Sunday, July 25, 2021

Temple Doctrine Part 1: Order and Chaos

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while the spirit of God swept over the face of the waters. (Genesis 1:1-2, NRSV)

The very first act of God as recorded in Genesis was to create order from chaos. The primordial chaos was formless and void. It had no shape nor could any part of it be differentiated from another. There were no opposites, no light nor dark, neither hot nor cold. This primordial chaos was typified by water which anciently was the one thing that had no set form. But in the midst of the chaotic primordial waters God created a space where order, and therefore life, could exist. God took the indistinguishable primordial chaos and differentiated it creating light and dark, day and night, springtime and harvest. The opposite of life was the formless void.

In our current popular culture order is equated with rigidity and invariance. Order is viewed as something that limits free will and is oppressive. But that kind of order is only the order that people impose on the world. The order provided by God in Genesis is the natural order that is the basis of life. Without the natural order, life would know nothing but chaos and corruption. Here is one of the major themes of Genesis. The natural order is created out of chaos, and from that order life is created.

The creation story in Genesis is crafted to show progressive spheres of order. On the outside of creation is where we find the primordial chaos without order. But beneath the dome of the sky there is a space created where life can exist because of the order created by God. Inside of this sphere is where we find world as we know it. And at the center of creation God created a garden as a perfect symbol of an orderly life. It was not wild untended garden, but well kept and full of all useful plants. The garden sustained life and at the center of the garden was the tree of life that gave immortality and eternal life. 

But at some point corruption and it's resulting disorder and chaos enters the garden in the form of a serpent. But why a serpent? Here is where our modern culture fails to understand the symbolism here. Suppose I am telling a story and it is about a young girl who wears a red cape with a hood and she is walking through a forest. Just based on that, who does she meet in the forest? Does she meet a goat? Or a troll? Or a fairy? No, she meets a wolf. Why does she meet a wolf and not a bear, or perhaps a family of bears with papa bear, mama bear, and baby bear?

We know that she will meet a wolf because in our culture we have that story ingrained in our collective understanding. We can do this with many other stories. A story of three little pigs, what do they do and what happens to them? A story starts out with a tortoise and a rabbit, what will happen? A girl with long hair lives in a tower, what will happen? We know the answers to these questions because we have been taught them by our culture.

So in the story of the creation where God brings order to chaos, who will come to corrupt the order created by God? Here our culture fails us because we are not surrounded by the milieu of the ancient world. If we weren't steeped in our culture it would seem strange that three little pigs were building houses and why they used three different building materials. In the same way it seems strange to us that a serpent comes into the well ordered garden to corrupt it. But in the ancient world it was something generally understood and to be expected.

In the mythology of the Middle East the serpent was the symbol of the primordial chaotic waters. In Canaanite and Hebrew stories a serpent is the agent of chaos and evil. The Babylonian goddess Tiamat was the goddess of the sea and from her the world was created, and she is frequently described and depicted as a dragon or a serpent. The symbol of a serpent, especially a sea serpent, as an agent of chaos and evil can be found throughout Indo-European mythologies. From Norse mythology to Persian mythology, and almost everywhere in between, a serpent or a dragon represents evil, destruction, and death and in many cases is associated with water, the sea, or destructive storms. So the symbol of a serpent entering into the garden to tempt our first parents to bring death and corruption would have been readily understood by people anciently.

The effect of the serpent in the Garden of Eden was to bring corruption which would ultimately result in death. In this way the cosmic principle of order and life are contrasted with corruption and death. Without God the cosmos is chaotic and devoid of order and life. God brings order to the chaotic darkness and from that life can exist. But the world is not completely ordered. Corruption and death are fundamental parts of the world. We ourselves are corrupt and because of that we are cut off from the the orderly garden of life and the presence of God. We will die because of the inherent corruption found in the world.

In the temple endowment we symbolically go through the process of seeing order and life created in the world. We are introduced into the garden. We are expelled from the garden out into the corrupt world where we will experience sorrow and death. To return to the presence of God and gain eternal life we must have the order of God restored to us. This is something we cannot do by ourselves. Through ministering angels God reveals to us the Holy Priesthood, after the Order of the Son of God, which order is necessary for us to return to the presence of God. Just as God created life in the world by bringing order to the chaos, it is only through the Order of the Son of God that we can remove corruption and chaos from our lives and gain eternal life.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Beauty and the Beast as Moral Philosophy

Over the past few years it has become fashionable to provide criticisms about Disney movies and "Disney Princesses". Some of these criticisms are in jest while others definitely are not. While social commentary can be leveled at just about any part of our society, sometimes we do ourselves a disservice by only looking at what is wrong, and never what it right about a story.

Because my children, like many others, like to listen to Disney songs and watch Disney movies I have had plenty of time to hear and ponder on the content of various Disney movies. Something that struck me about Disney's Beauty and the Beast is that almost the entirety of people's assessment of the movie centers around Belle. In discussions about the movie the Beast, though a major character, is interestingly enough treated like a plot device to challenge Belle, and not as an individual to be empathized with despite having the greatest character growth. If we consider the personal growth of the Beast we find the story of a man finding his humanity.  

The origin story of the Beast is what sets up the moral of the tale. He is someone who has all the material things he would ever need. The Beast has control over his domain and no one will challenge him in his desires. Because of this he did not treat those around him with humanity. To him they were nothing more than objects that can be treated or mistreated according to his whims. This is shown symbolically when the enchantress shows up and he refuses to help her even though it would not inconvenience him in any way to help her. Because of his objectification of everyone everyone around him literally become objects in his house, and he loses his humanity and is transformed into an inhuman beast. This forms the main tension between the Beast and Belle and her father, Maurice.

When Maurice arrives at the Beast's castle he is the first and only human to enter into the life of the Beast that resists objectification. Normally the Beast would have treated Maurice like everyone else, as an object, but Maurice resists being objectified because of the very human traits of self-sacrifice and love for his daughter. Because Maurice cannot be objectified this enrages the Beast who casts him into prison and treats him inhumanely.

When Belle arrives at the castle she, like her father, resists objectification and offers to take the place of her father. This self-sacrifice demonstrates a defining characteristic of what it means to be human. The Beast did not demonstrate the bare minimum of self-sacrifice and for that he was cursed to lose his humanity. But both Belle and Maurice resist objectification because of their self-sacrifice and love.

Confronted with the reality of Belle staying in the castle, the Beast invites her to better quarters and thus begins his journey back to humanity. As their relationship develops there is constant tension between his beastly nature and her very real humanity. She resists his anger, violence, and all attempts to force her to bend to his will, all of which are beastly and not human characteristics. She is surprised to discover that the objects in the castle are all people, but they, like the Beast, have lost their humanity. Even though they personally exhibit characteristics of self-sacrifice and love, because they did not resist the objectification by the Beast they too fell under the curse. Their personal human characteristics were not enough to save them because they allowed the Beast to treat them as objects and not as humans.

Even though Belle can resist objectification, it is not possible for her human nature and his beastly nature to coexist. This comes to a head when he reacts violently to her entering the most personal and private part of his life. She finds that at the center of his private chambers a place containing his human insecurity which is symbolized by a fragile and dying flower. But his violent and inhuman reaction to his own weakness causes her to flee. 

The only thing that prevents her from leaving for good is because he follows her and demonstrates his first real human action of self-sacrifice. In protecting her from the wolves he is injured. In response to this very human action Belle responds with humanity and takes him back to the castle and stays with him. The Beast's transformation back to humanity began when Belle showed self-sacrifice and took the place of her father. The first part of the Beast's transformation finished when he finally reciprocated with his own self-sacrifice.

Here we have a contrast between his beastly nature and her human nature. But just as his beastly nature will ultimately prompt a beastly and violent response by the towns people, Belle's human nature prompts a human response from the Beast demonstrating that no one is beyond salvation as long as they are treated with humanity. Human actions beget more human actions, and beastly actions beget more beastly actions, but humans can always choose their humanity over being a beast.

After this event Belle exhibits the other part of human nature which is love. Just as she first showed her humanity through self-sacrifice she is the first to show her humanity through her love for the Beast. Because the Beast has regained a portion of his humanity he can he can now share his library with Belle, which symbolizes human learning and wisdom, demonstrating a reawakening of his humanity. During his process from beast to human he has to relearn all the things that can make him human, such as cleanliness, manners, dressing, dancing, music, and all artistic endeavors.

When his transformation back into being human is almost complete he again lets Belle into his most private place. The place where he originally transformed into a beast and lost his human identity. The physical location in the castle where this took place symbolizes his innermost and private thoughts and desires. There he is lonely, violent, and without control countering the complete control he exhibits in the rest of the castle. But with Belle entering she brings humanity literally into his private quarters and figuratively into his private thoughts. It is there that he realizes that if he is to ever be human then he has to release her from his control. Human nature is something that an individual can choose to show, but it is not something that can be controlled. The very act of trying to control human nature destroys the humanity of those who are controlled.

In the way Gaston attempts to control Belle's love we find the contrast between the Beast and Gaston. The Beast had lost his humanity, but found it again and thus knows he cannot control Belle without destroying her humanity. Gaston on the other hand is extolled as being the paragon of manliness, but that belies his true beastly nature. In order to have the love of Belle, Gaston tries to control her, but that very act denies her humanity and prevents there being any love between him and her.

In the end the Beast can only complete his transformation back into being a human when Belle freely returns his love. It cannot be forced or controlled because that freedom is fundamental to human nature. Before that can happen the Beast must wrestle figuratively with his inner demons and literally with Gaston. In a symbolic final fight where Gaston displays his true beastly nature, and the Beast demonstrates his new human nature, Gaston is cast down and dies, but first mortally wounds the Beast.

Here the Beast displays the human traits of self-sacrifice and love, and in response Belle freely gives him her love allowing the curse to be broken and completing his human transformation.

From this perspective the story of Beauty and Beast is a very human story about a man rediscovering his humanity. Belle, the heroine of the story, demonstrates her moral character by maintaining her humanity even when everyone around her has lost theirs. The story teaches that the part of us that makes us human are things that cannot be controlled or forced, they must be freely given. Only when we freely demonstrate self-sacrifice and love can we find our humanity and separate ourselves from the beastly nature found inside each of us. And that is the story of Beauty and the Beast.

Friday, April 30, 2021

Questions to Ask Before Asking Questions About Genesis

 A few questions people have posted online recently have prompted me to write this. This started out as a response to someone's thoughts on reconciling the story of the creation in Genesis with what we are figuring out from modern science.

 Before asking any questions about Genesis it is best to first ask yourself a few questions.

1. Who wrote the Bible?

More specifically, who wrote the book of Genesis? The easiest thing to do is assume that it was Moses. But how does that fit with what we know from an LDS perspective? In the Pearl of Great Price the Book of Moses is Joseph Smith's "translation" of Genesis chapters 1-6 up to verse 13. So the Joseph Smith translation took 5 and 1/2 chapters in Genesis and expanded them into 8 chapters for the Book of Moses. There are a couple of different ways of looking at this.

The material added by Joseph Smith could be divinely inspired or mandated material added to the original text by Moses. Or it could be material that originally was in the book written by Moses and later editors removed it when writing the "Reader's Digest condensed" version of Genesis. Either way the implication is that just the text from Genesis was not considered complete and additional revelation was needed.

This all of course assumes that Moses was the one who wrote the version that we have in Genesis. If you start looking into that question just realize that the answer gets very complex very quickly, and it does nothing to make the question "Who wrote the Bible?" any easier.

From the Book of Moses we learn that what was written about the creation and the Garden of Eden was shown to Moses in a vision. The story of the Garden of Eden was not written down by Adam. The story of the flood wasn't written down by Noah. If we assume that Moses wrote Genesis, and there are arguments that he may not have (or there may have been many editorial revisions), then whoever wrote Genesis in the form that we have now was writing 1,000-4,000 years after the events in the Book of Genesis. 

In so many ways the question of who wrote the Bible leads to the next major question that you have to ask.

2. What language was the Bible written in?

Anyone who has learned a second language knows that translation is not always as simple and straight forward as you might think. For many years my dad taught Spanish and something he always told his students was, "Spanish is not translated English!"

Yes, words like "que" are usually translated into English as "what". But "que" does not mean "what". The word "que" has its own meaning and use in Spanish that does not always correspond to "what" in English.

But it gets more complex from there. In most universities, and even in some high schools, students are required to take a few classes of a foreign language. In some cases taking advanced math classes counts towards the foreign language credit. This actually makes sense because as anyone who has suffered through several math classes knows, math is a foreign language. You have to learn how to read, write, and speak math. It's deceptive because math can use all English words and numbers, yet still be a completely foreign language.

The same is true of science. Science has its own language. Many people are completely unaware of this because if you pick up a book on physics or chemistry there will be mostly English words in there (or Spanish words in Spanish speaking countries, or Mandarin words in China, or etc.). But learning the language of modern science is literally like learning a foreign language.

So this brings us back to the question of what language was the Bible written in. Was it written in English? Why not? Other than the obvious fact that English didn't exist yet. Back when Moses was alive alphabets were still being invented!

Not only did Moses not write the Book of Genesis in English, but God didn't even speak to Moses in English! God spoke in a language that Moses understood! ("well duh qleap42, get to the point.")

God didn't speak to Moses in modern English because its not something Moses would have understood. In the exact same way, God didn't speak to Moses in the language of modern science. He spoke to Moses in a language that Moses could understand. Many people will say that if God had shown Moses the creation in vision, then God had to have shown Moses "the correct" way creation happened. Anything else would mean God was deceiving Moses. 

But these things were shown to Moses in a vision. Lehi in his vision of the tree of life saw the love of God as a tree with fruit on it. The vanity of the world was a great and spacious building without foundation. Did God deceive Lehi by representing "the love of God" as fruit on a tree? Or vanity as a "great and spacious building without foundation"? In the Book of John's Revelation, John saw many things, all of which were symbolic. Did God deceive John by showing him symbolic events about the end of the world?

Furthermore, what is the "correct" scientific understanding that God is supposed to have shown to Moses to not deceive him? The scientific understanding during the 18th dynasty in Egypt? Or was it the science of 7th century BC Babylon? The science of 3rd century BC Greece? 3rd century AD Rome? 11th century China? 16th century Europe? Science of the 19th century? The 20th, or the 21st? Perhaps better the 22nd? Or the 31st?

It's awfully presumptuous of us to think that God should have explained things to Moses in a way that Moses couldn't understand just so that we could. It's awfully presumptuous to think that we currently understand the universe correctly. That the way we see things is the way God sees them. It's awfully presumptuous to think that God can only explain things to people in a way that fits with our understanding of reality. Anything else is wrong and would mean God is deceiving them. That's an awfully prideful way of looking at things.

In the Doctrine and Covenants it mentions that in the last days everything will be reveled, including how the earth was made and the power by which it came to be. An interesting corollary of that is the idea that how the earth was made has not been revealed! That means the story in Genesis is not the story of the literal creation of the world, but symbols in a vision given to Moses so that he could understand. In that way God taught Moses how he, Moses, sits in relation to God. When Moses saw that he realized "that man is nothing, which thing [Moses] never had supposed."

Perhaps we should keep that in mind as we use science to learn things about the universe and how vast it is. When we consider the size and the true scope of reality that we are just now beginning to understand through science, we learn things we never thought possible. The size and scope of the universe is something that I literally deal with on a daily basis. Whenever I see someone, especially Latter-day Saints, insist the earth is only 6,000 years old, or that the earth was created in six 24 hour periods, I just think about just how big the universe really is. I think about how complex it is, from the creation of elements, the formation of stars and galaxies, the complexities of nuclear reactions, neutron stars, gravitational collapse, supernovas, neutron star mergers, basic chemistry, the time it took life to evolve, the complexities of life, the intricacies of evolution, evolutionary niches, the complex reactions that govern our bodies, the chaotic neuron cascades in our brains, not to mention the complexity of history, language, science, culture, and human societies. And there at the center of it all a God who knows and understands it all. Whose hand can hold millions of earths like this. Who watches as millions of earth come into being and millions pass away. God is someone who can know all that, and wants to teach us all of that, but first we have to learn how to understand what He is saying.

In all the vastness of creation it is awfully presumptuous of us to presume that we know how God made the earth because we read something in a book and assumed that we understood what it was saying.

Before we ask questions from Genesis, perhaps we should ask ourselves some questions.

Monday, April 26, 2021

We Already are in Hell

In this past conference Elder Dale Renlund spoke on a topic that is very familiar to anyone who has spent time studying theology, the problem of evil. He told of a conversation he had with a man while visiting Rwanda. The man asked the classic question,

“If there were a God, wouldn’t He have done something about [the genocide]?”

Elder Renlund explain the issue in this way, "For this man—and for many of us—suffering and brutal unfairness can seem incompatible with the reality of a kind, loving Heavenly Father.... This dichotomy is as old as mankind and cannot be explained in a simple sound bite or on a bumper sticker." Elder Renlund spoke about specific examples of unfairness and how to keep our faith in the face of such terrible evils. So while he spoke on examples of evil in the world, he didn't address the context of how we view the world.

Inherent in the man's question is an assumption about this world and the role and nature of God that he expected God to just do something to prevent the evil in the world. If there is something I have learned many times over, it is that the hardest mental exercise is recognizing and challenging our own assumptions. Almost everyone who considers the question, "Why does God allow such terrible things like the Rwandan genocide to happen?" fails to follow that up with the question, "What is it that makes me think that God should do anything about it?"

The simplest answer to this is that God is good, and good people should stop evil from happening, and God has the power to stop it. But the issue for the believer is that God is still there and loves us, but did not stop the evil. So from the perspective of a believer how should we resolve this issue.

To start I will ask a question to consider, and finding the answer will be left up to the interested reader.

The more interesting question is not, "Why does God allow evil to happen?", but,
"What is God doing to fix the evil that exists?"
When believers are faced with the problem of evil we seem to forget that God has already given us a framework to understand the problem of evil. Perhaps because we are so prone to view the story of Adam and Eve as a literal story that we fail to consider the symbolic meaning of the story.

Fundamentally we find ourselves in a fallen world. The name Adam in Hebrew is literally the word for humanity. From story of the Garden of Eden we learn that we, all humanity, are cut off from the presence of God. We are quite literally left to ourselves. Perhaps we do not consider the full implications of that. We, humanity, are responsible for all the evil that we do. We cannot say that we live in a fallen world, cut off from the presence of God, and then expect God to actively take charge of everything that happens in the world.

The story of the fall, especially as it is reiterated in the temple endowment ceremony, is trying to teach us the reality of the world we live in. As believers we must confront this fact, in this world there exists both good and evil, and whether we have more good or evil depends on us. In the endowment ceremony God himself does not come down to confront the evil of the world, but sends messengers.

We say that we currently live in a telestial world, and we must consider the implications of that statement. In D&C 76 we learn that those in the telestial kingdom do not experience the presence of celestial beings, but only receive "through the ministration of the terrestrial." Those in the telestial kingdom are "they who are thrust down to hell."

This means that the telestial world we live in is literally the location of hell.

In classical Christianity the standard view is that there is the earth, and then there are heaven and hell. The usually unspoken assumption is that earth is the middle point of glory. In Dante's Inferno the earth (or at least the surface) is the dividing line between heaven and hell. But in LDS theology our view is a little more lopsided. True to the view presented in the story of the expulsion from paradise, we live in a "fallen" world out of the presence of God. As explained in the Book of Mormon, separation from God is a kind of death, and "hell", or the second death, is a permanent separation from God.

From this perspective our current state is not that different from those who are "thrust down to hell." In the revelation on the Degrees of Glory the telestial glory, or our current temporary state, is the lowest degree of glory. There is not much below us since we have "fallen" after all and considering all the terrible depravities committed by humanity there is not much further for us to fall.

The classical idea of heaven and hell have worked its way into LDS theology in how we talk about the spirit world. There we speak of spirit paradise and spirit prison, but those ideas are not really found in our scriptures. In D&C 138 it mentions that all spirits, including the righteous considered their state as being in prison or bondage. It was not until Jesus appeared to the saints gathered together awaiting his coming were they given the hope that they could be released from their "prison". Even in the spirit world all of humanity was cut off from the presence of God, and we would have stayed that way if it had not been for Jesus Christ. Thus everyone, including the righteous found themselves in "spirit prison" or "hell" after their death.

This is rather interesting because in the Old Testament it does not mention separate places, such as heaven and hell, for the righteous and the sinners. There is only one place, sheol, where all the dead go. Only after the death and resurrection of Jesus could there be a division in the world of spirits to divide the righteous in the presence of God from those who are not. This means that for those who die there is no real change in their spiritual state. Thus "hell", or spiritual separation from God, is simply a continuation after death of our current separation from God.

With this context we can return to the original question, "How can God allow evil in the world?" The simplest bumper sticker answer is, "Because this world is Hell." With one exception there is nothing lower in glory, or goodness than this world. We are the furthest we can get from God.

This view of things should change how we view the world we live in. The amount of goodness or evil in the world depends on us. Through the ministering of angels, prophets, and apostles, we are shown what we must do to rise in our progression from a telestial world with all its pain and evil to a celestial and more perfect world. This is the symbolic teaching of the endowment ceremony. Because we are already out of the presence of God there really is nowhere else to go but up.

Many believers have it in their mind that God will come and cast out the wicked and thrust them down to hell. But right now, before the final judgement, there is not really anything worse than living in a world outside the presence of God. There is no worse hell to be thrust down into than to be left to witness the worst depravities of humanity. We already are in hell.

As members of the Church of Jesus Christ perhaps our message should not be "Repent or you will be punished and thrust down to hell!", but it should be, "Repent and fix the world you live in or you will be forced to continue to live in the hell of your own creation."

Whether we live in paradise or hell, that depends on us.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Faith is the Fundamental Substance of Reality

Something we do without realizing it is to interpret the scriptures and our faith through the lens of our cultural background. In our culture we are strongly influenced by Protestant theology. I sometimes joke that in the US everyone is a Protestant, even the Catholics. What I mean by that is we have been so thoroughly immersed in Protestant ways of thinking that we don't even realize we are doing it.

One of the places this shows up is how we talk about faith and knowledge. Because of our culture we are making implicit assumptions about what faith is and what it means to know something. Given those fundamental assumptions it is natural for someone to come to the conclusions, or ask the questions that you did.

Let me give an example of how we can unconsciously make an assumption that can lead to a paradox.

There is something called the "heap paradox". Suppose you have a heap of sand. In this particular heap there are 15,000,000 grains of sand. If you take a single grain of sand from the heap so that you now only have 14,999,999 grains, is it still a heap?

Any rational person would look at the sand sitting in a pile and say, "Yes. That is a heap of sand."

Now you take away another grain so that you have 14,999,998 grains. Is it still a heap? It should be.

Now you keep taking away single grains of sand until there are only 3 left. Can 3 grains of sand make a heap? Any rational person would look at it and say you need to get your eyes checked if you call 3 grains of sand a "heap of sand".

So at what point did the "heap of sand" turn into "not a heap of sand"? You could say that 15,000,000 grains were a heap. You could say that 1,500,000 grains were a heap. But at some point you get down to a minimum number and it stops being a heap. So, at what point did your "heap of sand" turn into "not a heap of sand"?

The inability to determine that is the "heap paradox", and it cannot be resolved.

But there was a problem with our mental exercise. We made a mistake and we didn't even realize it. And that mistake created the paradox.

By definition the number of things in a "heap" is undefined. Yes we can take a heap of sand and count the number of grains and get 12,749,873 grains. But the exact number isn't what makes it a heap. We use the word "heap" to mean a large, unknown, and not easily counted pile of things. The fact that we happen to know the number of things in the heap is unrelated to whether or not we call it a heap.

So, in the heap paradox we subtly shifted the definition of "heap" to include an exact value. Without realizing it we created the paradox.

A similar thing has happened in our culture with words like "faith" and "know". Over hundreds of years our understanding has drifted so that, while similar, we are missing something that was present in the original definition of the word we translate as "faith", and what it means to "know" something.

When Hebrews 11:1 is translated into English, because of hundreds of years of Protestant theology, we run into a paradox. In the original Greek the verse is,

Ἔστιν δὲ πίστις ἐλπιζομένων ὑπόστασις, πραγμάτων ἔλεγχος οὐ βλεπομένων.

This can correctly be translated as,

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. (King James Version)

But there are other ways of translating this. For example,

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. (New International Version)


Faith shows the reality of what we hope for; it is the evidence of things we cannot see. (New Living Translation)


To have faith is to be sure of the things we hope for, to be certain of the things we cannot see. (Good News Translation)


Now faith is the reality of what is hoped for, the proof of what is not seen. (Christian Standard Bible)

In the KJV the word that is translated as substance is "ὑπόστασις" (hypostasis). In Greek the word hypostasis literally means "to stand (-stasis) under (hypo-)". It means it is the thing that supports or is the source of everything. In philosophy hypostasis is the fundamental substance of reality. It is the thing that makes up everything.

But it can also mean to possess a claim, or to have title (or a deed) to a guaranteed agreement. It entitles someone to what is guaranteed under the particular agreement. (We still use this idea in modern English. If someone has a legal claim that can be heard in court, we say they "have standing". They have standing under the law to claim something such as property, or redress of wrongs.)

So another way of (very loosely) translating Hebrews 11:1 could be,

Our faithfulness gives us standing to actively wait for the proof of things that we cannot see.

Or it could be translated (again very loosely) as,

Our faith is the fundamental substance of reality that we trust gives proof of the things we cannot see [such as God].

So, how does that change the way we talk about faith and what it means "to have faith"? That is the question.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

A Different Nativity Story

I wanted to tell a slightly different nativity story. The Bible itself has very little written about the birth of Jesus. It doesn't even mention what time of year it happened. Over the years small additions to the story have been added to help flesh it out. But those were just assumptions created in later European culture. Because of this, and also because of translations issues, a number of items have become part of our "collective memory" about the nativity. For example the assumption that Jesus was born in a stable or barn, even though the Bible never says that. In some cases entire stories have been invented hinging on the mistranslation of a single word.

So I wrote this as an alternative nativity story. Some of the things included are my own interpolations, but in many cases I tried to use the best historical understanding that we have. In some places I have tried to use different words than is normal to make you pause and actually think about what is being said.


More than two thousand years ago a young couple about to be married had an unexpected surprise. It turned out that the soon-to-be-wife was pregnant. In their small community in Galilee this would have been quite a scandal, and in the culture at the time the shame of having a child out of wedlock would have followed her throughout her life. For her, while it was still a surprise, she had been warned about her coming pregnancy by an angel. In a great act of faith she accepted what the angel told her and said that she would be the Lord's servant. For the next few months she stayed with her cousin who also had a miraculous experience and received a promise that after many years of infertility she too would have a child. Together they rejoiced in what they had been called to do.

After several months Mary traveled back to her home and to her waiting fiance. The soon-to-be-husband and unknowing soon-to-be-new-adoptive-father found out that his soon-to-be-wife was pregnant, in a very impossible way, with what people would say was his first child. But he knew differently because he was a man of honor. After some thought he decided to do the honorable thing, as demanded by his culture, and break off the engagement. Being a kind, though honorable man, he didn't want to make a public display and wanted to keep everything "private". But again God interceded. In a dream an angel commanded him to ignore the honor based values taught to him by his culture, and to do a more holy thing so that a greater good could be done.

Joseph may have been a man of honor, but he was also a man of faith. He accepted what God had commanded him to do and married the woman who would come to be known as the Mother of God.

In their small community they would have been aware of the whisperings and gossip around them. Concerned with how it would affect the child he would raise, Joseph considered moving back with his family several days' journey to the south. Wanting to know what would be best for the child because the angel had told him the child would be a savior and ruler in Israel, even God Himself. There was a scripture known to the faithful that said the Ruler and Shepherd of Israel will be born in Bethlehem. This scripture came as an answer to his prayer to know whether he should move his new family.

Joseph took that as a sign that he was the right man to make sure the prophecy would be fulfilled. He was from Bethlehem and he had family there. Taking his young wife, and soon-to-be-mother, he set out on a journey of faith. He was a man of faith and was doing what he had been commanded by the angel. Also doing what he knew to be true from the scriptures. He knew it had to be this way.

Shortly after arriving at the house of relatives his wife went into labor. With the women in Joseph's extended family there to assist, Mary gave birth to the Son of God, the future Savior of not just Israel, but of the whole Earth. Despite his relative's generous accommodations there was not enough room in their guest room for the young couple, a new baby, and the others staying there. Mary needed rest and could not sleep if Jesus was woken up every few minutes by the others in the room. To help Jesus sleep they wrapped him tightly in some cloth and placed him, outside, in a disused stone watering trough for some animals. Not a very auspicious beginning for the King of Heaven.

Before long they heard hushed talking coming from outside and went out to find a group of shepherds had entered the fenced in yard by the house and were reverently observing the baby lying in the manger. The shepherds told them that they were visited by a host of angels proclaiming a covenant of peace between the kingdoms of the earth and the Kingdom of God, and that God would extend mercy to all people, even though they had sinned. And they instantly went looking for the Savior of the World, and just as the angel had said, they found the child, wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

On that night something changed. A sequence of events began that will ultimately culminate with God fulfilling the covenant he made with all humanity. The gulf of sin and alienation between all of humanity and God has been bridged. And God, through his Son, offers eternal life to all those who are faithful and willing to take upon them the name of The Son. As Christians we have taken His name upon us and faithfully await the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven, where, as promised, we will dwell in peace.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Misusing a Scripture about Worshiping Idols

It finally happened. Someone tried to use a scripture about Asherah poles to justify their particular belief. Five years ago I wrote about a hypothetic argument about planting trees near a temple. In Deuteronomy there is a verse that says,

"Thou shalt not plant thee a grove of any trees near unto the altar of the Lord thy God." Deuteronomy 16:21

Conceivably someone who did not understand the context could argue that this verse applied to modern day temples and that trees near the temple were forbidden. But in context, and translated correctly, this verse forbids Asherah poles, or groves near holy places. This commandment was directed at a common Canaanite religious practice, and directed the Israelites to not worship the goddess Asherah.

Recently I came across someone who said their father considered Christmas trees to be "of the devil" and pagan because Jeremiah 10:2-5 forbids it. In the King James Version the critical verses read,

2 Thus saith the Lord, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them. 3 For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. 4 They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not. 5 They are upright as the palm tree, but speak not: they must needs be borne, because they cannot go. Be not afraid of them; for they cannot do evil, neither also is it in them to do good.

In this case the father interpreted these verses to be an condemnation of Christmas ("the customs of the people") and Christmas trees ("for one cutteth a tree out of the forest"). But with a little bit of historical knowledge (and a slightly better translation) we find that this is actually condemnation against worshiping wooden idols, such as wooden statues of the goddess Asherah.

A more modern translation (New Revised Standard Version) of these verses reads,

2 Thus says the Lord: Do not learn the way of the nations, or be dismayed at the signs of the heavens; for the nations are dismayed at them.
3 For the customs of the peoples are false: a tree from the forest is cut down, and worked with an ax by the hands of an artisan;
4 people deck it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so that it cannot move.
5 Their idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field, and they cannot speak; they have to be carried, for they cannot walk. Do not be afraid of them, for they cannot do evil, nor is it in them to do good.

Because someone did not understand the historical context of this passage, they interpreted it to mean that Christmas trees were forbidden. This is why we need to learn the context of the scriptures or we will think things like, God condemns Christmas trees, and miss the original teaching of, don't worship dumb idols who can't do anything for you or answer your prayers.