New Perspective on “Old” Temptations

Explorefaith.org has always been one of my favorite Christian web sites. Produced by the Episcopal Church and those in ecumenical communion with them, Explore faith has been one of the few places that has ever challenged my faith in new ways. Their gentle spirit is evident and best of all, on their About Us page, they do not list the bible as their chief idol (unlike some christian churches, web sites, domains, etc.) I like that, mainly because the one turnoff of the fundamentalism I left behind was the insistence that God only works in the world through this one set of writings. This extremely limiting belief keeps millions from fully understanding the love of God, whatever that is or wherever that may be manifested in the world.

Michelangelo Eve detail

Michelangelo Eve detail

This view of scriptures has kept me from acknowledging a merciful and loving Deity precisely because belief in this prohibitive doctrine is so insidious to an individual’s thought processes. Again, mine were damaged I think by the incessant drilling into it of dogma and doctrine  insupportable from the evidence offered outside of a few lines of ancient text. Sure, there are great things in the Hebrew and Christian texts that, together, comprise the “bible.” However, there are great things in all the world’s spiritual texts, each of which display a facet of human understanding about this thing most call “God.” However, when we elevate what others have said about God and ascribe qualities to this written body of experiential knowledge; qualities that should only be ascribed to Deity, we tread on dangerous territory I think. When is it good to part company with established dogma when it runs counter to what we know to be true from experience? Our growth is stunted and eventually spirituality dies out if we constantly deny and repress true experience. One’s spiritual, mental, and physical life cannot be circumscribed to such a degree and remain any kind of life at all.

With that in mind, I have had to restructure my faith in such a Deity and simultaneously re-examine my relationship to that particular book, which, for many, many years, became almost a talisman for me. I’ve been half afraid to pick it up again and read it because of the ingrained processes that fundamentalism implants into the unsuspecting brains of those of us who were too open and eager and hungry for spiritual food to be very discerning. Yet I didn’t want to dispense with the wisdom in it altogether. I knew that Progressive Christians such as the Quakers and others gain much insight and wisdom when they put scriptures in their proper context. I needed to recognize that the trigger for me was trying to absorb everything within the bible’s pages as absolute and unequivocal truth, unprocessed through human thinking; in other words, seeing the bible as straight unfiltered God-talk. When in fact, it’s not God-talk but Human-talk with a God-tinge.  There is truth contained it it, but it’s spiritual truth and not necessarily factual truth; something the individual soul must discern for herself.

With that caveat, I’ve been wanting, during this Lenten season, to re-examine my beliefs because frankly, I miss them (and truth be told, I miss examining them, which is what this blog started out to do). Explorefaith has wonderfully pragmatic resources for processing Lent, one of which is to journal your way through it. This isn’t a new practice, but they do ask good questions. This Sunday was the 4th Sunday in Lent and the journaling prompt was this:

Week Four: TEMPTATION
All that we desire in life is not beneficial to us. We often are pulled away from what is helpful and healthy because we feel a lack of excitement, energy and enthusiasm in our life as it is. The seed of temptation begins to grow subtly within us, and we begin to find ourselves moving in a direction we had not planned, a direction we know is risky, a direction that promises more than it will ever deliver. Dealing with temptation is as much about rediscovering the wonder of our current life as it is about avoiding that which is alluring and seductive. Lent invites us to turn from temptation by turning toward what is helpful and healthy for us and finding there again what is life-giving. Take time this week to return to what feeds your life and captures the best part of your passion and soul.

journaling questions:
What in my life has become so familiar that I am tempted to find something new, and how can that familiarity be revived so that its previous exhilaration is restored?
* In my family?
* In my work?
* In my community?
* In my soul?

I have some problems with some of the assumptions in this meditation. First, how do we know that moving in a new direction “promises more than it will ever deliver?” Second, why is temptation always described as harmful? Now it’s clear that when people think of temptation they think of two words: sex and food. Nobody ever says that they are tempted by too much reading or excessive writing practices. The visceral reality of sex and food make those the chief targets of what I think can be called temptation politics in the church. We are considered lustful or gluttonous most times and our inclinations are always toward satisfying these two things we are told. Or are they?

I am a pessimist by temperament, which is why fundamentalism appeals to me.  I can easily believe that humans will do the worst thing in all circumstances. However, if I’m honest with myself, I have to concede that there is equal evidence to the contrary; that humans more often than not do the generous thing and it’s been proven to me over and over (thank you Pelagius). Yet, temptation from the pessimists view stems directly from the Augustinian approach to Genesis and to that doctrinal bugaboo called “Original Sin.”  It’s always fascinating to me that in the Adam and Eve myth in Genesis 1 and 2, God put into a mythical Garden a man and then what does he (sic) put in next? No, not the animals, even though they did go in next. No, God puts in Eve and a tree to eat from (e.g.  sex and food). (foot note 1) And yet…. and yet, God puts in another tree and says, Don’t Eat This. Now really, was that necessary? I ask you.

I would argue that God knew exactly what he was doing by introducing all the things necessary for a good and reasonable and happy life in that Garden. You know what Adam was probably thinking, “SWEET! Two things that any man could want; sex and food” objectifying both of course.  Both sex and food seem to me to be necessary processes to life in general and necessary to help us learn and grow. God knew full well that life in the Garden would have its limits and that his “children” would be unhappy. Like an obedient child Adam took the instructions God gave him literally, but Eve, bless her, decided she was going to trust that this God knew what was good for both of them and gave her the tools necessary to bring it about; in other words, the implications were more important than the outright commands. She was probably thinking, “Food and sex are great, but really, what’s it all for?” Besides that, God didn’t tell her not to touch the tree, he only told Adam, who always had to have things spelled out for him and probably was a little scrupulous to boot. So Eve took it upon herself to find out what that other tree was all about and voila! The model for modern sexual relationships was born, well at least the heterosexual ones anyway, and knowledge of good and evil fell into the world in one stroke. Pandora’s box in Hebrew form. Hmmm, yes. This story does sound suspiciously like one of those etiological myths that attempt to explain how things came about after the fact. A biblical “Just-so” story if you will. Interesting. The Hebrews were probably working up to something here and had to cover all the bases when they were recreating their religion from scratch. (see footnote 2)

So, back to temptation. Rather than look at temptation as something that makes us stray from the tried and true and even worse as a command to never question our situations, why not look at temptation as a way to further personal growth? Temptation could merely be opportunities to see things in a new way and perhaps change course because of them. Now I’m not saying giving into drug abuse as a temptation is an opportunity to growth. Discernment in this area is needed. But isn’t that the key to everything? Discernment? Why must biblical myths always be interpreted as dire warnings about impulses God knew very well we would have and even built them into the “Garden” to prove it? We are all born with drives common to the majority of us. The trick is to separate the trivial temptations from the ones that inspire growth. Can we possibly distinguish between the two? And this is where individual conscience and discernment come in. Much like how I’ve had to teach myself to read the bible with a critical eye, I’ve also had to learn which things are “temptations” and which things are true nudges to move in a new direction.

In that case, I would ask my own questions for journaling:

  • Where is the balance between being satisfied with the familiar and stretching our horizons?
  • Where’s the balance between self-justification and rationalization of “sin” and knowing what’s good for our lives and acting on it?
  • How can we move beyond mere proscription and into a mature decision-making mindset?
  • When is it good to part company with established dogma when it runs counter to what we know to be true from experience?
  • How does the fundamentalist wash cycle of “sin, repent, rinse, and repeat” defeat the purpose of living life in a loving, purposeful, and fulfilling manner?
  • And finally, where in all this does the role of individual conscience begin and where does adherence to ancient “principles” end if the ancient principle no longer fit into modern society?

Discuss…. or better yet…. Journal!

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Footnote 1:

We won’t get into the feminist issues of the bible’s claim that Eve was created “for” Adam and not as an active agent in her own right. It’s obvious the biblical myth makes Eve simply a biological tool for Adam’s libido to act upon and a “foil” for what comes next. This interpretation is a necessary dogma of fundamentalism and every fundamentalist religion reinforces this idea; women are made for men’s USE. Period. That’s what it boils down to when you toss aside all the “yes, buts” they offer in rejoinder. Women are to produce men’s offspring and take care of all men’s needs.  That’s it.

Footnote 2:

Here’s one very good reason the bible cannot be taken literally as written and especially Genesis, nor can we see it as any way chronologically set down by God. Notice the injunction inserted into Genesis 2:24 which says that a “man shall leave father and mother, etc.” Uh, forgive the obvious, but there were no parents at this point, only Adam and Eve, right? Who’s speaking here? Who’s father and mother? And if Adam’s is not meant, who’s? There aren’t even any children to lecture at this point.

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6 thoughts on “New Perspective on “Old” Temptations

  1. “I’ve been half afraid to pick it up again and read it because of the ingrained processes that fundamentalism implants into the unsuspecting brains of those of us who were too open and eager and hungry for spiritual food to be very discerning.”

    I know exactly what you mean. The problem I have is once I become discerning, and determine to be rational, I find rationality cannot lead to faith. My heart has to get involved again and that scares me.

    “The seed of temptation begins to grow subtly within us, and we begin to find ourselves moving in a direction we had not planned, a direction we know is risky, a direction that promises more than it will ever deliver.”

    This is how I feel about fundamentalism/evangelicalism – it promises more than it can ever deliver. It is alluring. It is very risky. I had not thought of the pull towards it as a temptation before, but perhaps that’s what it is.

  2. Sarah,

    You make an excellent point when you say, “I know exactly what you mean. The problem I have is once I become discerning, and determine to be rational, I find rationality cannot lead to faith. My heart has to get involved again and that scares me.”

    That’s it for me. My rational mind can only take me so far and then I must rely on something to satisfy the longings of the heart. It’s a divide. I think that the fundamentalist/evangelical brands of religion are temptations because they promise so much but are ultimately unfulfilling as well. I need a more balanced approach, one that doesn’t promise the moon and stars and sticks to pragmatic aspects of faith as more progressive Christians do. I need a faith that doesn’t confine the movement of the Divine Spirit between the covers of a “book” compiled over centuries but accepts that humans are also conduits of the Spirit and are just as much a part of the process, if not more so.

    Yes, man-made forms of religion as temptation is a good thing to contemplate.

    Thanks for that insight!!

  3. MOI, I too am drawn to the Episcopalians – which for me =Anglicans – because of their less hectoring style and, because of my education, which causes me to associate the language and music of their liturgy with what feels like “proper church~” to me.
    However, you draw attention to something to which the institutional churches are always vulnerable; they seem too easily to fall into the role of maintaining some kind of Status Quo. In the non-blustering and well-intentioned Lentan presentation which you quote, they still can’t quite avoid their instinct, which is to assume that the way things are is probably all for the best.
    This is in marked contrast to the teachings of their professed saviour Jesus Christ. Christ, the radical social subversive would have no truck with such a message. As A N Wilson says in his book “How can we know”, Christ was for turning our assumptions on their heads, and for setting unattainable targets, which are no less worth thinking about or aspiring to, just because they may be unattainable.

    I am not myself a Christian, but I think Jesus would have been with you on temptation as an opportunity for choice. How else can we examine ourselves except by confronting hard choices, and then thinking about what is our real motivation for making a particular choice.
    In these terms, the bible shows Christ putting himself in the way of temptation by going out into the wilderness alone.
    For us ordinary people in affluent industrialised societies, our appetites are common Achiles heels as you say. But I’d characterise temptation in general as being something which exposes our particular needs and/or vulnerabilities.
    To get back to christ in the wilderness, presented to us as a divine being, his weakness was always going to be the potential to abuse power.
    At the beginning of his ministry, the N~T has Satan tempting him to use his power for his own ends by taking dominion over Humanity. While, at the end of his life, he is mockingly invited to get down off the cross if he’s so powerful, and act like the kind of King Of The Jews the nationalists were looking for to get rid of the Roman occupation.
    In both cases, he refuses, as Wilson says, not doing what is expected; not doing what we might do in his place.

    Whether or not all or any of this stuff literally happened doesn’t really matter that much – not to me anyway. The important thing is that it presents your model of temptation as the only way forward. Only when confronted by choice can we evaluate that choice. If we were still in the garden, knowing nothing of choice, we would simply be some kind of puppet theatre for the amusement of God and the Heavenly Host.

    Your footnotes each say something to me.
    The first reinforces your view that we’re dealing here with the human agenda, presented through texts, one of whose roles is to try and attribute a society’s assumptions to God in order to give them additional legitimacy – in this case the role of women in a patriarchal community.
    The second says to me that the Hebrews knew very well that this story was a myth and not literal truth. Those who wrote it down and read it over succeeding centuries were smart people. clearly the inconsistency to which you draw attention did not bother them. The literal acts and words of God could not be riven with such inconsistency, but nobody expects myths to be consistent; that isn’t the point of them, so they left it alone. I’d put money on the assertion that much of the NT has been editied in the name of “inspiration” in order to make the text fit the current theoligical/political requirements.

    Choice is an inherently dangerous business, and we will have only our “heart” as you say Sarah, to guide us in making those choices. But if there were no temptation, there would be no choice. Sorry to labour this point, but I think youre right, and I think it’s important.

    Reg

  4. Reg,

    You wrote: “To get back to christ in the wilderness, presented to us as a divine being, his weakness was always going to be the potential to abuse power.”

    I wonder if this isn’t the key to most of the ills facing us today. Abusing power shows a kind of pride and untouchability doesn’t it? I’m not talking about a healthy view of one’s limits and a healthy dose of self-esteem after evaluating our strengths and weaknesses. I’m talking about power as the kind that can alter because it can and without serious thought about consequences. I think decisions should always be made with a view to the consequences. A lot of grief would be avoided if more of us did that.

    What would have been the consequence of Jesus making his supreme power known, if indeed he was the Son of God? He talked a lot about miracles and faith that isn’t reliant on such things. His point then is to let people decide for themselves what sort of person/being he was. Not only are we to decide who he was, I think we are to decide what we will do with that. It is precisely this decision making process that we should apply to all our decisions. What’s the issue? What are the consequences if I choose this course? If we can accept the consequences, for good or ill, and still make the decision then our conscience has been our guide. Most of what we do is done without thought of any kind and to me, that’s where we err.

    As usual, thanks for making me think new thoughts as a result of your ever thoughtful ones.

  5. To know we have power is perhaps the greatest temptation.
    “All power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
    At the heart of the Hebrew Eden myth, we can imagine a creator, almost undecided what to do with his new smart creatures. OK, let’s suspend the notion of “Divine foreknowledge” just for a moment, and imagine God faced with this problem, and leaving the outcome to chance. Should he just sit back and enjoy the puppet show played out by people who couldn’t be happy, because they had no knowledge of unhappiness, or should he be generous, and let mankind usurp some god-like power to have some measure of control over its feelings and destiny?
    “This is just too difficult, let’s just see what they do”.
    I hope the God of that myth was pleased with the outcome, because it was the only one with any “potential for growth” as you would say MOI.
    You said:
    “I’m talking about power as the kind that can alter because it can and without serious thought about consequences. I think decisions should always be
    made with a view to the consequences. A lot of grief would be avoided if more of us did that.”

    Power can get us what we want, regardless of the consequences for ourselves or others, and, even worse, there is something within Humanity which enjoys the feeling of exercising power for its own sake.
    The husband who beats his wife because he can escape his overwhelming sense of inadequacy while he’s doing it, has fallen into that great sin.
    The allies who bombed the city of Dresden to rubble at the end of the Second World War, as if the extermination of 6 million inocent Jews gave them some kind of excuse for an act of wanton vengeance, also fell into that great sin.

    In our own lives, consequences are hard to predict – we don’t have that “Divine foreknowledge”. We can only do our best in assessing those consequences, and our true motives in being prepared to take those consequences, or visit them on others.

    If we can honestly do this, then I think we have overcome the temptation as far as we poor humans can.
    The temptation is to follow the impulse that says:
    “I can get this, and I’m going to have it, because I want, because I can”.

    My faith, such as it is, and however convenient it may seem, tells me that we will not be judged by consequences we could not reasonably foresee. We will be judged for trying.

    blessings

    Reg

  6. Reg,

    You wrote: “My faith, such as it is, and however convenient it may seem, tells me that we will not be judged by consequences we could not reasonably foresee.”

    No, no one can foresee all consequences. When I say that I mean possible consequences of course. I know that if I steal something the possible consequence is that I could get caught and sent to jail. If I know this and choose it anyway, at least I’ve made an informed decision, albeit a stupid one. But you’re right, we won’t be judged, if we are judged at all, on what we can’t foresee. At least I hope not. That would be a most angry and merciless Deity, in which case we are all screwed anyway!

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