Who is God? What’s God? And how do we know that what we know about God is “right”?
I’ve heard people say before that it’s so interesting how, over the centuries “God” seems to like what we (as humanity in any given civilization) like and hate what we hate. The idea here is that God is primarily and extension of us – of who we are, and what we believe – what we accept and reject.
Slavery was accepted as a reality in the ancient world. The Romans built an empire on conquest and slavery. And before them, I can’t think of a civilization in the ancient world – prior to Rome – that didn’t rely in some way on slavery. I’m certainly not a historian, and for sure not a specialist in the pre-Roman Ancient Near East, so I could be wrong. But, none-the-less, slavery was indeed a reality in this time and place.
So is it a surprise that the Israelites had a practice of slavery?
How do we know this? Well it’s in the bible. For example, Exodus chapter 21 spells out how the Israelites were supposed to treat their slaves. It starts in verses 1 through 6, with God telling Moses what Moses is to say to the people of Israel with respect to male slaves: “These are the regulations you must present to Israel: If you buy a Hebrew slave, he may serve for no more than six years. If he is single when he becomes your slave, he shall leave single. But if he was married before he became a slave, then his wife must be freed with him (the assumption is she also becomes a slave when he does). If his master gave him a wife while he was a slave, and had children by her, then only the man will be freed on the seventh year, but his wife and children will remain as slaves. (Because children and women really had no rights anyway – not much more than property) ” But if the man wishes to keep his wife and remain married (and presumably keep his children also) he can do this by choosing to remain a slave… but if he does choose this, he also agrees to slavery… for the rest of his life!
The follow-on section of this chapter describes how a father may sell his daughter into slavery, how a man might marry a slave wife, and how and what might void a sale of slavery – women and children were more property than people. The texts continue regarding personal injury, injuries to various types of property, including slaves. The follow-on verses spell out the divine laws regarding what property-owning males may or may not do with various types of living property – including slaves – and what might be legal punishments should he go too far in his violence.
There’s more, but the general gist is that slavery was totally acceptable – not just to the Israelites, but to God too! If slavery was so morally repugnant and reprehensible to God – as we believe – why wouldn’t God just have come out and said, “Slavery is WRONG! And this horrible practice is hereby ended!” God had a chance to do that. More than one actually! But instead, the story goes on that God seems to go out of the way to provide some order addressing the details for proper slave ownership. And nowhere in there is there even the slightest inkling that God didn’t like this practice.
These verses, and others, seem to plainly condone slavery, and for centuries, this wasn’t questioned. And until this practice was challenged more and more by a larger and larger portion of society, the good Christian people didn’t hugely question it directly, and for sure didn’t question God’s support of it.
But finally, by the 20th century most countries of the world had abolished slavery, and today for sure we consider it a horrifically immoral practice. And interestingly – in direct contrast to the supporting scriptural references (once used to uphold the tradition) – God seems to agree with us. Huh?!
So, what is God’s position on slavery? Well, that depends on which society we’re in, and in what time of history we find ourselves.
“God’s” view seems to depend on the dominant view of the that society. Almost like “God” is the externalized repository of our values and morals of the moment. It’s like we upload our dominant societal values and morals into the “cosmic cloud” and claim it’s from God.
Through most of Christian history, women -as a gender- had little to no voice. Until we as a society started changing and adapting to the challenges of our new era, we church leaders seemed to point to God as the author of the “No Girls” rule. But since the past hundred years or so, more and more churches have been allowing more and more female leadership.
And since the early 70’s, our Lutheran church has even been ordaining women! And interestingly, God’s good with it now. Just ask God.
Seems it’s hard to get away from the trap of having God reflect more what we want God to say about any given issue. There’s the old joke that God made humanity, and we’ve been returning the favor ever since. But “God” has to be more than just a giant cosmic mirror.
While we do easily fall into the trap of putting words we want to hear in God’s mouth, I still have to say, there’s really is something Sacred out there. From the beginning, we humans have always been searching for deeper meaning. Our ancestors must have spent many hours staring up in awe at the wondrous universe above. (BTW – If you’ve ever seen the Milky Way on a clear night, it really is inspiring!) Our ancestors must have felt a deep connection with the life-giving earth… naming it Mother Earth or something similar, as a way of recognizing these intricate life-giving and nurturing relationships, all part of a grander web of life. There’s records of some indigenous peoples perceiving ethereal energies in and around certain places, times, or events. They -varyingly- believed our “world”, the space we occupy, is composed of more than just what’s measured and perceived through our physical senses.
I knew an anthropologist once that shared with me there’s never existed any culture or society in the world (I assume that she knew of), that hasn’t had some sense of what we would call “religion”. There’s never been a culture in our grand human experience on earth that has not believed in some kind of deity or deities.
Through our perceptions of the “natural” world, we’ve always seemed to be open to something bigger than what we could perceive with our physical senses. We as the species and genus Homo Sapien Sapien have always seemed to perceive some Sacred Presence or Presences within and without our realm of existence.
God, the gods, the Holy Ones (or One), the Sacred Mystery(ies)… name “it” what you want… we as a species have always seemed to find something (or things) beyond the realm of our normal lives… and found ways to reach out to “it” / “them”.
And given enough time, we’ve found ways to order these perceptions. We’ve structured them in various ways to help us organize our societal and personal lives. But the deeper take-away here for me is that the Divine World in which this Sacred Mystery dwells comes deep from within us – and from deep without us. It is a wonderful part of us as a species.
Certainly it’s true in our day that “religion” is losing more and more relevance. Particularly Christianity… particularly as we’ve understood it over the past thousand years… and particularly in the Western World of Europe and North America. More are saying they are if not outright atheists, then at least agnostic. (Theological “agnosticism” refers to the notion that barring any proof of existence, the reality of a god or gods is as yet an open question... and not necessarily a relevant one.)
But I don’t think either the growing number of agnostics or atheists have given up on the sense that we should aim our communal lives towards some deeper, higher sense of ideals or values that provide our existences with deeper meaning. I don’t think people in either group has lost a sense of “belief”… in life, in humanity, in good works, in making the world a better place, in whatever. Meaning, unless a person is sociopathic or completely narcissistic, while they may drop a belief in God, I have hard time believing they have dropped a belief in anything bigger than themselves.
Why do we believe in something bigger than us? Why have we always believed in something bigger than us?
Because it’s in us to do so. It’s in our DNA (physical and spiritual). Now, I personally believe in God because I’ve felt and experienced the greater beauty and wonder of
The Sacred Mystery (my term for this) through the physical world, through the powerful sense of love for my family. There have been places and times where I’ve stood in mysterious awe of the natural world (like actually seeing the Milky Way or the sun rise sometimes), I’ve “felt” a sense of connection with the earth in general and some of its natural elements. I’ve also heard other people’s moving stories of their experiences with this Sacred Mystery in their lives.
I – like many others – have also had experiences from “behind the veil” so to speak… experiences not limited to the physical world of our senses. I’ve had visions of animal spirits coming in the name of the Creator, I had a vision where I was gifted with a chant (in some cultures, God knows us not by our “names”- because names are temporal- but by songs, which are much more personal, deeper, and more permanent – in some traditions, God sings the universe into existence), I’ve been transported to other places not in body but in spirit.
Yes, I do believe. I believe there’s something Sacred out (and in) there, weaving its Sacred threads in and through and around all of creation. Yes, there is a God, a Sacred Mystery indeed.
But I also believe we have not altogether learned to distinguish what this Divine-ness is from what we want this Divine-ness to be (for us). Again, there’s that trap… God made us in his image, and we’ve been returning the favor ever since. If we want slavery… then would ya look at that… so does “god”. If we think ordaining women is against the rules… then… who are we to question if “god” thinks the very same thing?! “God” may have said homosexuality is a sin… but we thought it first.
And how funny that “god” opposed these things in exactly the same places and times where society opposed them too. And in places and times where these issues really weren’t issues… well then “god” didn’t seem to have an issue with them either.
But some projections are good right? For example – while we think murder is wrong, don’t we believe God opposes it too? And wouldn’t we say God also opposes the abuse of children? So how can we discern between the “holy” projections and the “not so holy” ones?
Is there something we can go to for validation?
Perhaps the bible?
The biblical writings were written through and for a specific people, in a specific place and time in geography and history. Most bible-believing Christians have no issue with eating shell-fish… even though it is strictly prohibited in the bible they purport to venerate. Eating pork was equally sinful, but you can bet many are not about to stop eating ham sandwiches just because the Holy Bible tells them to!
Some can make the case that the issues related to shell-fish and pork in the biblical era was really one of healthy food preparation. Better to make a rule prohibiting these things than to risk illness. Has God changed positions on these?
But some things we say still do apply – like the prohibition against murder. God seems to have remained remarkably stable on this one. But not on slavery – God now opposes this as immoral!
So, what’s the right kind of projection and what’s not? How can we discern the differences in God’s messages for us?
Maybe it’s an issue of our growth and progress and evolution as individuals and societies. Maybe it’s an issue of honesty – are we wanting to maintain some status quo (like slavery), or are we needing to work harder to be a better society (like the Civil Rights era)?
Are we using God to justify some destructive practices (like our tendencies to alienate some group of people), or are we looking to God to help us identify and work towards a higher bar? Are we needing an external source to justify our selfishness, our narcissism, our whims and desires? Or are we projecting onto God our deeper hopes and aspirations for a better way of life, for a more just and deliberate society?
Even if it is for higher ideals, maybe there is some projection there. Still doesn’t make it any less holy! Maybe all this projection stuff is a crutch. But don’t crutches actually help someone in their healing process?
What are we being healed for? What is the call of the Holy in our lives? Holiness, in its healthiest sense, calls us to be better than we are. Holiness calls us to be better together, better than we can be by ourselves.
I don’t question whether there’s something out there – something I now as the Sacred Mystery. I think we as humans have always known this. But I do question what we do with this notion of the Sacred Mystery… because it is also our propensity to bend it to our will, to manipulate it to serve our own twisted ends.
It remains for us to work to be as honest and as forthright with not only this Sacredness in us, but ourselves as well. It remains in us to identify and root out, to the best of our ability, the darknesses of our appetites for self-indulgence and power. While we have it within us to work towards societies built on respect of differences, creating cultures of law based on justice and egalitarianism… these take constant work and vigilance.
It is much easier to give way to practices that denigrate and impoverish all within the community – wielding the easy weapons of blaming others for issues we ourselves have constructed, creating systems and institutions built on the backs and blood of others, profiting off others equity, retaining our voices but denying others theirs, choosing who is good and who is bad based on nothing more than preferences.
It is indeed harder to “do the right thing”. It goes against our easier inclinations. In fact, I would say, the “Right Thing” is never completely accomplished… it is something to strive for. It is something to hold as an ideal ahead of us. And if we have to project it ahead of us… then let it be so. If we have to hold on to this as a crutch… then let it be so. If this is what it takes to help us do the hard work of bringing out the best in us as a species… then let it be so. And I pray that God is with us!