having an explicit, scientific world here and some mysterious, transcendent world out there. It is one world, which I know much better near me than far away from me. God tells me it is the same for Him. It is better to draw close to Him than to be content being far away from the mystery. I think He's right about that. He's right about a lot of things I never used to get to by myself.

Sandalstraps said...

DavidD,

I hear you, but I'm afraid you may be missing my point. The question you bring to the scripture in question is:

Did this happen?

The question I bring is:

What does this mean?

The question you ask has very little to do with why this myth has endured for so long and spoken to so many people, and frankly I think that you're looking for the wrong things in the scripture, reading an ancient text through a modern lens without even trying to understand the concerns and nature of the text. Of course, you have no moral obligation to do so. Neither do you have any moral obligation to operate within the confines of an existing faith tradition.

However, when you go your own way, as you have, there are at least as many drawbacks as there are benefits. You remove all checks on the revelatory experience of your faith.

You assert that God has, in some mysterious way, told you things. However, because of the personal and private nature of that unique revelation, no one other than you has access to the things that God has told you. This means, in part, that you - in the context of your unique relationship with God - can decide that whatever you are doing has God's stamp of approval. Such an attitude has led many, many good people to do some seriously harmful things.

I'm not saying that you will at any point decide to, in accordance with the will of your private God, commit some terrible act. But I am saying that by removing yourself from a major faith tradition, and by charting your own course to God, responding to a private rather than public revelation, that a tremendous check on your spiritual life has been removed, and to me that is a little bit dangerous.

My faith tradition teaches something which makes sense to me, even if it cannot be empirically examined:

Humans were and are meant to seek God in community. This community puts parameters on our revelations, and that is not a bad thing.

As for your contention that Genesis 1:11-25 is wrong because it does not correspond with the fossil record, I suspect that you and I both agree about the literal-historical truth-value of that passage, but you, by limiting truth to literal-historical truth-value have missed the point about that passage as much as the creationists who insist that science is "wrong" and the Bible "right."

Feel free to respond to this, but I suspect that there aren't many points of intersection between our views. A good conversation needs some point of common ground, and right now I can't see sufficient common ground in our approaches for this conversation to bear fruit. I wish you the best in your quest for God, and I acknowledge that you have had some revelation of God, but I counsel you (and I know that my counsel is unsollicited, and perhaps unwanted) to try to operate within the community provided by a faith tradition, so as to place at least some check on your spiritual life and your revelations from God. After all, with so many competing visions of God, not every voice which claims to be God can possibly be God. It is, in fact, quite possible that no voice claiming to be God is entirely God. Every revelation has both a giver and a reciever, and as we are but flawed recievers our visions of God may say a great deal more about us than they do about God.

DavidD said...

"This means, in part, that you - in the context of your unique relationship with God - can decide that whatever you are doing has God's stamp of approval."

You don't understand how much of an insult this is, do you? I remember discussing with a conservative on a message board about the power of praying "not my will, but Yours". He had almost the exact same comeback you have made here, saying the only reason I pray that was so I could pretend that everything I do is God's will. No, I pray that sincerely. I'm sure it's answered in many ways. It amazes me how people assume that anyone who speaks as I do can't know anything about God, but that's what people do.

People from atheists to liberals to conservatives can all have this same objection to any personal relationship with God being dangerous. Yet if you read the biographies of someone like Jim Jones, you find that he was always dangerous. He was a charlatan from the beginning of his preaching as a Pentacostal, someone who used animal parts to simulate removing "tumors" from people. He renounced Christ before ever leaving San Francisco, saying that he was the Socialist Worker God. It was not God that directed Him in so many murder/suicides.

One can read of many other similar people, and I don't see the effects of spiritual experiences, but human nature.

It is not a trivial matter who and what God is. I look on the internet, and I see so many mean things being said, so many proud things, so many excuses being made for things people say and do. It's all so much human nature, and it's not much different between secularly minded people and religiously minded people. Yet there are clues that there is something greater than our nature, something more loving and true, from icons like Jesus and Gandhi, to people I knew personally who impressed me in a similar way, to life experiences as I have had in a helping profession and now in my volunteer work. People look to tradition to help them understand this, but tradition has its shortcomings.

I would argue how helpful it is to go to God with this directly, that that is not as dangerous as you fear. I can't say I came to that insight myself. I just started praying again in my thirties and my relationship with God flowered. I did not abandon my church for that, as you seem to fantasize. I have seen how poorly churches are doing what they are trying to do, though.

Does your community bring people to live their lives to end poverty? Does your community bring people to live their lives to end conflict? If not, why not? It is what God wants. You don't have to take my word for that. You can research it yourself. You can ask God yourself.

It is because so many communities fail at doing anything that resembles God that I don't find as much meaning in the Bible as you do. I'm sorry if you don't find anything useful in that observation. I can only say what I know to say.

In the long run, I don't see a future for conservative religion, for liberal religion or for atheism. There is a future for secular living. There is a future for living with God. I don't know exactly what that will look. I just trust God. I wish more people could, but people all across the religious spectrum object to trusting God, as you do. People have that choice.

Sandalstraps said...

DavidD,

Neither you nor anyone else gets to speak definitively for God. Neither you nor anyone else gets to presume to know what my spiritual community is doing on social issues.

I do not deny that you have experienced something which has profoundly impacted your life, nor do I deny that you think that your experience is of God. I cannot definitively say whether you have experienced God or not, because I don't have the spiritual arrogance to presume to know God in any absolute sense. But I can say that some humility would do you a great deal of good.

I once had a conversation with a woman in a church I pastored about how to interpret a particular passage of scripture. Her ultimate trump card was that God told her that the passage meant such and such, therefore, no matter what I said to her, or my reasons for saying it, the passage meant such and such. The end. To disagree with her was to disagree with God. As such, there could be no communication between the two of us.

There can also be, for as long as you insist that your private experience of God in normative and binding on all people, no communication between the two of us. I have no access to your relationship with God, and can offer no comment on the revelations you recieve from God. But I can say that they have no authority. And I can say that I will not allow you to speak in God's name here, as though you were the only person who could understand God, or as though God must be experienced in your way to be truly experienced.

This is the end of our conversation. I wish you the best in your life, but will not suffer such apiritual arrogance and foolishness any longer.