Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

I was taking my grandson home from church in suburban Portland Oregon in the late Fall of the year. He had just recently turned seven.  I happened to have the Hallelujah Chorus playing in the CD player of my car.  The choir sang and when they came to the part “and He shall reign forever and ever” repeatedly, by grandson asked me, “Pop Pop, is that an Oregonian song?”

“Why would you ask that” I puzzled.

“Because they say it is going to rain for ever and ever.”

Well, it does seem to rain for ever and ever in Portland in the fall and winter, so I had a little explaining to do about “rain” and “reign”.

Story as Antidote to Dogma

The following story has been shared with numerous clergy.  The general reaction is “That was interesting, but …”.  Generally the “but” relates to the fact that it does not follow traditional dogma about the story.  Originally, this idea was spawned when I learned that the Hebrew that refers to Jacob’s opponent is best interpreted as “a man”, not as an angel or God as many translations use– I think because, once again, dogma from many generations of scholars simply accepted the standard interpretation of the meaning of this story.  So, I present the story, first faithful to the scriptural record and then with another alternative ending not in contradiction to the scriptures.  For what it is worth…

Another Interpretation of the Jacob and Esau Story – Esau’s Trick

By Cecil Denney

The story of Jacob and Esau recorded in Genesis is a story with intrigue and irony. Jacob, who received the undeserved blessing, who had to flee for his life, and who was himself tricked by his uncle Laben finally wins the bribe of his eye. Yet, there may be more to this story than has traditionally understood. We read that Esau was twice tricked by his brother. First Esau is tricked out of his birthright by Jacob, then Jacob steals Issac’s blessing of the first born intended for Esau. In rage Esau swears “…I will kill my brother Jacob” (Gen 27:41) and Jacob must flee for his life. Although Issac did not give his blessing to Esau, he did promise “but when you break loose, you shall break his yoke from your neck.” (Gen 27:40) I think he remembered this promise! So we find the “blessed” Jacob fleeing, in mortal fear to his uncle Laben. There he falls in love with Rachel, the younger of Laben’s two daughters. Laben exacts a price of seven years work for the hand of Rachel. But now it is Jacob’s turn to be tricked and he ends up with the elder Leah. Laben then exacts another seven years of work for Rachel’s hand. Jacob appears to prosper with many sons, and he aspires to return to his home country. When Laben objects, Jacob works his own trick with Laben’s flocks. His wives, Laben’s daughters steal their father’s gold and Jacob once again flees, but this time back to Caanen from whence he came. When Laben catches up with him, Rachel manages to hide the stolen gods (gold) and Jacob throws a “hissy fit” and shames Laben into making a peace pack. Now he had to face another possible problem, Esau. So, he sends a delegation ahead to Esau with cattle to assuage and soften Esau. But when the delegation returns, he learns that Esau is personally coming to meet Jacob with four hundred men. In fear of his life, Jacob splits up his band so that if one is destroyed, the other might survive. Having once believed that God had told him to return, he now questions his safety and becomes humble in the face of his impending disaster. He prays for safety reminding God of his promises. He devises a scheme to appease Esau sending successive waves of servants ahead with cattle as presents for Esau. Meanwhile, Jacob stays in the camp sending his wives, maids, and children away, leaving himself utterly alone to contemplate his fate. So far, what is written is reflected in this story. At this point, I will interject my own speculation of the meaning of the rest of the story. Esau, who many, many years earlier was willing to kill Jacob has himself prospered. His anger has diminished, but his sibling rivalry is still active as is reflected in coming with four hundred men. He will not be tricked again. But as the waves of servants and cattle meet him with presents, he realizes that Jacob still fears for his life and he decides Jacob deserves a little trick from his older brother. His spies learn that Jacob is alone, so in the cover of a moonless night, Esau, always the more rugged of the two sneaks into Jacobs camp and wrestles with him. Esau is at advantage since he knows Jacob, but Jacob has no idea that his brother as approached him, thinking he is with the four hundred men. To Esau’s surprise, Jacob has grown strong too, so they struggle through the night until finally, Esau manages to dislocate Jacob’s hip. He now has struck mortal fear and escapes before daylight and without identifying himself leaving Jacob to believe he has struggled with an Angel of God. He is injured, but he feels he won the battle. God has spared him. He has been humbled once again. The next day, Jacob approached Esau realizing it could be his last. He bows and scrapes before Esau and his four hundred men. Esau’s heart melts on seeing his long forgiven little brother humble himself and he is ashamed of his little trick and never tells Jacob. What is there to make of this new possible (not negated by scripture) story line? I think this is the old testament story of the prodigal son, but with a twist. While a father might accept his son without reservation, this is a story of a sibling who in all rights might have rejected his brother for his ill deeds. He did not seek revenge. He did not even accept Jacob’s offer of gifts. He only exacted a small harmless trick that turned out God used to strengthen Jacob’s faith. No doubt, Jacob had to explain his limp to his brother when they met and seeing Jacob’s faith in God, Esau chose not to destroy it with the truth.

Religious Mythology

Posted: March 17, 2014 in Philosophy, psychology, Religion, Science

How I Interpret the Christian Message

When I understand it as Mythology

 I am sure that some would find it a fundamental mystery how someone could claim to be Christian, to participate and support a local Christian congregation and its work while believing that most of its tenets were founded on mythological stories. Some I am sure will be threatened by the ideas that follow and quit reading sensing that to do so will somehow participate in a heresy. So be it.

I understand the search for meaning, for an answer to the question “Why do humans exist?” has existed as long as written records have been recorded and probably long before, beginning when all knowledge was conveyed in oral form. Written history offers many attempts to answer the meaning of life and an explanation for those out of the ordinary natural happenings, good and bad. We call most of these explanations in our history myths. However, today’s answers we tend to accept as enlightened understandings of truth. In my view, today’s explanations are and will become to be seen in the future as simply a progression of mythological explanations to answer the question.

Yet, buried in progress of myth building are “truths” about the nature of what it means to be human, to long for understanding, to search for truth, and to understand what being human has become over the ages. What we have become and will continue to become is formed in part by the myths and cultures that embody them. I choose to look at all as myth laced with the wisdom of many searching minds. I see the Christian traditions as staggered attempts to understand humanness in relationship to some thing, place, or “person” which Alcohol Anonymous calls a higher power. To me, the higher power is simply the collective knowledge and wisdom of the human race which can be beneficial to humanity or detrimental to human existence.

So how do I participate in Christian worship and practices that I believe are mythological? I do so by interpreting the practices as having useful current day analogs in which I can find solace. Let me take a fundamental Christian belief in the death and resurrection of the one called Jesus or Jesus the Christ. The myth to me is that there was in fact a human resurrection. Furthermore, that this death was in some way a sacrifice of one human/god/person and that by virtue of this sacrifice somehow it will or did save me from an eternal consequence. It has an interesting analog. I am, the physical and thinking individual I am, a result from a dying and resurrection process. For me to be here today, a massive explosion occurred some 13 plus billion years ago as the best minds of the day believe to be true. In that time, numerous stars have formed and then died seeding the existence of other stars and star systems. Our solar system, its sun and planets are the result of this process of death and resurrection. I am therefore a part of this death and resurrection process that will continue for a few more billions of years. So, when we celebrate the mythological resurrection of a historical figure, I understand that indeed, it was necessary for my existence and worthy of my personal reverence and appreciation that whole star systems had to be sacrificed for me to exist. I understand that as a part of the creative process of the universe, the universe has created not just stars and planets, but a replicable form called life that has developed the capacity to understand and revere this universe and its creative, saving cycle of death and resurrection and to carry forward in time the memory as a collective action of many like myself.

And, in this personal process of re-interpreting the mythological stories of my inherited faith story, I take pleasure in participating in the myths and stories of the struggles of may people who came before me in search of the security of “knowing” the “truth.” I too find truth in myths that make life joyful and rich.

Our Constitution is Not a Religion

The current debates about guns in the U.S. have the flavor of religious believers.  Owning a gun or many guns of any type is a right guaranteed by the second amendment to the constitution.  The U.S. Constitution and its amendments are treated like Holy Writ.  The founding fathers are revered as profits of democracy.  There is even a WWJD, What Would Jefferson Do, attitude.  What is never questioned is whether or not we should change the constitution.  What makes this strange is the fact that the right to own guns was not a part of the original constitution, but in fact one of the first ten amendments, a bill of rights,  to “fix” perceived errors or omissions in the original constitution. It is a fact of record that our Supreme Court has over its existence had different opinions regarding the interpretations of various articles and amendments to the constitution.  Were I a historian of constitutional law, I would have the ability to enumerate the many interpretations given to the constitution and its amendments.  There may be arguments, and some are ongoing arguments, about the meaning of constitutional elements but I want to address some of the more obvious “errors” in the constitution and its amendments.  If you object to the idea that these are “errors”, then you would have to allow that some decisions made in the light of circumstances in the early years of our nation experienced changes in the later years.

In the twelfth amendment to the constitution, it was determined that the framers constructed the election of the president and vice president incorrectly.  The twelfth amendment declared that Article 2, section 1, clause 3 were no longer valid.  They were replaced by a new way of electing the president and vice president in 1803.

Jefferson was known to have slaves.  Yet, in 1865, as an outcome of the Civil War, this was determined to be illegal by the adoption of the 13th amendment.  Here is yet another case where it was determined that the times had changed and a new way of relating was in order.

The 14th amendment declared former slaves, born in the United States were citizens of the United States.  Again, in 1865, the Supreme Court was overruled by the 14th amendment.  Even the Supreme Court can get it wrong and the people rise to change the constitution.  Today, there is another civil action in the works to clarify the 14th amendment because again, the Supreme Court has ruled that corporations are people on the basis of this amendment.  Many citizens disagree and there is a movement to fix that Supreme Court interpretation.  The constitution is clearly a living document.

When the states were interpreting existing laws to allow them to discriminate at the voting booth, once again, in 1850, our understanding of the constitution had to be altered by an amendment.  Amendment 15 guaranteed citizens of the United States could not have their right to vote abridged.  That women were not considered to be citizens was not addressed, something that today we would consider outrageous.

In 1913 the 16th amendment invented a new power to the federal government, the power to lay and collect taxes on incomes of the citizens of the nation.  Passed by the states, this amendment expanded the sources of revenue, a provision not created by our founding fathers.

The election of senators as proscribed in Article 1 of the constitution was considered obsolete and was changed by amendment 17  also passed in 1913.  Times changed, opinions changed, our national agreement about how to go about electing Senators was changed.

One of the more interesting changes to our constitution occurred in the 18th amendment creating a prohibition against all enterprises supporting the use of alcohol.  This occurred in 1919.  It made no changes to prior laws.  It simply attempted to institute a new code of social conduct within the United States. In 1920, women got the right to vote through the inclusion of the 18th amendment.

Since the 15th amendment passed in 1850 former male slaves gained the right to vote.  We changed our minds in 1850.  Now we changed our minds about the right of women to vote.  Neither of these “rights” were considered by our founding fathers to be reasonable things to add to the Bill of Rights amendments to the constitution.  Times changed, our attitudes changed, our laws also changed.

The 20th amendment recognized a weakness in the constitution.  The amendment determined the appropriate time for the President and Vice President to take office.  It dealt with the issue of succession giving Congress authority to make laws.  It was passed in 1933.

The 21st amendment noted that the nation had made an error in passing the 18th amendment.  The 21st amendment was repealed!  Taken off the books, so to speak.  Revoked.  It demonstrated that any part of the constitution could be absolutely changed.

Skipping over several other modifications to our agreed upon laws of civil society through amendments 22, 23, 24, and 25, I note that in amendment 26, passed in 1971 which prohibited states from setting the age for voting to more than 18 years of age.  This was a new understanding that grew out of the Vietnam war activism of citizens that were called to serve in the military but had no voice in their government.

So here is the point.  The Constitution of the United States is not Holy Writ.  It changes in response to changes in opinion.  Sometimes the changes are swift.  Sometimes they are slow.  Sometimes their are significant difference in opinion.  Sometimes the old guard holds on tightly to their power and change is slow and hard work.  But things can change when sufficiently motivated people demand the changes needed to bring civil society into alignment with the significant portions of the citizens.

So, how close are we to repealing the 2nd amendment?  It begins with the idea that we should not be fighting the religious zealots who want to simply interpret the 2nd amendment as an absolute right to own any kind of gun they want.  It begins when we let go of 18th century fear of invasion from the powerful British.   I think now is the time to change the conversation from “THE PERCEIVED RIGHT TO OWN A GUN” to what is the most beneficial, what is the greater good for our society and REPEAL THE 2ND AMENDMENT.  If we begin the movement to repeal the 2nd amendment, the discourse will have to change.  No longer can supporters of the powers assumed under the amendment be defended on the basis of it being in the constitution because that is the discussion itself.  The discussion and arguments will have to be about the merits of having the right at all.  What is the moral and civil society argument in favor of no control over lethal weapons capable of mass killing of each other? Lets get started.  Sounds like an interesting debate when religion and Holy Writ are taken out of the formula.


Heaven or Hell?

I was just beginning to read the book, “Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril” and an interesting parallel occurred to me. The human being, as best we know, is the only species that can contemplate its own death. We despair when events like Columbine and now Aurora are presented in every media outlet. As I grow older and notice that there are many people my age and younger are dieing every day, I think about my own demise and wonder about the legacy I will leave behind. It causes me to invest a bit more time and attention to my grandson. It also activates me in my volunteer work with community organizing and study about the impact humans are having on the planet.

In reading Moral Ground essays which outline the dire indications of a planet in peril, it occurred to me that contemplating death is more than personal. Many minds are now contemplating the extinction of not just their own persons, but the extinction of the human race as we head toward a cataclysmic crash of the planets systems. The dinosaurs did not see their extinction coming, or so it seems. But while we think of ourselves as the exception to almost everything on the planet, we have been blessed or cursed with the ability to imagine a future. And that future, as a logical extension of what is happening today, is one of extinction– not just of individual species of which we take little notice, but of our own human species.

This lead to an idea or thought experiment. Suppose for a moment that on planet earth, we happen to be living in the afterlife of some other existence. That is, we were living someplace else and then, from where ever that was, we died and now, our spirits were sent here on planet earth for our after life. The question comes up– are we living in Heaven or Hell?

What Does God Want?

In the Christian tradition in which I was raised, there is frequent reference to God’s will. What does God want for the human race? Throughout the Hebrew and Christian scriptural cannon, we read of prophets who proclaimed God’s dissatisfaction with ‘His’ people who strayed from his covenant, his will for them. Today, we approach what the world should be by reference to God’s commandments and his revealed will. Unfortunately, we speak to a world what does not share our view of God, much less place value in “God’s Will” for us.

It is instructive to consider what Gods Will is in areas that this question is not usually asked. For example, what is God’s Will with regard to the population of the world? Is God happy at our world population approaching 9 billion? Is God sad that we have allowed uncontrolled growth of human kind? Or, is God pleased to see so many people made in his image? Is the more the merrier in this regard? If 9 billion is good, is 50 billion better? Maybe God is not pleased to see human kind expand to the point that many suffer from lack of basic needs?

What is God’s Will with regard to space exploration? Does God want the human race to be limited to the earth or would God prefer we travel to the far reaches of the universe, mastering other planets, mining the asteroids, plundering other living species so that God’s people can expand and master the whole of the reachable universe? Is this God’s solution to a growing population, an accepted need for continual growth? Or, since God accepts the death of individual humans, is God equally OK with the death of the human race, seeing it as just a natural outcome of birth, and life, something we see in all of God’s nature?

What is God’s will with regard to eggs? Is it acceptable to God that as humans we eat the eggs of other species, preventing them from being fertilized, preventing them from becoming new life? Is it God’s Will that all eggs created by nature be fertilized and give rise to a new birth, human or non-human alike? Does God prefer that all human families birth as many children as a woman has eggs or a man has sperm? Does God judge celibacy as fundamentally sinful, denying the opportunity for a human being with a soul from existing? Does God see this as equivalent to murder?

What is God’s Will with regard to medical technology? Was God more pleased when we allowed natural death to occur or is God more pleased to see us extend life as far as possible using enormous resources to extend life a few days, months or years, even when that life lacks quality and even if it results in great poverty for others and at great cost to society as a whole? What does God think about mammograms, CT machines, MRI machines, acupuncture, miracle medicines that make some people rich and others poor?

The point of these questions for me is this. To base our decisions on what we perceive to be God’s Will does not solve the fundamental problems we collectively share in the world today. In the past, when there was so much of nature that remained a mystery, it was useful to have a concept of God’s Will to guide us. Yet, fundamentally, what historically was called God’s Will was in fact a collection of understandings of what it meant to live in relationship with other people, what served the common good, how to live out a life with harmony, love, wholesome pleasure. And, I suggest this is precisely how we should be approaching the problems and issues of the day. It seems archaic to base the “should be’s” on the external reference to a God which is becoming more and more distant to more and more of the people alive today.

The best reasons for what is right and what is wrong is how it impacts the common good, maintains or builds equity and fairness, avoids unnecessary suffering, relies on what can best be demonstrated to be true. If there is a God, it is surely God’s desire for a sustainable future, one beyond our own limited existence, a sacrificial living for the good of all and of those not yet alive. And this is complex enough that we don’t need to draw on our inadequate understanding of the “God’s Will.”

Cecil Denney

Is There A God?

Posted: February 2, 2012 in Philosophy, Religion, Science
Tags: , , , ,

This is slightly different than the question “Does God Exist?”  Partially it is different because there are many different concepts of God and you would have to be clear what your definition of God was in order to know about “existence.”  Furthermore, your definition is going to be inadequate if your God is supernatural, that is above the laws as understood today by humankind.  That is because your definition is limited to your ability to craft words that try to define something that is beyond words.  So while “existence” is hard to answer,  the answer to the question I have proposed, “Is their a God?” is easily answered.  Yes, many. In my first blog, I talked about “knowledge” and the fact that I don’t “KNOW” but the one fact that I don’t KNOW anything else.  Given that, I highly suspect no one else “knows” anything either.  It is all a matter of guesses and opinions formed out of our experiences, including scientific experimental conclusions.  Never-the-less, I will share my opinions.

“Entropy is the tendency (or force if you will) to decrease the organization or complexity of systems. Anti-entropy is the opposite tendency which is to increase the organization of systems.”  Essentially, scientist believe the universe is “running down”; all the stars will burn out and things will approach absolute zero.  Obviously, not for a long long time, but that is entropy at work.  Yet, there is lots of anti-entropic activity going on as well.  It is hard to imagine, but from the beginning so called Big Bang, totally inert atomic particles organized themselves into elements and elements into structures that have the characteristic we call “life.”

So, the mental model I have of god is this “life force”, played out over billions of years resulting in the amazing organism (human being) that is capable of contemplating not only itself but also the forces which created it.  Somewhere I heard it said that “Humans are the universe trying to understand itself.”  It is a creative force somehow built into the laws that control the universe.  It is not clear to me that it has a purpose in the cause-effect sense, but from an evolutionary sense, it clearly moves, somewhat haltingly, toward greater and greater anti-entropic forms.

Each person has some kind of model of reality that includes elements of awe and worship, not always healthy, but present.  And as our models of reality are subject to change, so is our model of our god.  If revelation is taking place, it is the creative nature of this life force that continues to reveal itself through continual creation itself.  No one knows what the future may bring.  Who or what is your god like?