|Essay from July 2010
"Prophets & Examples"
[Here is an excerpt from the last book in Harry's humanist trilogy. He intended to follow FREEDOM FROM GOD: Restoring the Sense of Wonder and MYTH AND MORTALITY: Testing the Stories with FROM FEAR TO LOVE: Journey Beyond Christianity; that manuscript is now being prepared for publication. This segment is from Chapter X: THE BIBLE, and in its spirit of anti-authoritarianism and truth-telling seems appropriate for July. Happy Independence Day. ZG]|
I had little respect for, and finally little interest in, those sections in the Old Testament which support the authority of priests and kings. I was on the side of the prophets. They were lonely outsiders, thundering and wailing and sometimes whimpering, in the name of YHWH, in the name of truth and humanity. The prophets were the authors, or originators of much of the material, although the priests got in the final word, in the late "redactions" of the text. I learned to smell out that priestly influence and repudiate it.
It amazed me how frank parts of the Old Testament remained, even after that priestly meddling. The great heroes had bad "warts and all" on their portraits. Abraham lied about his wife Sarah, calling her his sister, hoping to save his skin. Jacob was a cheating, lying scoundrel. His sons were no better. Joseph was insufferably smug. Moses was a coward -- "Oh, Lord, send some other person!" Joshua was a genocidal maniac. David couldn't keep his hands off other men's wives. Solomon had so many wives, one had to question his basic intelligence -- he certainly didn't write Proverbs or Ecclesiastes, which are called Wisdom Literature! Rehoboam was a small-minded fool. Ahab, Josiah, Hezekiah, Zedekiah -- all had feet of clay. But, when you read it carefully, you find the Bible telling it frankly.
The prophets became my heroes, and in a deep sense they still are. Elijah challenged the power of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. Amos insisted that justice for all was more important than priestly ritual. Hosea learned and taught about mercy and the transformative power of suffering. Ezekiel showed that YHWH had survived the fall of Jerusalem, making him different from the other land-based war gods of other nations. Second Isaiah challenged the people in exile to become God's instrument to do good to all the world -- they were the Chosen People, not because they were better, but because they had a special mission.
Jeremiah became my favorite. Called at the time of the decline and fall of the last surviving Hebrew state, the tiny kingdom of Judah, he had this very unpopular message: since justice and honesty were not the rule in Judah, YHWH had changed sides, and was fighting for the Babylonians, and the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonian Emperor was God's will, in order to purify his people. That subversive message got Jeremiah into endless serious trouble, and sometimes he complained honestly. But his "call," his message, prevailed.
| That still moves me. I don't believe there is any "him" in it, anymore -- not YHWH, no "God." But about Truth, Justice, Fairness, Equality -- whatever is at the bottom of it all -- those slogan words are all too cheap, too tarnished, too contaminated by misuse, and "God" is far too glib -- whatever it is -- if I try to shut up about it, go about my life as if nothing at all mattered, there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I become weary with trying to hold it in, and I cannot. So my poems and plays and short stories and novels all pick up another element, not mere entertainment, some kind of warning, some kind of challenge, some kind of protest.|
In the New Testament, I became disgusted with Paul, the ecclesiasticator. For a while I wished we could get past Paul and back to Jesus, but I finally decided that it's not possible. Jesus, as rabbi and yogi, itinerant healer and prophet, is an admirable character, I believe, but all the effort to make him the central figure in a new mystery religion seemed to me, in the end, unfortunate, and given all the slaughter in his name since, downright disgusting. I liked the letter of James, but wondered why it was in the New Testament at all. Certain sayings of Jesus, including the Sermon on the Mount, seemed prophetic, and true.
I used to wonder when the Christian Church got "off the track." The exercise was started by the notion hidden in the word "Reformation", as in "the Protestant Reformation." The church had fallen into error. The trouble, the error, went back further and further in time, as I traced it. Back before the invention of the Papacy. Back before the Emperor Constantine made Christianity legal, and then established it as the only legal religion for the Empire. (Faith is not a matter of legality.) Back before the invention of the clergy and bishops. (I had the free-thinker's conviction that all believers were equal, that there was no rank, not legitimately, that rank was an invention of men grabbing power.) I traced the error back to the very beginning of Christianity. Bishops are referred to in the New Testament. But worse than bishops and rank, the initial error that I found was right there at the beginning.
Most of the disciples of Jesus changed Jesus from Example and made him Substitute. All the theological argument about his divinity had to do with this. Instead of a teacher and a healer, who taught his disciples that they, too, could heal, and move mountains, they made him into a divine sacrifice, dying for those who believed certain rather preposterous things about him. His divinity was required in order to give his sacrifice the power to bring about the salvation of the believers. If he isn't divine, his dying is not a sacrifice.
I saw Jesus' life as a challenge, and a warning -- are you ready to suffer the consequences of truth-telling? Look clearly and then speak carefully, because here you see the consequences! I still believe that Jesus is quite remarkable and admirable, as Example. But since I had ceased being interested in religion as such -- that is, as a priestly scheme to help people feel "saved," enabling them to persist in what Nietzsche long ago called "the slave mentality" -- Jesus as Sacrifice turned me off. The church, as I came to see it, and still see it, is the caretaker of that religion, and not much interested in encouraging anyone to follow Jesus as Example. When such followers do turn up, they are always in trouble. Most are killed or expelled as heretics. A few, like Teresa de Avila and Francis of Assisi, are made into saints, so they need not be taken seriously as additional Examples.