Thursday, July 28, 2011

More on Prophets

I am enjoying reading the Brueggemann book, but it has had an unexpected effect on me. It has led me completely away from, and then right back in to, my original feeling about the Hebrew Prophets.

I don't like them.

Now, I like studying them very much. I think they are astonishing case studies in history and psychology, and also to some degree in theology, but something always bothered me about them as religious role models.

Studying the Brueggemann book has shown me much of what was good about them. I appreciate that they were trying to transform the societies in which they lived, and Brueggemann makes a compelling case that we ourselves are living in royal times. Royal for Brueggemann is not a good word. It implies both complacency and despair, as well as numbness, and all of these, in his view, are deliberate on the part of the royal establishment. Hope for anything implies a need to change, and the royal establishment wants things to stay they way they are forever.

Brueggemann sees the primary mechanism of complacency to be consumerism. I have felt for many years that the modern day slave owner is the credit card. If you give people what they want temporarily, they really will sell their souls for it, and then spend the rest of their lives digging themselves out of the hole they themselves created. Credit card companies are insidious, especially in how easy they make it for college students to get credit cards, knowing they won't care about interest rates or finance charges, and are only looking for a way to live beyond the means their parents are able to give them.

So the prophet speaks against this consciousness. And the primary means available to the prophet are criticism of the establishment, and energizing people toward an alternative that they don't realize exists. However, the energizing is not based on something unheard of, but on something very traditional and grounded deeply both in the past and in the collective psyche, which is what makes it resonant. And the energizing comes from hope. Brueggemann is wonderful on this:
...we have been nurtured away from hope, for it is too scary. ... Hope, on the one hand, is an absurdity too embarrassing to speak about, for it flies in the face of all those claims we have been told are facts.
I love this, because I have often felt that facts are overrated. I believe what we call facts are really just the limits of our blinders, and we use these to confine ourselves to "possibilities." So-called "realists" urge us to live within these limitations, mocking any who would stretch outside of them. But the greatest and most essential ideas have always arisen from those who refuse to accept current limitations. Relativity and quantum physics came from a daydream about what it would be like to ride on a light beam, and this after the president of Harvard had announced that there was nothing fundamental in physics left to be discovered.

So I share the suspicion about facts. But where the prophets and I start to part company is that they seem merely to be replacing one royal mentality with another. This is something that always bothered me about the Exodus. The escape from slavery was an escape directly into a forced servitude to a new master.

Now, I understand the story psychologically, and I understand (and believe fervently) that true freedom only arises from submitting ourselves to something greater. The only way to transcend the ego is to admit our frailty. It is only through humility that we can recognize our place in creation. So understood metaphorically, I believe the Exodus is pointing us toward the universal truth that only in submission to God can we really find freedom.

But the story itself, when examined rigorously, doesn't really support this. The Israelites have not chosen this God; he has chosen them. And he is so volatile and jealous that they really are given no freedom of choice whatsoever. The list of prohibitions may indeed be a covenant, but they enter the covenant from fear rather than willingly. And they transgress these prohibitions so often that the book of Judges seems like one redundant disobedience after another.

Of course, if we go back to the metaphorical and psychological interpretation, we can see this as a simple description of the truth of how the individual ego chafes at the effort for submission. If every Israelite is seen as a cell of my body, then once my mind decides to transform, many of the cells will rebel out of habit until new habits are established. And if we saw a society in time-lapse, we could see this in the macrocosm too of how a society progresses through the civil rights era, for example, or in the current debate about gay marriage. Seen this way, the entire Bible is a guidebook for spiritual and psychological transformation - all the ups and downs and traumas and victories and defeats that can be expected on the spiritual path. And that is how the Bible has always made sense to me - as an guidebook for understanding God and our neighbors by first understanding ourselves, in all the messy complexity this necessarily implies.

But Brueggemann denies this:
The prophet employs no psychological gimmicks and no easy meditative steps because the issues are not private, personal, spiritual, or internal.
I am still working through this, but what that statement implies to me is that what the prophet is working toward is societal transformation, and specifically the dismantling of the royal consciousness which Brueggemann (and I) find so debilitating and dangerous. And again, we are still on common ground here.

But where we really diverge is on the issue of hope. Brueggemann says that the royal consciousness wants time to stop - for the emphasis to be entirely on the present so that we aren't thinking about alternative futures. The prophet, he says, is the one who "knows what time it is." And he reinvigorates hope, which is how change happens. He does this through criticism and public grieving:
The riddle and insight of biblical faith is the awareness that only anguish leads to life, only grieving leads to joy, and only embraced endings permit new beginnings.
Maybe I've spent too much time with Buddhism and Taoism, but I am more inclined to agree with Lao-Tzu when he says that hope is as hollow as fear (13). I am also inclined to agree with T.S. Eliot, when he says, "I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope / For hope would be hope for the wrong thing" (East Coker). Hope keeps the mind focused on the future, which can help us escape some of our present circumstances, but will never help us escape the present.

From one angle, it could be argued that what Brueggemann calls the royal consciousness shares a lot with Buddhism - particularly in its focus on the now. But keeping the mind trained on the present is not necessarily a form of oppression. Buddhism does not merely replace one monarch for another one. It abolishes monarchy altogether. It abolishes oppression as well, for as Thich Nhat Hanh shows in his talk to prisoners, titled "Be Free Where You Are," we are only chained to our circumstances if we give those chains our consent. This is an oversimplification, but you might say that the prophets look for ways to break the chains, while the Buddhists seek to realize that the chains do not exist. Both lead to freedom, but the freedom of the prophets is temporary, while the freedom of the Buddhists is permanent.

We can certainly see this in the way that the prohibition of false idols seems so impossible for the Israelites to obey. Asherah and Baal seem unable to be suppressed, and Jung connected this to the cult of the Virgin Mary in Hispanic countries. No matter how many times it is torn down, the mother goddess crops back up, and if it can't be an Asherah on the hill, it will sneak in as the mother of God crying tears of blood or popping up in a toaster. Even Moses created a false idol in the bronze serpent, and perhaps even in the ark of the covenant itself. And the entire Hebrew Bible is an attempted genocide on all of the false gods which, like the hydra, refuse to die.

The Israelites left the chains of Egypt for the freedom of the desert, and immediately felt chained there. They transgress their covenant so many times and so quickly that it becomes difficult to believe it was entered into willingly. And then once they get into Jerusalem, they continue to worship false idols - even David and Solomon. The prophets and the rabbis see this as weakness on the part of the Israelites, who simply lack any modicum of faith. But when it is such an epidemic, we have to start to wonder if what is being asked is not really what is needed.

The Israelites are going from one set of chains to another. Some break free with each prophet, but then they are enchained again. Hope is followed by despair and numbness, and then another prophet arises to offer the necessary grief, criticism and hope to break the chains again. This, surely, is what the Buddhists mean by samsara.

So the royal consciousness is indeed the poison of complacency and consumerism that leads to despair or numbness or apathy, and is the wasteland from which a hero must arise. But the hero who merely lifts the veil for a moment, only to have it descend again, is not the hero we need. What the Buddhists offer, and why I still find them more compelling, is a shift in perspective. Certainly, living in the royal consciousness does not work. And a change is vital. But when we shift our attitude toward it and realize that the "facts" of the situation are simply illusions we ourselves have created, we can escape the chains once and for all, and it won't matter what king tries to rule over us. We will have taken responsibility for ourselves rather than needing a savior.

This is all still very new, and I am grateful to Brueggemann for stirring all this up in my brain. And I still believe firmly that the Bible is one of the best spiritual guidebooks around. I just have never placed a lot of faith in its historical or sociological powers. To me, Jeremiah represents the voice of my conscience, as does Elijah. Ezekiel is a peak into my most fevered nightmares, where my subconscious is speaking to me in broken images that my conscious mind fights to understand. And of course, once the spiritual transformation has taken place, I need to take that understanding with me into my interactions with those around me, so the ethics are of supreme importance, and society can indeed be transformed at the base.

But I'll do all that without hope.

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