Thursday, May 28, 2015

Judaism and the Mystical Christ, Ch. 1: On Paradigm Shifts

Note: This is part of an ongoing series entitled "Judaism and the Mystical Christ".  I have created a blog entry containing the table of contents linking to each article which may be accessed here:

Table of Contents


What is to follow is the product of thousands of pages of reading, many hours of deep thought wrestling with the very toughest of questions, and much love.  I've struggled with how to open this series - it's always hard for me, as an introvert, to get things going.  And then once I do, the words start to flow quite naturally - this is why I always force myself to put my foot forward and just take one step at a time (sounds like a good motto for life).  But my hope is that what is to follow will help some who are struggling to find their footing, and that for others who are too sure of their footing, it will cause them to stumble (see I Cor. 1:23).  Because I have learned that our purpose is not to remain on the firmest of ground, but in the end we are meant to have the ground ripped out from under us so that we can discover that we were always meant to fly.

If you disagree with everything that follows, but can agree with me on the primacy of love as the foundation of the Christian faith (or, even, for anyone) - we are not so far apart.  If there is any way to summarize the rambling, amateur rhetoric and stumbling attempts to explain that which is unexplainable in human language that is to follow, it is through the words of Marcarius the Egyptian:

All mystic charisms are worthless compared to the love of God. They are as a string of pearls adorning a hungry infant who does not heed the pearls but only wants his mother's breast.
Or as the Apostle Paul put it in I Corinthians 13:2:
If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.

The main thrust of this series is difficult to sum up.  What I want to do is to, hopefully, lead some of my readers to a mystical understanding of the message of Christianity, and I want to do this by bringing a Jewish lens to Christianity, as well as by attempting to enlist some contemporary scientific ideas.  But first, I'd like to lay some groundwork by thinking about how theological thought experiences shifts (if you know your history, you'll know that it always has).

Paradigm Shifts
When mankind became self-aware, he1 began the search for understanding.  He sought understanding of the world around him, of how he became, and of who he was.  But most of all, he sought understanding of himself and what his purpose was.

He looked out at the world around him, and he noticed that every day, the sun would rise in the east, and would set in the west.  Man concluded that the earth was an immovable object at the center of the universe, and that the sun traveled around the earth each day.  This was the accepted wisdom for millennia - it was considered to be reliable and right, and if anyone would question this, they would be considered mad.

But in the 3rd century, someone did question this - Aristarchus of Samos proposed the earliest known version of the heliocentric model (the idea that the earth and other planets revolve around the sun).  But this idea gained little attention, until being revived by Copernicus in the 16th century, and then being further defended by Kepler and Galileo in the following century.  It was Galileo's observations that were the nail in the coffin for the competing views.  Galileo noticed that sometimes, as one of the planets crossed the sky, it would double back a bit.  An earlier attempt had been made to explain this by another Greek astronomer named Ptolemy - Ptolemy believed that the planets didn't just orbit the earth, but did little loop-de-loops as they went.  Never-mind explaining the physics that would be necessary to cause this - the church loved this model because they believed that the Bible made it necessary to believe that the planets and the Sun revolved around the Earth, and promptly declared Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo to be heretics (they kind of love to throw that term around like it makes them powerful or something).

An old picture of Ptolemy's model
But Galileo noticed that there were more loop-de-loops than had originally been thought, and the Ptolemaic model started to look more and more ridiculous.  It became much easier to explain this phenomenon by accepting that the earth and all the other planets actually revolved around the Sun, and that the earth's spin was what caused the illusion that the Sun was going around the Earth.  It was the context of new information that required a rethinking of the old information.  Those who fought for the Ptolemaic model did not want to challenge their assumptions, and so they resorted to increasingly complicated explanations of what was happening - and these explanations could not sustain the model.  Galileo challenged the paradigm - and I'm sure people told him he must be seeing things.  His observations couldn't be accurate, I'm sure some said.  But he insisted that people check his work, and over time the heliocentric model became so accepted that it is now taken for granted.

Often when you are on the other side of a paradigm shift, and you are trying to persuade someone who has not experienced this shift, it can feel a little like Dr. Huxtable in this video clip from the Cosby Show:

In the clip, we see that no matter what objection Dr. Huxtable raises, there is always an immediate and exasperated answer from the young Rudy.  This is often the problem with magical thinking which refuses to challenge its assumptions - the one engaged in this kind of thinking can always think of a way to explain away every difficult situation.  But the explanations become more and more complicated - can we ever stop to notice when we are doing this?

As Daniel J. Boorstin writes in "The Discoverers: A History of Man's Search to Know His World and Himself":

The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.
Marilynne Robinson also writes about this problem of refusing to challenge assumptions in "The Death of Adam":
We routinely disqualify testimony that would plead for extenuation. That is, we are so persuaded of the rightness of our judgment as to invalidate evidence that does not confirm us in it. Nothing that deserves to be called truth could ever be arrived at by such means.
I've written before about the current phenomenon in the church dubbed the Rise of the Nones, and I believe that the current dominant form of Christianity has become unsustainable - a paradigm shift is required in order for Christianity to survive.  I've written as well about some of my own paradigm shifts (of specific interest might be my series on Hell, and my series on Satan), and I wish to note that I feel that many of the ideas I've written about before build upon each other and lead to the subject matter which will be included in this series.  

Unfortunately, while it seems to be more and more obvious to those of us who have experienced the paradigm shifts of our day and moved on that these shifts are necessary in order to answer the existential crises of our generation, it seems that the institutional church is taking the opposite approach and doubling down on the old paradigm.  The threshold guardians of the institution are circling the wagons and warning all within their walls to avoid all contact with the world outside.  But this can only work for so long - information will get in.  Rationality, unfortunately, seems to have been lost within the church - but with it, we are losing the younger generation.  We can no longer say to them “you just have to accept it on faith” and expect this to be effective.  And Jesus commanded us to love God with all our mind - so why wouldn’t this include using it?

"The problem, Cayleb, is that if your faith in the lie you’ve been taught all your life is too strong, you won’t believe any proof I could show you."
- David Weber, Off Armageddon Reef
If we remember how the church has so often fought paradigm shifts, but later on accepted them and revisited their interpretation of the Bible based on evidence external to the Bible - just as the Church at large is very comfortable with taking the Biblical passages that seem to indicate the belief in the geocentric model as metaphorical now - then perhaps we can learn the lesson that Peter Enns teaches as the main theme of his book, "Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament":
The problems many of us feel regarding the Bible may have less to do with the Bible itself and more to do with our own preconceptions.

I have found again and again that listening to how the Bible itself behaves and suspending preconceived notions (as much as that is possible) about how we think the Bible ought to behave is refreshing, creative, exciting, and spiritually rewarding.
Enns argues for an incarnational view of Scripture - just as Jesus is "fully God and fully man", he argues that Scripture's origins are fully human and fully divine.  He states that "the human marks of the Bible are everywhere, thoroughly integrated into the nature of Scripture itself. Ignoring these marks or explaining them away takes at least as much energy as listening to them and learning from them."  But Enns wants us to see that God spoke within the context of history, not fully independent of it.  It is important to note at this point that context is different from background.  To understand this difference - a background for a photo would be like when you go to a photographer's studio and he drops a large vinyl curtain with a picture of the beach behind you.  In this case, it wouldn't be much of a big deal to use a computer program to remove the background of the beach.  But if you had a photo of your family physically at the beach with the waves splashing over your bathing suits and soaking them, this context of the beach would not be so easily removed, and if you were somehow able to remove it, some things about that photograph (such as the wet bathing suits) would cease to make sense to someone who didn't have that context.

Likewise, when we seek to remove the Biblical writings from their historical context, we may often miss the point and end up with ideas that just don't make sense.  Efforts to put the Scriptures back into their historical context in order to seek their meaning should not make us uncomfortable (though it often does - but this is an irrational and instinctual fight or flight response).  But if we see the Bible as incarnational, we might realize, as Peter Enns puts it:

That the Bible, at every turn, shows how “connected” it is to its own world is a necessary consequence of God incarnating himself.

When God reveals himself, he always does so to people, which means that he must speak and act in ways that they will understand. People are time bound, and so God adopts that characteristic if he wishes to reveal himself.
Enns points out later on that to those who find the human side of Scripture to be disturbing, he might ask:
How else would you have expected God to speak? In ways wholly disconnected to the ancient world? Who would have understood him?

Using the Spectrum
One of the things that bothers me about the responses I often get to my writings is how those who oppose my conclusions will completely ignore most of what I've said and focus on little details that they somehow think will unravel the entire thing.  To illustrate what is happening here and why this is completely foolish, let me summarize the logical points I've made to reach my conclusions on hell - I basically start with a logical structure of "A is true, and B is true, therefore C must be true" in the first section of my series.  But because this raises problems with "D" and "E", I then move on to address problems D and E by proving "-D" and "-E" in the second part of my series.  I then move on to address a number of other problems for the traditional views on hell, as well as including other information that I feel are logical proofs for my conclusion on hell all by themselves (see Part 4 for an example).  After my series was finished, I even wrote up a quick summary of a completely different logical path for reaching my conclusions on Hell.

What I've typically seen in the responses to this blog series is that someone will become hyper-focused on one particular Biblical passage I used and they think that by attacking my use of it with vigor, they can ignore everything else I've said.  But here's the problem - I don't need that verse.  I have other tools for arguing A and B, and I don't even need A and B.  I have -D and -E, and I have two completely different logical structures for proving my point - so the best that my attackers could possibly do for me would be to prove that Christianity is a bunch of nonsense and that any wise person should run like hell in the other direction from it.  Of course they don't think of it this way.

Allow me to give a simple analogy for what seems quite often to happen with religion.  In episode 5 of the recent TV series "Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey", the various spectrums of light were discussed.  At one point in the show, Neil deGrasse Tyson presented a beautiful demonstration where the skyline of New York City was shown using photography that captured different spectrums of light - so you could see what the skyline would look like if, say, you were able to see the gamma ray spectrum:

Another good demonstration of how different spectrums are utilized to create a composite image.
What this helped to illustrate is that different spectrums of light allow us to see differently.  In fact, modern astronomy uses the various spectrums to help us form models of distant galaxies (for more information, see here, and this article will give you a good idea how this works as well).  If we did not use these spectrums, there would be certain astronomical bodies we would not be able to see, and certain phenomena we would not be able to understand.  

What religion all too often seems to do is to say "thou shalt not try to see in any spectrum other than the one we have said that thou shalt see in."  And in this way, the religious elite are able to lock down knowledge and keep people from ever growing.  But if you have any understanding of how tricky seeing can be, you should realize that this almost always results in seeing the wrong thing.  Our eyes are known to play tricks on us - as many optical illusions can attest to.  One of my favorite optical illusions is the checkerboard illusion:

If we only use our "natural" form of seeing, the square marked "A" seems to be a much darker shade than the square marked "B".  But they are in actuality the exact same shade - various methods have been used to demonstrate how this illusion works, one being to paint connecting lines around the two squares:

Still having a hard time seeing it?  Try looking at it with some of the squares blacked out:

What often happens with religion is a refusal to examine methods like the ones demonstrated above, and an insistent dogmatism that shouts out words like "heresy" at those who challenge the established views.  Religion all too often will not only refuse to use alternative methods of "seeing", but insists that everything "seen" by those who have is wrong.  But I believe this is a misuse of religion.

Related to the study of how optical illusions fool our brains, psychologists have studied how our intuitive mode of thinking usually operate as the primary role to the secondary role of our methodical, rational mode.  In "Thinking, Fast and Slow", Psychologist and researcher David Kahneman refers to these modes of thinking as "System 1" (the intuitive mode) and "System 2" (the rational mode).  To demonstrate how this works, he gives the following word problem:
A bat and ball cost $1.10. The bat costs one dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?
The common answer most people give to this is $0.10, but this is the incorrect answer - because if the ball cost $0.10 and the bat cost $1 (which does add up to the total of $1.10), the bat would only be $0.90 more than the ball.  The correct answer is that the ball costs $0.05, making the bat $1.05 (a dollar more, and adding up to $1.10).

This problem is a very good demonstration of how prone to error we can be.  Kahneman notes how, when this problem was presented to groups of students at colleges, over 50% got it wrong at "Ivy Leage" schools (such as Harvard, MIT and Princeton), and over 80% got it wrong at less selective universities.  The problem is really not that difficult to solve, it just requires stopping for a moment to double-check your work and think a bit.  Furthermore, once I demonstrated how the intuitive answer is incorrect, I'm sure that it would be unlikely for anyone to argue. 

In the area of religion, however, the "problems" are much more complex - and yet many people seem highly reluctant to "double-check" their work, or to stop and engage "System 2" for a bit.  But I think it's important to remember, as H.L. Mencken once said:
For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.
Related to the problem of our fast-thinking, intuitional "System 1 brain" overriding our slow-thinking, logical "System 2 brain" is the problem of inattentional blindness.  One of my favorite illustrations of how this works is the Invisible Gorilla Test.  In the late 1990s, psychologist Daniel Simons and his student Christopher Chabris asked study subjects to watch a short video of two groups of people passing a basketball around.  The subjects are asked to either count the number of passes made by one of the two teams (differentiated by their white and black t-shirts), or to keep count of bounce passes vs. aerial passes.  During the video, a woman walks onto the screen wearing a gorilla suit and dances around - she is on the screen for a total of 9 seconds.  But when asked at the end of the video if the subjects noticed the gorilla, over 50% of the subjects did not notice at all, and were not only surprised to find there was a gorilla, but were surprised that they didn't even notice.  These were Harvard students, by the way.  The point of the study is to illustrate how, when we are concentrating on certain details, we become blinded to others.

I believe that when it comes to studying the Bible, quite often we've missed the gorilla because we were told to pay attention to how the ball was passed and how often.  So I am asking my readers to look again, and this time look for details you may have missed.

Changing Your Mind and Repentance
One of the reasons it's so hard to experience a paradigm shift, I believe, is that you are becoming a new person when you do so.  Dr. Joe Dispenza writes in
"You Are the Placebo: Making Your Mind Matter" about how habitual thought patterns form synapses in our brain, and in essence become our "self" - and he points out how hard it is to change this:
The hardest part about change is not making the same choices we made the day before. The reason it’s so difficult is that the moment we no longer are thinking the same thoughts that lead to the same choices - which cause us to automatically act in habitual ways so that we can experience the same events in order to reaffirm the same emotions of our identity - we immediately feel uncomfortable. This new state of being is unfamiliar; it’s unknown. It doesn’t feel “normal.” We don’t feel like ourselves anymore - because we’re not ourselves. And because everything feels uncertain, we no longer can predict the feeling of the familiar self and how it’s mirrored back to us in our lives.
The point is that often new conclusions are not arrived at simply or easily - it takes recognizing the connections between multiple points of data and really wrestling with this.  And unfortunately, I think modern society has become quite horrible at recognizing how connecting data points form complex ideas.  I think the way our education system splits subjects off as if they had nothing to do with each other, and encourages highly specialized fields of studies that often feel as though they are in competition with each other is a big part of the problem that leads to this inability to grasp more than the most simplistic of ideas.  

But my hope is that someone out there is tracking.  And if that is the case, I hope that what is to follow will be helpful.  The following series will explore yet more paradigm shifts I have personally experienced - I believe that many of the other subjects I have written about in my blog are all interconnected, and I hope some readers out there will see how that is.

To move forward, we've got to challenge the way we think of concepts and even words.  As Thomas Merton wrote in "Zen and the Birds of Appetite":
The convenient tools of language enable us to decide beforehand what we think things mean, and tempt us all too easily to see things only in a way that fits our logical preconceptions and our verbal formulas. Instead of seeing things and facts as they are we see them as reflections and verifications of the sentences we have previously made up in our minds. We quickly forget how to simply see things and substitute our words and our formulas for the things themselves, manipulating facts so that we see only what conveniently fits our prejudices.
There is even a connection between changing our minds through a paradigm shift and the Christian concept of repentance.  In "Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power", renowned scholar Marcus Borg writes of how we all too often misunderstand the word "repentance":
[Repentance] means “to turn, to return.” The word directly relates to ancient Israel’s experience of exile in Babylon . To repent meant “to return”— to embark on a journey of return to the “homeland,” the Holy Land, where God is.
Further on, he writes:
It also has a second resonance that flows from the roots of the Greek word in the New Testament commonly translated into English as repent or repentance. Its Greek roots mean “to go beyond the mind that we have.” The phrase is both provocative and evocative.
Indeed, the very meaning of the Greek word that is often translated "repent" - metanoia - is "to go beyond" or "to expand" (meta - beyond or above) "the mind" (noia - awareness, consciousness).
How would it change religion if we considered outside points of view in order to "go beyond the mind that we have"?  If, rather than stigmatizing anyone who saw things differently, we carefully and compassionately considered their perspective?

As we move forward, I'd also like my audience to consider how, as Robert M. Price puts it in "The Historical Jesus: Five Views" (noting that I do not subscribe to Price's theory on Jesus):
[C]onsensus is no criterion. The truth may not rest in the middle. The truth may not rest with the majority. Every theory and individual argument must be evaluated on its own. If we appeal instead to “received opinion” or “the consensus of scholars,” we are merely abdicating our own responsibility, as well as committing the fallacy of appeal to the majority.
I would like my audience to test out every word I say, but to make it a valid test.  Do not reject it merely because it is not the view you started with.  Do not reject it because of a perceived majority that you believe you are part of (see the "appeal to authority fallacy").  Simply test it based on the merits of the argument.  And if you reject one point I make, do not assume this means you can reject all the others (see the "fallacy fallacy").

And finally, before I conclude this section, I would like to mention that at the very heart of Christianity is a belief in infinity - what we call "God" is often spoken of in a number of "omni" words, like "omnipresent" (in all places), "omniscient" (all-knowing), "omnipotent" (all powerful).  And I believe that the Hebrew concept of idolatry was not so much about not physically bowing down to stone figures as it was about solidifying finite concepts and freezing them in stone rather than accepting the mystery of the Sacred.  So I think it would be healthy to remember that, as Paul Knitter (Professor of Theology, World Religions and Culture at Union Theological Seminary) wrote in "Without Buddha I Could not be a Christian":
When Buddhists who have had something like an Enlightenment experience, or Christians who have stepped into realms of the mystical, try to talk about what’s happening to them, they start stuttering. They discover that though their experience may have been prompted by words, it is always two steps ahead of, or it wiggles away from, any words they may use to describe it.
Later on in the book, Knitter goes on to explain how language can actually prevent us from experiencing the Divine:
[T]he crux of my difficulties has been not in a lack of meaning but in an excess of meaning; not in the possibility of meaning but in the determination of meaning . The image that comes to mind is of a beautiful tropical bird – in a cage. Able to soar, it’s not allowed to.

We kill religious language when we don’t allow it to soar. If that can be a problem for any religion, for Christianity it’s a major problem.

So I ask that my audience try not to cage their religious language, but to consider other possibilities for meaning as I bring reasons to.  I think Neil deGrasse Tyson laid out a plan for what I am trying to do on "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey" when he ended the show with this set of scientific principles:
Question Authority. No idea is true just because someone says it is. Think for yourself.

Question Yourself. Don’t believe anything just because you want to. Believing something doesn’t make it so.

Test Ideas by the evidence gained from observation and experiment. If a favorite idea fails a well designed test, it’s wrong. Get over it.

Follow the evidence wherever it leads – If you have no evidence, reserve judgement.

Remember you could be wrong.
Next Chapter: The Bible and Communication Theory

1 Note that "he" is a language of convenience - I do wish inclusive conventions like these were more common

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