Learning from Experience

Deuteronomy 30:15-20 & Matthew 5:21-37

In the wide and deep sweep of history separating Moses from Jesus – we can see a clear development in human understanding of God – moving always in the direction of greater sophistication. In his book God: A Biography, Jack Miles recounts the evolution of God’s character – as seen as the protagonist in the religious story of Israel.  The book’s central structure is that God’s character develops progressively within the narrative. Miles draws from the Biblical record to deduce information about God’s nature and motivation. His book won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography.

Miles presents God as a figure evolving into a greater sophistication of character through the long and tumultuous relationship with humanity – as represented by Israel. The capacity to seemingly learn from experience, esp. mistakes, is the key quality that jumps out from Miles’ somewhat startling portrayal of God.

The capacity to learn from our experience, esp. our mistakes, is the primary way that we humans continue to evolve in the direction of greater psycho-socio-spiritual complexity. In short, learning is fundamental to our survival.

Bracketing for a moment our traditional theological anxieties resulting from Miles’ portrayal of God as a learning God, we might at least hypothetically embrace the idea that God is also capable of learning from experience.  Put another way, maybe that’s why humanity is imbued with this capacity of learning from experience because we are made in the image of a God who also learns and grows through experience, and in particular through learning from mistakes.

The Biblical story of God’s relationship with humanity represented by Israel is full of instances where God changes his mind and is even convinced by human beings like Moses to repeatedly change his mind. God acts, often precipitously, only to on reflection, regret impulsive action. God is frequently convinced to moderate his genocidal impulses, which alarmingly in the earlier sections of the story, seem to be God’s default response in the face of human folly and resistance.

But let me quell a possible growing anxiety in portraying God as anything but omnipotent and unchanging, omniscient and all knowing. We might be more comfortable with saying it’s not God who really changes but human understanding of God that deepens and grows over historical time. Either way, the God who emerges in relationship with Moses is both consistent with and yet also different from the God whom Jesus portrays. In the broad and deep sweep of history separating Moses and Jesus, Jewish understanding of God had continued its evolution in religious consciousness in the direction of greater complexity.

In Deuteronomy 30:15-20 we hear Moses’ dramatic ultimatum: I call upon heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God.

This is a call to make choices, which can be either life enhancing or death dealing. The Deuteronomists conceived of the choice for life as being faithful to and acting upon God’s commandments given to Moses – given primarily to ensure the just governing of society. For contemporary Judaism, Torah observance remains the way to contribute to the building up of society through performing the actions that lead to making the world a better place.

By the 1st-century of the Common Era – the time of Jesus – an extensive shift had occurred in the evolution from a Hebrew to a Jewish religious consciousness.

The Hebrew God of Moses inhabited the natural world of mountain tops and sacred places. This God controlled the elements – reigning down either blessing or punishment.

By the 1st-century the Jewish experience was of God inhabiting the subjective space within human consciousness. This is not a God of mountain tops but of the mind and heart. It is into this religious evolution that Jesus of Nazareth emerges onto the world stage.

In Matthew chapter 5 in his Sermon on the Mount Jesus refers his listeners back to the ancient Hebrew understanding of God’s commandments. He begins and then repeats the phrase: You have heard that it was said to those of ancient time. This is his springboard into a reframing of Jewish religious practice. Jesus reframes an evolving Jewish inner consciousness of God taking it to a new level.

Many of us would probably prefer to remain ancient Hebrews in our orientation to the requirements of the religious life. This accounts for the popularity in the growth of Christian Fundamentalism. Give us a good external commandment we can choose to follow or not as the case may be, and we at least will know where we are.

In contrast, what Jesus is teaching is frightening in its seeming complexity let alone its impossibility. For who among us exercises the degree of self-control over our thoughts and intentions, our impulses and motivations, let alone our fantasies which Jesus seems to require of us? It is no longer a matter of refraining from unethical actions, we now must harbor only virtuous intentions; without which despite leading outwardly upright and ethical lives, we all remain serial murderers and adulterers in our hearts.

The penalty for non-virtuous thoughts and impulses, even if firmly under our self-control, is astonishingly severe indeed!

Jesus issues and invitation to pay attention to a subjective experience of God dwelling amongst the unruly passions of the human heart. I imagine his disciples found this as unnerving as we do. But one thing is clear, Jesus has our attention!

In this difficult teaching Jesus is reminding us that spiritual contamination comes not from the outside but already resides within of us. In Matthew 15, Jesus tells his disciples that we are not defiled by what goes into the body. The stuff we should worry about is what comes out of the human heart.

Jesus ushers in the dawning of a new religious age of the inbreaking of God’s Kingdom. No longer camouflaged by an externalized morality of rules and obligations, religious observance now requires a subjective examination of the projections of the hardness of the human heart. Moral and ethical action is good, but right intention is better. Right belief is one thing, but right relationship is even better. This is the subject of Jesus’ teaching and it represents the big leap for humanity into a new kind of relationship with God.

2016-20 will be remembered as when America abandoned the traditional fig leaf of religious and moral hypocrisy. As long as anyone can remember the maintenance of outward moral and ethical fig leaf concealed the inner intentions of our hearts. Lapses in moral and ethical behavior – though frequent and numerous still only proved the rule. Hypocrisy defined as the gap between outward action and inner intention was the name of much of the game.

Now the fig leaf has been cast aside. We stand before one another stark naked with the hardness of our hearts on full display. The murderous bile that flows from us into every platform of social media that rewards our envy and dishonesty. Aided and abetted by Net anonymity – the unregulated narcissism of the human heart is fully displayed for all to see. We seem to no longer know shame. Online pornography assuages our baser impulses and desires – and we need not move from the privacy of our armchair or sofa.

Even the fig leaf of virtuous government is now under pressure from the office holder of the presidency – abetted by a congress whose only God is the worship of power and a judiciary whose increasing focus is the protection of proprietary and sectional interests over the dictates of social justice.

If Jesus delivered his Sermon on the Mount today these would be the examples he would draw from. So, does he have our attention yet?

Moses warned the Israelites against making the choices of death that would result in them not living long in the land God was giving them. Our continued and unchecked landslide into environmental catastrophe means that our children and their children may not live long in the land either. Jesus understood that the choice for death is ever present within our hearts.

Bad as things are, let’s not yet abandon hope. Remember that like God, our capacity to learn from experience, esp. our mistakes is the fundamental ingredient necessary for our survival.

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