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Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Diminishing Returns

Once more I found myself having thoughts while listening to music and doing the dishes. I'm starting to think there's a connection. If the show The Big Bang Theory is anything to go by (and it is, personally, as so many people have told me I remind them of Sheldon), then sometimes doing mundane tasks frees up the brain to work during repetitive, meaningless action. This time the song at hand was "Better Than Drugs," by Skillet. This song, despite its genre and my tradition's general aversion to rock music, has made it into my Worship playlist on iTunes. Take a few minutes and listen to it on the link above.

As this song is playing, I begin to think on what I know about drug use. The first (and only) thing that comes up is the Law of Diminishing Returns (hence LDR; click through for Wikipedia article). This concept essentially states that the addition of an element to a system will produce an effect, but the more it is used, the greater the quantities of that element must be present to produce the same effect. However, there is eventually a point when the effect becomes negative, that is, it takes away from the desired result instead of helping. This term came up the other night on Grey's Anatomy when a patient with severe blood loss had been given copious amounts of blood for the surgery, but it was doing less and less good as the surgeons labored onward.

Concerning addictions, LDR is the reason why a person requires more and more of the substance in order to receive the high he or she got the first time the substance was absorbed. This is true of the commonly known drugs like marijuana and meth, as well as of alcohol.[1] The same holds for porn, and this one hits home with me, as I have the experience to substantiate the claim.[2] This is why the types of substance can change over time, moving toward more intense drugs, harder liquors, and more hardcore porn. It's because the same stuff isn't doing what it used to.

Given the reference to the Song of Songs in the chorus of "Better Than Drugs" ("your love is like wine"), among other hints in their music, I am inclined to interpret Skillet's work as being Christian. Therefore, I hear the person to whom the song is being sung as God. But the idea that God is better than drugs got me thinking. I couldn't help but wonder whether there is an addictive aspect to religion, or whether LDR applies to religious experience. LDR appears to be true most everywhere else, so why not here?

My religious experience has constantly reinforced the idea that only God will ever be enough for me. I have heard things like, "There's a God-shaped hole in your heart, and only he can fill it." And it appears there are roughly three outcomes of believing this and seeking God: (1) one does not find God,  and so moves onto another substance; (2) one finds God and becomes satisfied with a fixed amount, and is not changed by it; (3) one finds God, LDR kicks in, and one is never satisfied with the current state of things, and continues to seek more, go deeper, take in greater quantities of the God substance. I'm sure there are more possibilities than this, but it's a start.

The first outcome is common enough, where God is never found and so the seeker chooses to look for something else. The second is greatest among religious folk who have become satisfied and, therefore, stagnant. This outcome might be more dangerous than the first. The third, however, is the most intriguing to me. There are those who continually seek God and are never satisfied with "knowing God well enough." These are the people who deal with God relationally, that treat their relationship with God like they would a new lover. When I was getting to know the girl I eventually married, I couldn't get to know her well enough! There wasn't a point when I would think, "Well, I've spent enough time with her this week. That gives me a couple days off!"

This is where a possible branch-off occurs, with several possibilities presented. What would LDR dictate? That even if I remain unsatisfied with pursuing my wife or God and take things higher and higher, eventually the element in question will produce negative returns. At what point does a relationship with a person or God result in negative returns? Can we know God too much? My instinct says no.

There is an inherent problem with applying LDR to a relationship with God. LDR assumes that the substance or element being used or interacted with to produce a result is the only element that changes. The example in the Wikipedia article, for those who haven't read it, was that of workers in a factory. You can add more workers so that more work gets done, but eventually, there will be too many of them, which will ultimately reduce productivity. This does not account for changes in the factory. More machines can be built; greater space can allow those workers to move about; more work may become available. This problem, therefore, is assuming that everything around the additional element remains static.

When other pieces of the system do remain static, the additional component will eventually damage the system. If I attempt to consume God without any change to myself aside from some kind of high, then I will be damaged eventually. If I pursue my wife now without any kind of self-sacrifice, without any personal change for the benefit of the system, the system will crumble. This is the beauty of relationships: they can change.

For those who seek God and find themselves wanting more, that's okay, because God wants more, too. God is not static in his pursuit of his beloved ones, and we shouldn't be static either.

[1] The thing about alcohol is that it can be consumed without pursuit of a high. There are those who regularly drink yet are not addicted, because they are not attempting to reach a certain feeling through the drink. There are people who legitimately simply enjoy a cold one at dinner.

[2] It is, I can concede, theoretically possible that one can view porn passively or without seeking a particular sensation, but I know of no such situations where that is the case. If you come across research where this is true, leave me a link in the comments. I'm always eager to learn more about this topic.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Reading the Creation Narratives after the Exodus

Every once in a while, I have an epiphany. Well, maybe not an epiphany, but an occasional moment of clarity. Like our meme friend, Sudden Clarity Clarence.

Aaaanyway, as I stood in the kitchen doing dishes while my wife was out at a football game with her mom, two things come to mind. First, my wife and I don't exactly fall in line with traditional gender roles, as is evidenced by the previous sentence. Second, and more importantly, I have a realization about a possibility concerning the purpose of the Genesis creation narratives. If this is unoriginal, I wouldn't be surprised in the slightest; it's nigh impossible to have an original idea about the Bible.

But before my epiphany I feel the need to lay out a few of my assumptions. First of all, I'm not a Young Earth Creationist. Christians have been wrong about science before (flat vs. round earth; geocentric vs. heliocentric solar system; etc.), and we have moved on from past mistakes. We haven't quite got around this one yet, but odds are it's only a matter of time. Second, I read Gen 1-2 with the lens of comparison to other ancient near-eastern creation myths and try to understand it in terms of Israel's understanding of itself. In the context of being monotheistic and coming out of a centuries-long enslavement in Egypt, it sort of makes sense that the author(s) of Genesis would produce a story similar to those around them, but with the twist that their God is the one true God (Deut 6.4, for starters). Third, the literary artistry of the creation narratives is beautiful, especially with the parallelism between the first and second halves of the six days in ch. 1. (1-light::4-sources of light; 2-water and air are separated::5-creatures who inhabit water and air are created; 3-land is formed:: 6-land-dwelling creatures are made.) Fourth, we're not the first people in history to wonder whether Gen 1-2 are historical and conclude that they're not. Consider Philo of Alexandria and Origen. Finally, I believe that the Bible is written with purpose, not to teach us history (in the strict sense of "this is what happened"), but to teach us about God. The basic question to ask when reading a biblical text is, "What does this say about God?" And I think this is a pretty good way to read Gen 1-2, since they're in the Bible (FYI). These are where I'm currently at with Gen 1-2. Now you know.

When I do the dishes, I like to rock out. I'm okay with silence, but silence makes a drudgerous (made-up word of the day) task drudgerouser. I find dishes more tolerable if I got my jams goin'. As the music is going, a certain song comes along: "More" by Matthew West. (If you've never heard it, go here.) Sung from God's point of view, West claims God loves people and the person to whom he sings more than anything else he created. It's a magnificent thought, and one I like to be reminded of. As this song is playing, a thought comes to mind.

What if the creation narratives have included in them the purpose of exalting man above the rest of the created order? In these stories, God does not pursue a relationship with birds, trees, the ocean, or light. He pursues mankind. Fortunately, this idea does not change whether a reader holds the traditional view that Moses wrote the Pentateuch or the Documentary Hypothesis. The fact remains that the materials were written and/or gathered after the events they record, and not during them. This being said, let's read Gen 1-2 in light of Israel's captivity in Egypt. (For the sake of convenience, I'll just say "Moses" instead of "the author/editors".) It has been said that the 10 Plagues on Egypt were God's judgment upon the various gods of that people. Blotting out the sun's light is a judgment on Ra, and so on. After several centuries of slavery, the Israelites would likely have been accustomed to hearing worship of the sun, the Nile, and any of the deities listed in that fun song from The Prince of Egypt. The point is, they're used to ordinary things being revered. In addition to the strict monotheism of Israelite theology, the exaltation of man in the creation narratives further reinforces that the image of God is not found in the stars or among insects, but in man. If the image of God is found in Adam and Eve, why would anyone worship a river or a cat?

What if the exaltation of man in the creation narratives also serves the purpose of exalting God? God is already awesome by the end of 1.1, having made the heavens and the earth. But how much more awesome is he to the person who hears this message: "God made everything, and that was pretty good. But it wasn't until he made you that he said, 'Well, that's hard to top! I'd better stop there!' And he called it a day." (Pun totally intended.) Man was the greatest of God's made things. Not the sun, for it can be darkened; not the river, for it can be transformed; not the sky, for it can bring destruction upon all you hold dear. But man, made in God's image, worships only that which is above him, and nothing else, for all else is beneath him. "I love you more," says he, "so why chase after what is inferior? Seek first me, and you shall be blessed. Seek first me, and you will have sought what is highest. Seek first me, and you shall have fulfilled your purpose as my image."