Monday, March 12, 2012

12-03-11: Third Sunday of Lent

Third Sunday of Lent

Exodus 20:1-17 / Psalm 19 / 1 Corinthians 1:22-25 / John 2:13-25

The American Atheists Association has once again gained media attention: it’s posting billboards in Muslim and Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods in Brooklyn, written in Arabic and Hebrew (Yiddish?), saying You know it’s a myth – you have a choice referring to belief in God. One old Jewish resident of Williamsburg was quoted as saying: “That takes a lot of chutzpah.” Maybe. If they really had chutzpah they’d forget about G-d and Allah and just question the bona fides of Mohammad… peace be upon him.

One of the pivotal stories in the Bible is recorded in today’s reading from Exodus about the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments, the covenant made with the chosen people through Moses. We are oftentimes overly impressed by the fact that the essence of the covenant between God and his people is one framed in law, a set of prohibitions (the latter seven commandments) to ensure peaceful communal coexistence. We should remember that the civilization from which the Hebrews were escaping – Egypt – had long before achieved a level of high sophistication. Remember Moses found himself leading the Exodus because he had been running from “the law” having killed an Egyptian whom he had seen beating a Hebrew. No, there’s nothing essentially extraordinary about the latter seven commandments – but there’s quite a bit of dynamite in the first three.

If the last seven commandments teach how we should relate with others, the initial three are concerned with how we relate to the deity. Remember, Moses was the first human being to whom God had revealed his personal name which, paradoxically, is the heart of that second command – forbidding anyone to utter that name (the prohibition against using foul language – which most of us learned, and still is taught in Sunday school, is but a silly extrapolation). But it’s that first commandment that remains uniquely relevant: “I am the Lord thy God, thou shalt have no other gods before me” (KJV). No doubt the command mirrors the great insight of monotheism which Judaism has brought to the world. But we think of it as a great insight only because we are viewing it in hindsight. It was anything but. It’s the generally accepted understanding of most scholars that strict monotheism took some time to be enthusiastically embraced by Hebrew-turned-Israelite-turned-Jew. The command says to have no other gods before this particular God; and the chosen people obeyed, though with a caveat. For centuries they were monolatrous though not monotheist, meaning they worshipped only one God while acknowledging the existence of other gods. Only after the Exile is there clear indications that their monolatry (one-god worship) had evolved into genuine monotheism (belief in only one God). Some might argue that, even today, Christians, Jews and Muslims still struggle with putting God first in their lives. When it comes to money, power, fame, sex we’re all monolatrous – striving to worship the true god while very cognizant that those other gods are vying, and often times winning, our attention and worship.

The first commandment, when viewed within the context of the ancient polytheistic world where gods abounded in every village and city, is thus primarily a command to not believe in many gods. It is, oddly, the command to become an atheist. The emergence of genuine monotheism goes hand-in-hand with the possibility of atheism, inviting all to relinquish long-held myths in favor of a mystery which we are forbidden to name.

So the American Atheists campaign in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg and Kensington neighborhoods among Orthodox Jews and Muslims is, for sure, iconoclastic – as iconoclastic, perhaps, as the Decalogue itself. Atheism, like a bastard child, is closely related to monotheism – a first cousin once removed. That first commandment continues to call each of us to question our belief and our worship of all those idols we make into God. Strange as it sounds, atheists are not unlike Moses coming down the slopes of Sinai with the tablets of the Law, calling us deeper into the mystery we so casually call God. I just hope, at their first meeting, those atheists have the good sense not to serve ham sandwiches – old habits are hard to break.

No comments:

Post a Comment