Saturday, January 28, 2012

Asking Questions

Be still, and know that I am God ... The Lord Almighty is here among us; the God of Israel is our fortress.   -- Psalm 46:10a,11

I was struggling earlier in the week with the Documentary Hypothesis.  As I wrote last week, Richard Friedman's book, "Who Wrote the Bible?" helped me to understand, in a way I hadn't before, that there are several different points of view, from several different writers, revealed in the first books of the Bible. In an effort to test whether Friedman's conclusions were accurate, I decided to try to determine for myself where one writer begins and another writer ends, based on the tone conveyed and common phrases used.  At times, it was pretty easy to figure out, as with the two creation stories.  But other times, as with the Flood Story, I found the different writers harder, much harder, to separate. 

After highlighting the entire book of Genesis in my NRSV Notetaker's Bible, with various colors of highlighters, trying to determine the different sources for myself, the only thing clear to me was that there is more than one source, or one writer, for the Books of Moses, and these writers had different points of view.  Well, that, and also that I now had a very colorful book! 

Undaunted, and still curious, I looked for other opinions on the subject.  There are other theories for the way these early books were written besides the Documentary Hypothesis.  There is the theory that the stories were fragments from many writers that were pieced together.   (Perhaps these came from oral traditions?).  And, there is the theory that one basic story (perhaps written by Moses?), was added to or taken away from over the years before the final version came to be.   Each of these theories made some sense to me.

Then I read from a more conservative theologian that unless we believe Moses wrote all five of The Books of Moses, our faith is null.  His reasoning was that if we don't believe that, then we might not believe that Christ said what he said, and so on. 

Hmmm.  I find this argument for not questioning the writings in the Bible to be absolutely fascinating.  First of all, it doesn't matter to me who wrote the Bible, as much as it matters what the writers have to say about God and our relationship to God.  And second of all, how would we continue to learn and grow if we couldn't ask the questions we have?   

As Jesus said, "Seek, and you shall find."  I firmly believe that if you don't seek, with all the heart, mind, body, and soul, that God gave you, you don't find. 

Sometimes the search leads to new understanding -- something to be greatly treasured.  And, sometimes you take a wrong turn.  Sometimes you go around and around in circles.  And, sometimes the search leads you back to where you started, as if for the first time.  And sometimes you discover that the answer you are searching for is not so important, after all -- like how many people wrote The Books of Moses.

Despite these challenges, I cannot imagine going back to a life of faith in which I never questioned what I was told.  For then, I can tell you for a fact, I did not know God.

Dear God, thank you for letting me know, in the midst of my struggles of trying to understand everything, that you hear me and that you know how to comfort me.  You alone hold the keys to the ultimate truth.  Whenever I get pulled in many directions, you remind me of this.  And I rest in you.  Love always, Pam

Friday, January 20, 2012


There was also a man named Ananias who with his wife, Sapphira, sold some property.  He brought part of the money to the apostles, but he claimed it was the full amount.  His wife agreed to the deception.  
   Then Peter said, "Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart?  You lied to the Holy Spirit, and you kept some of the money yourself.  The property was yours to sell or not to sell, as you wished.  And after selling it the money was yours to give away.  How could you do a thing like this?  You weren't lying to us but to God."
   As soon as Ananias heard these words, he fell to the floor and died.  Everyone who heard about it was terrified.  
...About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. ... And Peter said, "How could the two of you even think of doing a thing like this -- conspiring together to test the Spirit of the Lord?  Just outside that door are the young men who buried your husband, and they will carry you out, too."
   Instantly, she fell to the floor and died.  ... Great fear gripped the entire church and all others who had heard what happened.    -- Acts 5:1-5,7,9-10 (NLT)

They knew God was not to be trifled with.   -- Acts 5:11 (The Message)

Thomas Merton wrote, in "Opening the Bible", that when we read the Bible we often walk away with more questions that we had to begin with.  That is certainly the way I felt after reading this passage in Acts, from last Tuesdays readings.

Why did Ananias and Sapphira die?  Did their own guilty consciences make them so afraid they died on the spot?  Did God strike them dead, as The Message implies in the last verse?  Why did they not think to repent of their sin, and beg forgiveness?  Why was Peter so judgmental, even more so towards Sapphira than Ananias?  How was Ananias any worse a sinner than Peter himself?  Peter had lied to the Holy Spirit when he denied knowing Christ, three times, to protect his own skin.  How could people who knew Jesus think that this kind of punishing retribution was God's way?

I understand that we cannot think that God is so loving and forgiving that we are able to sin with impunity.  A little guilt in the face of our transgressions is, in my opinion, natural and good, especially when we know God loves us.  But I wonder what would have happened if Ananias had simply gotten down on his knees and repented as Jesus told his followers to do.  Think about how much more fruitful it would have been if they had been advised by Peter to repent.

So, what do I do with these depictions of God that run so contrary to the way Jesus is portrayed, and to the way I understand God?  Do I simply say that they are wrong?  This is the Bible, after all.  Can I say that about the Bible?


Later Tuesday afternoon, I came across an intriguing book titled, "Who Wrote the Bible?", by Richard Elliot Friedman.  I wasn't sure if it would answer my questions, as it seemed to be an investigation into the sources from which the Bible was compiled, but it captured my attention anyway.

When I got home, I read in the introduction:  "I wanted to know why the text pictured the deity as it does.  For example, the Bible often pictures the deity as torn between divine justice and divine mercy.  There is a recurring tension through the Bible between the forces that say "punish" and the forces that say "forgive".  What events and what places in the biblical world played a part in forging this powerful and bewildering notion of divine-human relations?" (pg.20)  Needless to say, my attention was fully engaged.  And that is how I have spent most of the last few days:  reading that book.

It reads like a detective story.  For not only does the author discuss the different source theories (something I was already somewhat familiar with from other readings), but he tries to glean from the different writings, or sources, what the writers were like as people:  what interested them the most, how they depicted God, what they portrayed positively, what they portrayed negatively.  This was the part of the book that I found most interesting, because it helped me understand these different portraits of God.

There are thought to be four sources for the Five Books of Moses, and one redactor (the person who combined them all).  All five of these people, or parties of people, come from different regions, different clans, and different time periods.  So it is no wonder that they describe things differently.  It is no wonder either that there are contradictions to be found in the Bible.

Three of the sources (labelled "J", who calls God "Yahweh"; "E", who mostly calls God "Elohim"; and "D", who wrote most of Deuteronomy), depict God in a very anthropomorphic way:  God is very personal; God walks and talks with humans; God changes his mind, in fact, humans can persuade God to change his mind.  For these writers God is almost always portrayed as merciful, slow to anger, and abiding in steadfast love.  As an example, "J" wrote the second creation story, in which God creates the earth and heavens, beginning with man/Adam.  (Gen 2:4b-25) 

The remaining contributor to the founding documents of our Scripture (labelled "P", because he was very interested in the role and rights of temple priests), had a different view of God.  For "P", God is distant, omniscient, looking down at man from on high, his law is definite, and he never wavers from his law.  Many of "P"'s stories in Genesis and Exodus, in fact, are constructed to offer an alternative to the "J" and "E" perspective.   For example, "P" wrote the the first creation story, in which God creates the heavens and earth, ending with man and woman, both.  (Gen 1:1-2-4a) 

So, it is not too far off to say that these different portraits of God do represent individual viewpoints.  They came from specific people at specific times and places in history.  And these different portraits found sympathetic listeners.

Richard Friedman writes that one of the reasons the redactor combined the sources, contradictions and all, is because they were each so well known and well loved individually -- much like the four Gospels were in the early decades of Christianity.  He couldn't leave anything out.  So, he cut and pasted them together as seamlessly as he could.

Knowing all this is comforting to me.  I no longer feel that I have a tremendous, and endless, struggle ahead of me to try and reconcile these two opposing images of God in the Bible.  I understand how and why they are there.   And I have learned something very valuable.  Even though I may understand one viewpoint of God better than the other, I cannot imagine my faith to be complete without all of these sources included in it.  I cannot imagine having only one creation story, for example.  Can you?

One person's understanding of God may be completely opposed to my understanding of God, and yet I can still learn, and grow spiritually, from hearing what they have to say.   Or, to put it another way:   "All faith is founded on good faith, and where there is good faith on both sides there is also the presence of God."  (Northrop Frye, "The Double Vision", pg.18)

Dear God, thank you for bringing this book to my attention.  It fit the bill perfectly, answering my questions so well.  And thank you for knowing exactly what I need to learn.  Love always, Pam

Sunday, January 15, 2012

A Message from God

Now in those days messages from the Lord were very rare, and visions were quite uncommon.  One night Eli, who was almost blind by now, had just gone to bed.  The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was sleeping in the Tabernacle near the Ark of God.  Suddenly the Lord called out, "Samuel! Samuel!"  
   "Yes?" Samuel replied.  "What is it?"  He jumped up and ran to Eli.  "Here I am.  What do you need?"
   "I didn't call you," Eli replied.  "Go back to bed."  So he did.
   Then the Lord called out again, "Samuel!"
   Again Samuel jumped up and ran to Eli.  "Here I am," he said.  "What do you need?"
   "I didn't call you, my son," Eli said.  "Go on back to bed."
   Samuel did not yet know the Lord because he had never had a message from the Lord before.  So now the Lord called a third time, and once more Samuel jumped up and ran to Eli.  "Here I am," he said.  "What do you need?"
   Then Eli realized it was the Lord who was calling the boy.  So he said to Samuel, "Go and lie down again, and if someone calls again, say, 'Yes, Lord, your servant is listening.' "  So Samuel went back to bed.  
   And the Lord came and called as before, "Samuel! Samuel!"  
   And Samuel replied, "Yes, your servant is listening."       -- 1 Samuel 3:1-10

This is one of the readings for today's lectionary.  I've quoted the entire reading, though it is a long one, because there is so much in here that speaks to me.

In this passage we learn that Eli is going blind -- which, in the Bible, is always a metaphor for "lacking in understanding".  God speaks to Samuel directly, something that rarely happens.  And even though Samuel has been living in the temple, serving the Lord, since he was a toddler, he "did not yet know the Lord because he had never had a message from the Lord before."  If you keep reading the passage, you will also learn that God has a difficult message for Samuel to convey to Eli.

This reading, and the Gospel reading for today (John 1:43-51), tell of  how God "speaks" to his people.  Jesus tells Nathaniel that he will see angels ascending and descending upon him.  If we think of all the miracles that Jesus was in the center of, if we imagine ourselves being there with Jesus when, for example, the five loaves and two fish were enough to feed thousands, we might well  have wondered whether we were surrounded by invisible angels. 

I sometimes wonder if angels guide my life.  I say this with some trepidation, because I have never seen an angel, so it is difficult for me to actually believe in them, but it is even more difficult for me to explain why some things happen to me the way they do.  I could describe many different, unexplainable, occurances, but the most common occurance that I can't explain is why my thoughts match up so well with the words that come before me.  When this first started happening, I thought, "Huh, that's interesting.  What a strange coincidence."  When it continued to happen with greater and greater frequency, the mathematician in me wondered, "What are the odds of this happening?"  The words often come to me in such an odd, unexpected way that I can not help but wonder if there is something supernatural going on.  I believe, at the very least, that when this happens, God is trying to tell me something.

I don't think I am particularly special in this regard.  I think God speaks to people in many different ways.  I happen to read, A LOT, so God most often speaks to me in the books I read.  He also speaks to me in the words of a song, or the words of an actor.  I know some of you may be shaking your head or rolling your eyes at me.  You may think I am delusional -- or not.  If you had been in my shoes, however, I know you would understand.   Perhaps it simply boils down to whether your eyes are open to God's presence, or not.  My eyes have been opened.

The main reason I started this blog was to share the messages that were shouting to be shared.  But, lest you think otherwise, I know there is a danger in thinking I always know what God's message is.  It would be very easy for me to substitute my own personal understanding for what God is telling me, and say it comes from God.  We have all heard of people who do this.  And sometimes, though I try not to, I get in the way.  So, my best test for whether the message comes from God, is its insistence.  When the message is repeated many times, I begin to suspect, like Eli, that God is involved.  Now I don't always share all the repetitions. If I did, I fear my postings would get very tiring (for me to write and for you to read).  However, I do sometimes feel compelled to share the central message.

So, now I have to describe what happened to me a little while ago.  On Jan. 5, my kids and I and grandma were driving back from a ski trip.  The drive is five hours long, and to pass the time we were listening to an audio book, Bill O'Reilly's "Killing Lincoln".  It is a brutal story, which got more and more brutal as the hours passed.  I began to wonder why we were listening to such an awful story.  It had started off as an interesting exploration of the last two weeks of Lincoln's life, his comings and goings, his speeches, etc.  When it began to delve into the horrific details of the last weeks of the civil war, and into the demented mind of John Wilkes Booth, grandma asked if I still wanted to listen to it.  I kept hoping it would get back to the mind of Lincoln.  But the mind of Lincoln was like a candlelight next to a bonfire, in this tale. 

Before I finally had had enough of it, not wanting to expose myself or my kids (who were playing portable video games, but might also be listening) to more brutality, I began to wonder how such brutality could have been acceptable in a country that claims to be Christian.  How could people, such as Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, go to church on Sunday, and back to war on Monday?  How could they have completely and utterly ignored Jesus' words to "love your enemies"?  If we believe that being a Christian means to follow Jesus the Christ, then there is no way to rationalize killing someone and be a Christian at the same time.  Jesus never sanctioned violence against another person -- in fact, quite the opposite.

Yet we do this as a so-called "Christian" country, all the time.  We say that if we do not fight back when we are attacked, we will lose our freedom, our way of life.  If fact, we firmly believe that "might" makes "right".   Yet didn't Jesus say that "if you live by the sword, you will die by the sword" in his admonishment to Peter?

When we got home that evening, I opened my Bible to the readings for that day.  Guess what I read?

But if you are willing to listen, I say, love your enemies.  Do good to those who hate you.  Pray for the happiness of those who curse you.  Pray for those who hurt you.  If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn the other cheek.  If someone demands your coat, offer your shirt also.  Give what you have to anyone who asks you for it,  and when things are taken from you, don't try to get them back.  Do for others as you would like them to do for you.  ... Love your enemies!  Do good to them!  ... for he [God] is kind to the unthankful and to those who are wicked.  You must be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate.   (Luke 6:27-36, NLT)

An amazing coincidence, isn't it?  I think so.  I hope you do, too.  And I hope it makes us all think a little more seriously about what being a Christian actually entails.  Are we willing to listen?

Dear God, you amaze me continually with your loving, challenging, and mysterious ways.  Though I know your love for me is steadfast despite my unworthiness, I hope I may someday be worthy of calling myself a Christian.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Both Darkness and Light

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.  The earth was empty, a formless mass cloaked in darkness.  And the Spirit of God was hovering over its surface.  Then God said, "Let there be light," and there was light.  And God saw that it was good.  Then he separated the light from the darkness.  God called the light "day" and the darkness "night."  Together these made up one day.   -- Gen. 1:1-5

Reading these words yesterday after all my thoughts lately of "wisdom" and "seeing the light", I gleaned more from them than I have ever done before.

There is darkness in the beginning.  It is a given, the given, even before God speaks.  The first thing God adds is light.  He adds the light to the darkness, and calls it "good."  Then he separates the light from the darkness.  There is no sense of one being better than another.  Together, it is good.  When God created the light, he did not completely blot out the darkness, he only made each separate. 

Yesterday in church we sang a song that spoke of this very thing:  "I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light."  The refrain is, "In him there is no darkness at all; the night and the day are both alike."  In our world, are darkness and light separate, but equal?  Are they equally important?  I wonder.

We think of the darkness as something bad, to be avoided at all costs.  Socrates, or rather Plato, equated light with the truth, and darkness with illusion or ignorance.  Other people, like Marianne Williamson, think of the darkness as fear.  Many people think of the light as love.  People seek after the light of truth, of love, of perfection.  We want to escape the darkness of illusion and fear.  We are dissatisfied if, or when, we fail to attain these goals.  And so, we are dissatisfied most of the time.

But there can never be only light and no dark.  Just as there can never be only dark and no light. There has to be both.

I tried explaining this to my children once.  If they always got whatever they wanted, even if what they wanted was good for them, would they appreciate it?  For example, suppose the one you loved, reciprocated your love automatically.  Would it mean as much?  If there was no alternative, would love even bring joy once obtained? 

I don't think so.  We only long for that which we do not have.  If all we had was light, we would not long for more light; we would long for a bit of shade, some darkness even.  There has to be the possibility of not-love, for love to be appreciated.  There has to be choice.  And so, there is risk.  To love is better than not to love, but we only understand this because we are allowed to experience what is not love.  Only in the darkness can we understand the true glory of the light. 

Jesus said, "I am the light of the world."  (John 8:12)  As I wrote in a previous posting, Jesus did not say that he comes to tell people about the light, or to show them where the light is, or even carry the light.  He is the light. ("Wisdom", Jan. 1, 2012).  Jesus does not transform us into perfect people, always happy, so that he can love us.  He loves us fully, recognizing our darkness, our flaws and imperfections, and leads us to greater happiness.  That is the Good News.  Jesus, the light incarnate, God incarnate, comes to us, where we are.  And brings us the light of his love, God's love.  God's redeeming, transforming love.  The greater the darkness to which he comes, the greater the miracle of his love. 

I read today in " 'I Thirst' ", by Stephen Cottrell, sentiments which echo these thoughts.  Cottrell writes, "Because of him [Jesus] our whole understanding of God and of God's involvement with the world, is completely changed.  ... He is right alongside us, holding our hand when the pain is at its worst and leading the way, the only glimmer of light when everything else is lost and dark.  ... Jesus doesn't just show us love; he isn't just loving; he is love, because he is God, sharing our humanity, drawing us to himself and through him to the Father, and doing this all by love. ... He heals the sick, he forgives those trapped in sin, he restores the outcast to life in the community, he feeds the hungry, and he speaks words of hope and challenge.  He shows us a new way of living.  He demonstrates a glorious and liberating humanity."  (pg. 23-24)   Love from God is a given, the given, if we chose it. 

This new way of living that Jesus show us, the way to freedom, is God's way of living.  It is the way of choosing love over not-love, to be a light in the midst of darkness, to love despite imperfections, despite disease, despite poverty, despite approaching death, despite being outcast, despite sin.  And in living this way, we find joy. 

Do I take the light of my love into the darkness?  Do I love unconditionally?  Or do I love only the light?  Only the perfect?  Do I take the same risks that God takes?

Dear God, you are the Great Lover, the Great Redeemer, the Great Healer.  Please teach me how to love as you love, in the darkness and the light.  Always, Pam

Friday, January 6, 2012

Seeing the Light

Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance.  -- Prov.1:5

Let not steadfast love and faithfulness forsake you; bind them around your neck; write them on the tablet of your heart.  So you will find favor and good success in the sight of God and man.  Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.  Seek his will in all you do and he will direct your paths -- Prov.3:3-6

Last week, I wrote about wisdom, about how Socrates tried to get people to realize their own ignorance.  Now it is my turn to recognize my own ignorance, and pursue a greater truth.  For, if you had asked me two weeks ago, what, or who, I needed to be happy, I would have said, "God alone."  Now, that may sound reasonable to some faithful people.  But let me clarify:  I would not only have meant "God first, above everyone else."  I would have mostly meant, "I don't need anyone else." 

Maybe you understand what I'm talking about.  Perhaps, you too have reached a low point in your relations with other people, such that you have felt that God alone was your life-line.   Once, a few years ago, I felt completely and absolutely alone in the world.  I turned to God for help, and God answered me.  From this, I believed that I could only trust in God completely.   And though God has taught me how to love my neighbor better, with greater and greater charity, this lesson of essential trust has been reaffirmed repeatedly, especially in my closest relationships.  For, inevitably, there are conflicts, disagreements, misunderstandings, and/or hurt feelings, which create distance, if they do not break relationships entirely. 

My solution was to put more trust in God, and less trust in other people.  The result was that I was becoming very fatalistic about many of my relationships, especially friendships.  I was beginning to wonder whether it was even possible to maintain lasting relationships with those I hold dear.  I knew I was beginning to place barriers between myself and other people, but I thought this is what I needed to learn:  that God alone was sufficient for me.  These were my thoughts of a few weeks ago.

Then, over Christmas, my brother, who was staying with us, had a tonic-clonic seizure.  I had never seen such an event before, and it scared me so much that I did something I had never done.  I sent out a prayer request via email to everyone I knew who would care.  The thought crossed my mind beforehand that God knew my concerns for Steve, and that that would be sufficient.  But I not only wanted people to pray for my brother, I needed to know that I was being held in their thoughts as well. It was a blessing to me to know both these things.  That support helped me help my brother get the proper care he needed.  And he did get amazing care from everyone we went to.

A few days later, looking for one particular movie at a Redbox kiosk, I was offered a second movie for half the price.  I chose the one at the beginning of their list of recent releases, a movie I had never heard of before, called "The Art of Getting By".  The movie is about a young man, named George, whose life's philosophy is "You're born alone, you die alone, and everything else is an illusion."  I could relate, though I would include God in my solitariness.  It may sound depressing, but this philosophy is actually self-preserving.  For it insulates George from feeling the pain of his father's abandonment, and his mother's distance.  That's life, c'est la vie, so to speak.  With this philosophy, George becomes a self-sufficient loner who "gets by" on his own intelligence.  The movie, by David Weisen, tells the story of how this young man's world is turned around by friendship and love.  It is an awakening for George, who slowly learns that when you allow yourself to love, you are no longer alone, and when you live honestly, even vulnerably, life is very real, no longer an illusion.   I found it very thought-provoking in light of my recent thoughts about friendships.

At the same time, I was finishing up a book titled, "Spiritual Friendship".  I had picked the book up at the bookstore because it was written by Aeldred of Rievaulx.  When we lived in England, Rievaulx Abbey was one of our favorite places to visit.  I thought the book was going to be about building a friendship with God, but it turned out to be about building deep and lasting friendships with other people, which Aeldred describes as God's gift to us, through which we grow in spiritual awareness and happiness.  Aeldred's words at the end of the book struck a particular chord:  "How advantageous is it then to grieve for one another, to toil for one another, to bear one another's burdens, while each considers it sweet to forget himself for the sake of the other... Added to this there is prayer for one another, which, coming from a friend, is the more efficacious in proportion as it is more lovingly sent to God."  (pg.128).  I was reminded with gratitude of the recent prayers of my friends.

Two other books followed in quick succession which also spoke about friendship and love.  In a book about soul mates (which, though classified as a Relationships/Self-Help book, I found in the theology section of my favorite used bookstore), I read, "we most often come to know ourselves through our relationships with other people.  Whether it is through learning about love in the face of someone we hold dear or growing in patience through a lifetime of challenges, ... we grow in our awareness of our true identity and our ultimate connection to God." ("Edgar Cayce on Soul Mates," Todeshi, pg. xiv, xvii)

And last night, reading a little more from the book I started with my oldest son a couple months ago ("The Alchemist", by Paulo Coelho), we came to the place in the story where the boy talks to the Sun about love.  The Sun thinks the world would have been a "symphony of peace if the hand that wrote all this had stopped on the fifth day of creation."  The boy replies, "You are wise, because you observe everything from a distance.  But you don't know about love.  If there hadn't been a sixth day, man would not exist; copper would always be copper, and lead just lead.  ... each thing has to transform itself into something better. ... it's not love to be static like the desert, nor is it love to roam the world like the wind.  And it's not love to see everything from a distance, like you do.  Love is a force that transforms and improves the Soul of the World."  (pg 149-151).

I sometimes wonder if God will continue to put the same message before my eyes indefinitely until I finally get it, until I finally see the light.  For this message is growing in force with each passing day.  There is no way I can simply ignore it.

God is love.  God not only wants us to love him, deeply, he also wants us to love each other, deeply.  Not simply from a distance, with great charity.  But more deeply, in ways that stretch us and help us learn about love itself, "steadfastly and faithfully", with those whom God sends our way.   Love of God and love of neighbor:  they are in essence the same thing.  They are both equally essential for our eternal happiness.  And so I must not forsake one for the other.  That is not God's desire.  I must try to stay connected to other people with steadfast love and charity.  I trust that with God's help, I will be able to.

Dear God, you amaze me.  Thank you for your great love for me.  I am humbled.  May I learn to love those closest to me as you love me.  Always, Pam

Sunday, January 1, 2012


Through you I am saying to the prisoners of darkness, 'Come out!  I am giving you freedom!'  -- Isaiah 49:9a

Teach the wise and they will be wiser.   -- Proverbs 9:9

Jesus said to the people, 'I am the light of the world.  If you follow me, you won't be stumbling through darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life.'   --  John 8:12

So many of the readings in the last few days have been about wisdom.  Coincidentally, I have heard similar messages from other sources.  Something significant is usually found when this happens.  Something worth sharing.

Last Wednesday, driving up to Phoenix, I began listening to a set of lectures on CD titled, "Philosophy and Religion in the West," given by Prof. Phillip Cary through The Teaching Company -- a Christmas present from my husband.  Prof. Cary is interested in exploring the ways philosophy influences religion, and vice versa.  So am I.  He began the lectures by describing the philosophy of Socrates and Plato.

Socrates sought to teach people the meaning of true goodness:  courage, justice, piety, and the like.  He did this by asking meaningful questions of specific people who thought they knew all about the subject.  Usually, however, in attempting to answer Socrates' questions, the "expert" was made aware of his own ignorance, and was left "perplexed", as Prof. Cary describes.  Some of the men thus challenged by Socrates, when they realized that they did not know as much as they thought they knew, were spurred into probing deeper into the truth of all things.  Other men, when faced with uncertainty, dismissed Socrates, preferring to live with their own illusions.

Plato described the differences between these two groups of people with an allegory about a cave.  Most of us, he said, live in the cave, warmed by a fire between us and the back wall.  The images we see on the walls around us are only shadows of reality.  While behind us, unknown to us, is the real world in the bright light of day.  There, in that light, the light of the Sun, is where the Ultimate Truth, or the Good (with a capital G), is found.  Plato thought of Socrates as a searcher who had found the opening of the cave, and returned to tell the rest of the people about it.

After listening to this first lecture, I read the words in Isaiah above.  I was amazed at the similarity of message.  The rest of the messages followed on succeeding days.

Eventually, Socrates' provoking questions seriously annoyed some powerful people who did not like being exposed, or having their beliefs exposed, as fraudulent.  And so, they tried and convicted Socrates under the charge of impiety.  For, in his effort to find the Ultimate Truth, Socrates had killed too many of their "gods", their illusions.

I was puzzled by the charge of impiety against Socrates.  It seemed to me that those who could not have their understanding challenged, who could not live with the unknown, or uncertainty, were more impious than those who could.  It seemed to me that those who could not trust in the existence of some greater truth beyond their own knowledge were more impious than those who accepted their ignorance, who trusted in the existence of ultimate truth, and who sought to find it.  To my way of thinking, the latter group, with Socrates as their teacher, were not only more pious, they were also wise, as the proverb describes.

Prof. Cary states that the New Testament writers appropriated Greek philosophy into their theology.  That is certainly possible.  In John's Gospel, Jesus is described as "the light of the world" in a way that reminds one of Plato's allegory of the cave.   There are, however, significant differences.  In Platonic philosophy the Ultimate Good is impersonal.  It is a spirit that exist purely beyond this world.  It does not act in the world.  That is quite different from Christian (and Jewish) theology, which sees God as very much active in the world, taking care of humanity in a very personal way.

A fine distinction of this is made above in the passage from John's Gospel.  For Jesus does not simply say that he's here to tell people about the light, as Plato says about Socrates.  Jesus says, I am the light of the world.  Jesus not only pointed to the light, he was not only the bearer of the light, he was the light that came into the world to set it free.  He was the light incarnate.

And he too asked great, thought-provoking, questions. 

Dear God, I love this conjunction of messages.  I see in them your beautiful and glorious hand at work in my life.  Thank you for that.  Love always, Pam