Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Parting of the Sea

I ran across a link to this story about the possible scientific plausibility of the incident of the parting of the sea in the Exodus narrative and passed it on to some colleagues.  One wrote back asking how I felt about the "literal level" of the Scriptures.

Here's what I answered:
I think the wonder of these writings is that they contain lots of truth that does not depend on the literal meaning—so, “holistic truth.” That part is basically what Tradition teaches, going back to the Fathers. However, the older I get and the more I read, I am more convinced that there is in many stories that don’t pass the historical-critical standard, something like a vestigial and sometimes collective memory at work. There is a “fact-level” that may be open to us if we truly are open to the Scriptures, but it’s buried very, very deeply in the most ancient connections we have to our human past. The stories are “true” in that they are rooted in the theological truth of our nature as God’s children, but they are also likely to be true in having connections to unique experiences at some really old level.

I think, for example, not only of the Moses cycle of stories, but also of the flood narrative—some ancestral part of the faith community underwent a rescue, not just metaphorically, which is nice, but from a vast inundation, and they just knew it was Yahweh who did it. I think parts of the Abraham cycle have this character, also. I see it in the sacrifice of Isaac story. There’s an oddness here that it would be difficult to “make up.” So, while I don’t NEED to tie scriptural stories to science, I think it’s nice when these pregnant connections cause us to wonder.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Morality, Motive and Situation--from Peg and Al

[Peg and Al are teachers at the same school. Al teaches Math. Peg is in the Social Studies department. It’s a fall Friday afternoon. Al’s in the work room, putting some papers in order. Peg enters.]

Peg: Gee, this building sure got quiet fast. I’m surprised you’re not gone already, too.

Al: I would be gone but I said yes once too often this week.

Peg: What do you mean? Oh, let me guess--you’re staying to sell tickets at the game. Aren’t you tired? It’s been a long week. We’ve had meetings and a late night with the parent conferences.

Al: That’s true, but I promised.

Peg: So, I’m sure someone as bright as you are could come up with SOME reason to get out of it.

Al: You sound like a college friend of mine. She used to call that a “retroactive conflict.”

Peg: So, why not?

Al: Well, I promised.

Peg: Don’t get irritable. I’m just trying to help.

Al: Hmm... I need to get clear on this. Are you trying to help me be unfaithful to my promise or to lie to someone who trusts me?

Peg: Oh, come now. It’s not that big a deal.

Al: Well, it’s enough to bother me.

Peg: But you have a good motive. Even I can see that you’re tired. Go home and rest. In fact, just leave and I’ll go to the AD and give him some sort of alibi.

Al: Don’t even think of doing that.

Peg: Aw, c’mon. I think you’re being picky about it. And, as I say, you have good reason. Go on home.

Al: You’re right. I am being picky about it. In the first place, there’s an effect. Coach has to go impose on someone else. The effect is the same whether I have a good motive or not. It’s still a deception--the nature of the deed doesn’t change one bit. Not one bit. And I know you: as a good teacher, you wouldn’t be very happy if a student misled you about an absence or an assignment, or cheated on their Friday quiz. You wouldn’t let them say they were really tired or had some sort of other urgency to take care of if you knew it wasn’t true.

Peg: I know. That isn’t what I expect from the students in my classes, and I’m pretty clear about that with them. I was just trying to get you out of here to get some rest.

Al: I appreciate the concern. I just don’t think it’s worth lying about. And my being tired is really not the point. I like to keep my word, and I don’t like to tell fibs. It just seems wrong to me, no matter what my motive is.

Peg: But look: It’s not like it’s a matter of life and death. In this situation, you’d really be excused. There‘s a pretty good chance of rain and it isn’t a district game, so the crowd will be minimal. They probably can handle the gate without you.

Al: You might be right about the situation. On the other hand, suppose the crowd is a good one. And there are always things that it just seems to take one more hand and one more pair of eyes to make life easier. I’d hate to just say that “the situation,” whatever it is, will let me off.

Peg: But it’s not a matter of life and death, Al. A lot of what we do, we do based on the situation that we’re in at the moment. I think that’s what makes most of us decide what the “right and wrong” really are.

Al: I know this particular situation is basically trivial, and not the end of the world. BUT if it were the end of the world, I’d hope I could act the same way. I think it’s wrong for a lot of reasons for us to let the situation dictate our actions or how we judge them.

Peg: Why?

Al: Well, let me think. For one thing, there’s habit. Being a good person is about habits. If I can’t figure out and do the right thing in a small, everyday matter of convenience, what’s to guarantee that I’ll have the backbone to do it when there’s a lot on the line, like a business deal or my truthfulness in court? Doing a more difficult thing takes practice. I think the inner math teacher in you would admit that much.

Peg: I think Coach would appreciate that argument, too. It’s not P.M.P, Practice Makes Perfect, but P.P.M.P., Perfect Practice Makes Perfect.

Al: I’m known by what I do, also. I think that’s what we call character. It comes from habits. If I need to hear the truth about something, I go to someone whom I can count on to tell the truth all of the time. It would be a pretty sad world--maybe it already is--if we couldn’t count on enough people to act with integrity no matter what the situation.

Peg: So you’re saying that morality isn’t like “situation ethics,” but more like the nature of each act that we choose.

Al: I wish I had thought of putting it that way!

Peg: Very funny... Now who’s that running down the hall?

[In comes Coach]

Coach: Oh, Al! Great--I knew I could count on you to be here. Listen, the forecast just took a turn for the worse. I just spoke to Coach Lamont from across town. We both have that same bye week later on, so we’re postponing tonight’s game until then. Would you call the rest of the crew and tell them to go home or stay home? Then get yourself home--you really look tired, man.

Al: Sure, Coach, I’ll handle it.

Coach: I know you can. Thanks, Al.

[Exit Coach]

Peg: Don’t say it, Al, don’t even say it. Do you want some help calling the others?

Al: I’ll take the help. Then we can both be out of here with clear consciences.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

A question.

I had occasion to revisit the story of Abraham's near-sacrifice of his son Isaac the other day, and I didn't mind because the story is so haunting and so provocative.

Why did Abraham agree to this act?

Why was he so uncommunicative about it to his son and servant?

Did Isaac resist the final binding on the place of sacrifice?

Did Abraham ever have a doubt?

Why does God stay his hand only at the last second?

Did God have a doubt?

What is the lesson?  Does the lesson belong to the realm of faith as the absoluteness of abandonment to the will of the Other?  Or does the lesson belong to the realm of morals and the awakening of conscience to the true voice of God, who ultimately forbids barbarism and demands a prudent, orderly, civil and humane faith?