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Sunday, July 14, 2019

Goodness Godless | Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

When I enrolled at Harding University's School of Biblical Studies, an intensive training program through which I completed my Bachelor of Ministry (BMin) degree in two years, this was the message greeting visitors to the website:
The Call of God...it may come like a whisper or like a resounding trumpet. It may come during quiet reflection or in the midst of crisis. It may come when challenged by the Great Commission of Jesus or when asked a question by a close but lost friend. But when it comes, it is always clear, biblical and personal - and it captures your heart.
In 1997 that was front and center on the landing page. By 2004 it had been shoved off to the left and put in small, grey type. It had been debated while I was enrolled, curmudgeonly, cantankerous fundamentalists that Church of Christ people tend to be (and especially their ministers and elders!). It was seen by some as 'unbiblical' to speak of a 'call' from God, bordering on (horrors!) Pentecostal. The fact that it was anchored in real-life events made no difference.

We tend to anchor our thoughts and motivations to events in our lives, even if it requires a bit of a stretch. My son was born in 2002, and I remember thinking that his conception was a response to the evil carried out on 11 September 2001. Though I never made anything of this outwardly, I still experienced some cognitive dissonance later on when I had to come to terms with the fact that he was born about 8 months after that attack, during a regular 9 month pregnancy. 

Emotions were raw among American's in those days following the terrorist attacks. Some foolish ideas came about because of that. 

The prophet Amos is portrayed in the eponymous biblical book as feeling compelled to bring an urgent message to Israel, and he attributed it to the god Yahweh.
"Then Amos answered Amaziah, 'I am no prophet, nor a prophet's son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the LORD took me from following the flock, and the LORD said to me, 'Go, prophesy to my people Israel.'" (Amos 7:14,15)* 
Keep in mind that everywhere you see 'LORD' in all caps in the Hebrew Scriptures, it's a placeholder for the tetragrammaton, 'YHWH.' This makes what follows in the lectionary reading for this fifth Sunday after Pentecost especially interesting to me.
"God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment: 'How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.' They have neither knowledge nor understanding, they walk around in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken. I say, 'You are gods, children of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, you shall die like mortals, and fall like any prince.' Rise up, O God, judge the earth; for all the nations belong to you!" (Psalm 82)
What intrigues me about this is that 'God' is sitting among other gods in a divine council, and when he talks about the orphans, lowly, destitute, weak, and needy, he's saying that the gods should be giving them justice. This seems to reflect the henotheism that was prevalent in pre-exilic times. With henotheism, one god can be considered supreme and worshipped individually and collectively, without denying the existence of the gods of other nations or groups. The final verse might seem to contradict all that, unless you consider that YHWH is nowhere mentioned in this Psalm. The two terms used are Elohim and Elyon. 

How about that?

Consider this passage from Deuteronomy 32:8-9as presented by the Names of God Bible: 
"When Elyon gave nations their land,when he divided the descendants of Adam,he set up borders for the tribes corresponding to the number of the sons of Israel.But Yahweh’s people were his property. Jacob was his own possession."
And now this, from the Ancient History Encyclopedia:
Although the biblical narratives depict Yahweh as the sole creator god, lord of the universe, and god of the Israelites especially, initially he seems to have been Canaanite in origin and subordinate to the supreme god El. Canaanite inscriptions mention a lesser god Yahweh and even the biblical Book of Deuteronomy stipulates that “the Most High, El, gave to the nations their inheritance” and that “Yahweh’s portion is his people, Jacob and his allotted heritage” (32:8–9). A passage like this reflects the early beliefs of the Canaanites and Israelites in polytheism or, more accurately, henotheism (the belief in many gods with a focus on a single supreme deity). The claim that Israel always only acknowledged one god is a later belief cast back on the early days of Israel’s development in Canaan.

Thus far, I've discussed how our perceptions can lead to us generating a story for ourselves to explain our actions, and I've attempted to demonstrate that residual henotheism in the Hebrew Bible reveals Yahweh to be one of the gods, subordinate to El. This reminds me of the Forgotten Realms pantheon in D&D, where there is a supreme deity named Ao, and all the various gods — from Asmodeus to Zinzerena and beyond — are ultimately subject to him. 

If any deities actually exist, they continue to be delinquent in their responsibilities to the weak, poor, and needy, so it's up to us.

"May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience" (Colossians 1:11)
When my faith evaporated at the end of 2013, I went through a brief period of panic. There was an emotional reaction that went on inside me causing me to feel as though I were alone and exposed, vulnerable to all the evils of the world. How would I ever make it through in the future? Then, it dawned on me. I'd always been on my own, at least in terms of the absence of any deity. Friends and family had been there for me through the years, and all the obstacles I'd overcome and successes I had found their origin in that support and my own inner strength and determination. Like Dumbo, I'd finally come to realize that the magic feather was just a regular feather, and I'd been able to fly all along without it.

We imagine our strength coming from elsewhere. We find it within ourselves.

In my childhood I always attended Vacation Bible School. I loved it. One year, when I was in 3rd or 4th grade, our class presentation for the week, to be given on Friday evening to the parents, was the parable of the Good Samaritan. That lesson sunk right into my bones.
"Jesus replied, 'A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, 'Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.' 'Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?' He said, 'The one who showed him mercy.' Jesus said to him, 'Go and do likewise.'" (Luke 10:30-37)

The message I took from this in my childhood still holds true in my early 40s, as a post-theist: it depends on us; human hands help human beings.

At Harding University School of Biblical Studies, which I suspect doesn't exist any more, I had to keep secret the sense of 'call' that I felt to mission work in Brazil, lest I be marked a 'Pentecostal' or simply considered weak-minded. Now I understand that my 'call' was generated by the general circumstances of my life, my own longing for a sense of purpose, and the specific situation in which I found myself on an evening in June 1997 at a church in Campinas, Brazil. That doesn't really invalidate it, though. Sure, it wasn't from a god, but it gave me a focal point and directed me towards serving others. The outcome was mixed, but some lives were made a little better because I showed up. 

Whether you believe in Yahweh, El, both, or neither, we should accept our shared call to show up for one another.


*Except where noted, Bible passages are taken from the New Revised Standard Version.