Monday, August 20, 2012

Biblical Priorities--Back to Love

I had a brilliant boss when I worked at the National Institutes of Health, one Michael Gottesman, the Deputy Director for Intramural Research. His job entailed decisions that a lot of people would find agonizing. For Dr. Gottesman, solving organizational problems was pretty much like analyzing research problems. He went about it methodically and logically ( and also with great compassion and good cheer, making it a joy to work for him).

One of the most useful lessons I learned by watching him was to ask the question, "What's most important here?" before you throw yourself at a problem. Dr. Gottesman used this approach very successfully in deciding how to make some excruciatingly large budget cuts. The first step was looking at where the Intramural Research Program was spending the largest amounts of money. It seems obvious, but cutting 5% out of an item that represents half your entire budget yields a lot more savings, possibly with less pain, than whacking a larger percentage out of many smaller pots.

I think it was this sort of thinking I tried to apply when I sat down with the massive text of the Bible. With people proof-texting right, left, and center, throwing out conflicting philosophies and advice, including stuff that is incredibly difficult to buy into here in the 21st century, where do you start? What's most the most important thing? The oldest bits? The most-repeated bits?

I think Christians would probably say, if you had to pick, the most important bits would be "What He said," i.e. the words and ideas attributed to Jesus of Nazareth. But where do you go from there? There are lots of red bits in the Bible -- including some parables and other passages that are very ambiguous.

I had one suggestion from a very reassuring article that I found yesterday, written by Jim Burklo, an ordained United Church of Christ pastor who serves as the Associate Dean of Religious Life at the University of Southern California. The article is reassuring in suggesting "How to live as a Christian without having to believe the unbelievable," as the title says. Basically, just get on with the important --and difficult -- things Christ said to do, Burklo recommends.

He goes on to tip the Sermon on the Mount as the key:
The key to Christianity is the Sermon on the Mount in the gospel of Matthew, chapters 5-7.  This is the first teaching that Jesus gave his disciples and a crowd of followers.   He exhorts them to love their enemies.  He urges them to be humble in prayer.  He tells the poor that they shall be blessed.  He asks them not to worry.  He tells them not to judge.
Pretty reasonable choice, I'd say. But still not what I would pick as the key. I would turn to Luke 10: 25-28, just before the parable of the Good Samaritan. An expert in Hebrew law is quizzing Jesus and asks what you need to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus kicks the question back to him, saying what does the law say? The man answers "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and, Love your neighbor as yourself. " The words aren't actually Jesus' but he says this is the right answer.

There are a lot of things Jesus doesn't say here, including a good few that noisy Christians today claim are the critical keys to Heaven. I think this is an awfully good 30-word philosophy of life, with His stamp of approval, a fine lens for viewing most of life... First, love God. Then love your neighbor -- and if you have any questions about what's loving, use how you would be loved as a gauge. (And note well, all you people who have difficulty loving yourself -- He IS agreeing you should love yourself.)

Jesus goes on to tell the parable of the Good Samaritan to answer "who is one's neighbor?"In a general sense, He says you should define your in-group, the people you will help, to include anyone you spot who needs your care -- even people from what would normally be considered a different group than yours.

Jesus doesn't elaborate on loving God here -- I guess he figures everyone knows what that means. But sadly, I'm not sure that I actually do. I don't have any confidence that I can even know what God is like (except to the degree this was exemplified by Jesus) and I am very doubtful about the versions of God that some people confidently put forward-- sometimes they are remarkably and conveniently like the God that they would very much want to exist -- a God that punishes people they don't like and gives wonderful lives and riches to their sort of people.

Brain studies show that when people think about God while in a scanner, the same parts of the brain light up as light up when they think of their dominant parent. I gather that's what psychoanalysts have suspected for a long time. And, come to think about it, Jesus did refer repeatedly to God as "Father."

I'm humbly skeptical, beset with doubts about the limitations of the human brain when it comes to thinking of that which passes all understanding. Mostly we humans can only get our amazing imaginations launched a few steps beyond the earthbound.

So maybe the thing to do amidst doubt is just to imitate -- try to do what He did. When Jesus went to the wilderness to pray, was this his way of "Loving God?" Or was Jesus' version of loving God manifest in what he did every day -- healing people and helping them to put aside the things that separated them from God?

Preaching to would-be preachers, Rob Bell urges those who would proclaim The Word to start at the beginning of the Bible -- with Creation. He waxes eloquent in describing how we humans exercise our creative powers -- mirroring the Creator God and in small ways extending that work. Is it possible to love the Creator by immitating Creation through your own creating and nurturing?

Or is loving God just doing what it says on the license plate of my old pastor's convertible: being "OPN 2 GOD"? That might mean trying to tune out the usual voices in your head -- the voices that you know are your own nagging worries, doubts, desires -- and listening to the silence and the sounds just beyond the birdsong or wind whispers.... Looking for the unexpected, unsought notion; that moment when there is one certain answer, YES, to a question you had never previously thought to ask.

And loving our neighbor (as ourselves) -- how does one do that? Now I loop back to Love, the place I wanted to start this blog. The biggest part of Loving, says The Road Less Travelled, consists of listening, really putting yourself aside for the moment and listening deeply, to people. And beyond that, or more generally, giving of yourself to others (or even yourself) to help them grow in healthy ways. (The author, M. Scott Peck, says that this type of love is inherently beneficial to both the person receiving the love and the person giving it.)

So, when the proof-texting and arguing begins, my first response is to hold up the Luke verses and see how the different sides line up next to that ruler's edge. What is the best way of loving God or loving my neighbor (as myself)?

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