In creating the whole of existence, G-d made forces that reveal Him and forces that oppose Him –He made light and He made darkness. One who does good brings in more light. One who fails, feeds the darkness.
But the one who fails and then returns transcends that entire scheme. He reaches out directly to the Essential Creator. Beyond darkness and light.
And so, his darkness becomes light.
-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
How do you tell the difference between night and day? In a literal sense, all you have to do is look outside to see if it is light or dark. You can also check any of the devices that tell us what time it is on a 24-hour clock, usually available through the Internet, so that you know not only whether it is day or night, but the precise time as well.
How do you tell the difference between fact and fiction? Well, we know that the things we see on TV shows and movies such as Star Trek are pretty much fiction. No one can really visit other planets, “beam” to destination from tens of thousands of miles away, or diagnose complex medical ailments with a wave of a “tricorder”. We do know that we can only barely visit the moon, which we haven’t done in manned-exploration in decades, launch rockets to an orbiting space station on a semi-regular basis, and that while modern medical technology can diagnose many illnesses, much of what people suffer from remains a mystery.
How do you tell the difference between truth and falsehood? I don’t mean whether or not a used car salesman is trying to cheat you by lying about the condition of a car you are thinking of purchasing, but what about God’s truth? How do you know what is true about God and what is not? You may think you know the answer to that question in some canned way (“the truth is in the Bible”) but it’s not that easy.
Yesterday, Messianic blogger Derek Leman published a missive called Mainstream vs. Crackpot Scholarship, and I enthusiastically congratulate him on this effort. In virtually every established religious tradition, there is solid, well-researched information that acts as the basis for the beliefs and faith of the adherents of said-religious traditions. There is also a bunch of “junk scholarship” which is based on bad interpretation of holy writings, wishful thinking, and outright lies. Before continuing here, please visit Derek’s blog via the link above and see what he has to say in detail.
Learning in the “information age” has become exponentially confusing. Anyone can create a website, blog, or YouTube video in minutes spouting off their particular brand of theology, philosophy, or teaching on “truth”. The proponents of “black helicopters” are no longer confined to “fringie” TV or radio broadcasts. Now they are available via Google and for the many who lack formal training in Biblical scholarship, it can be very difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff.
How does one tell the difference between junk and quality teaching? Besides consulting reliable sources, which Derek has offered to provide, you might want to start by examining your “wishful thinking”. We all have a “theological ax to grind” so to speak. We all have our sacred cows that we are unwilling to slaughter on the altar of established Biblical reality. There are things that we don’t want to give up in our belief system, not necessarily because they are solid religious truth, but because they make us feel better and they sound just so “cool”.
However “cool” is not necessarily “truth”.
In an absolute sense, we search for truth all of our lives. This isn’t just a statement applied to religious people but to all people. We want to find the meaning and purpose of our lives so that we have some sort of context for our existence and our actions. We want a direction. We want a moral and ethical compass. Where do we find it? Some find their reality in secular humanism and the established scientific facts (and I remind you that facts and truth are not the same thing). Some find it among the plethora of religious disciples that exist in the world today. Some find it in sex, drugs, booze, entertainment venues, or whatever distractions and pleasures we find in the society around us. In the latter case, they don’t concern themselves with a “truth” outside of their personal existence, they just hide in a cocoon of unreality and hope for the best.
Some, as Derek pointed out, seek their truth in the fantastic, the amazing, the “gee whiz” junk scholarship that exists at the far edges of more legitimate religions, as if a faith in the One, Supreme, Creative, God were not “fantastic” enough for their imaginations.
What are we looking for? Truth? Not exactly.
We’re looking for a truth that fits who we think we are. We want a truth that we can easily accept without having to turn ourselves inside out and anguish over having possibly been wrong about our existence and about God for all of our lives up to this point. We want a truth that we have control over. To do that, we have to take truth away from God.
OK, to be fair, there is no one person or one denomination or sect that can say they have absolute ownership of total and untainted truth from God. There are plenty of traditions that make this claim, but none of those claims can be established without question. Within Judaism and within Christianity, there are many different traditions and ways to understand truth but they are not truth in and of themselves. We cannot access “pure truth” from God. Perhaps no person has, not even Abraham or Moses, though they certainly came closer than we have today. I would say that Jesus knew that truth first hand, but the Messiah is unique and though we Christians aspire to be like him, we can only travel up the path but not fully achieve the destination, at least not this side of paradise.
Some people just settle for less and after a time, they pretend that they have discovered what they want. Then they truly believe the illusion is real. Here’s what I mean.
The Midrash Tanchuma in Shemini tells a very striking story about how overindulgence in wine can warp one’s understanding: “When a drunk is inebriated he sits joyfully as though in Gan Eden. There was a pious man whose father drank publicly, much to the humiliation of his son. The pious man said, ‘Father, I will purchase fine wine and bring it to your house if you will only stop frequenting taverns. When you go to such places you shame me and yourself.’ Each day he would bring his father spirits to drink in the morning and the evening. When his father would pass out, the son would place him in bed to sleep it off.
‘One rainy day, as the upstanding man walked through the market on his way to shul, he noticed a drunk lying in the middle of the marketplace. Water was streaming over him as children hit him and threw dirt in his face and stuffed it in his mouth. The son thought, ‘I will bring my father here. Seeing the shame of this drunk will finally cure him of his obsession to drink wine.’ When his elderly father witnessed this spectacle, he bent down to the drunk and whispered in his ear. His son was horrified to over hear his father ask, ‘Tell me, my friend. In which pub did you procure such potent liquor?’ The mortified son cried, ‘Father is that what I brought you here for? Do you not see the incredible embarrassment this man suffers because of his habit?’
“The elderly father replied, ‘My son, I have no pleasure in life besides drinking. This is my Gan Eden!’”
Mishnah Berura Yomi Digest
Stories to Share
“The Drunkenness of Lot”
Siman 128 Seif 37-38
I know a secular person could read what I’ve written so far and say to me that by accepting my religious convictions as truth, I have given up and am pretending that my “fiction” is real. I don’t blame that secular individual, because what any person who has faith and trust in God believes certainly seems fictional to one who is not so oriented. Paul even spoke to this person.
The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. –1 Corinthians 2:14 (ESV)
Unfortunately, a person that subscribes to what I consider beliefs based on junk scholarship may also say that the “spirit” revealed these “truths” to him. Some months ago, I wrote a blog post called The Irrelevant Drunkard which addressed many of the issues I bring up today. In that “meditation”, I urged my readers not to judge other variants of our faith too harshly, for how indeed to we know in absolute terms that they are always wrong and we are always right? How do we know that there is only one way to pray and it is the way that we pray? How do we know that there is only one way to conduct a worship service and it is the way we conduct a worship service? How do we know that we have our facts and particularly our truth lined up with God and that only we have the inside scoop to those facts and that truth?
We don’t. But we have a place to start.
We have a way to tell the difference between night and day, but to use it, we have to do something we don’t want to do. We have to temporarily suspend our beliefs and our assumptions, then access established and reliable sources of information about our faith. That means, no matter how attractive and fanciful a source may seem, we have to discard it, if it is on the list marked “junk scholarship”. I said before that no person or tradition has unfettered and unfiltered access to God’s truth and the same goes for God’s Bible. It is interpreted. In Judaism, it is impossible to understand the Bible apart from established tradition. You don’t just get to shoot from the hip and call it “spiritual exegesis”.
When you pray to God for wisdom and truth, try very hard not to imagine how God will answer that prayer. In fact, expect God to answer you in a way that you totally didn’t anticipate. If God responds to you in exactly the manner in which you envisioned, perhaps it’s not the Spirit of God speaking but the “spirit” of your own wants, needs, and desires. God rarely gives us what we want in exactly the way we want it, only speaking to confirm that our human imagination was “right” all along.
What is the difference between day and night? In a way, we spend all of our time looking out the window, going outside, moistening our finger and testing the wind, just to try to find out. There is truth. God is truth. I believe that. I trust that very much. But it is not something that once established, can be safely locked inside a drawer in a cabinet after being filed under “T” for truth. It is something that we examine and pour over every minute of every day, like trying to decipher a code written by men separated from us by thousands of miles and tens of centuries. It’s like attempting to loosen an infinite knot looped and tied within the fabric of an endless and inscrutable reality.
Rabbi Jerome Epstein once wrote:
As a Jew, I believe that the coming of the Messiah does not depend on my belief that he will come, nor does it rest solely in God’s hands. I believe it remains our task to bring the Messiah — that he will arrive only when we are in a state of readiness to bring him, to welcome him, to appreciate him. Salvation must be earned. And thus it is what we do, as Jews, that will determine the time of the Messianic arrival.
Rabbi Epstein’s belief is based partly on the fact that he is a Jew. It’s not as if all Jews believe as he does, but he allows his Jewish identity to define his truth. It is not the same truth as other Jews have and certainly not the same truth people who are not Jewish have. A Christian would not typically accept this truth because the Rabbi says that “salvation must be earned” which goes against the church’s belief that salvation through Jesus Christ is a free gift, as if our relationship with God were a completely passive experience for us.
Truth is something of an active choice. I believe there is an absolute truth in God, but no man can access it. We use our religion and our holy books as a kind of “interface” to allow us access to God, but that interface is somewhat symbolic. It’s like the operating system on your computer provides a “graphical user interface” that allows you come control over the hardware and software of your machine, but not direct and complete access. There are interfaces that are better than others. There are interfaces where the code is better written and that perform better and with fewer errors. Like the wise consumer looking for the best computer with the most useful interface, we go shopping. Pursuing the truth is the same. Even once we have “purchased”, we continue to explore our device by accessing and exploring the interface. We discover errors in the user’s manual on occasion. We locate a bug or two. Most of all, if we’re honest, we differentiate between a bug in the program and our own misunderstanding. We admit that how we thought the interface would work wasn’t actually how is actually supposed to work, according to the manufacturer.
The problem isn’t with the interfaces or the truths or the Bibles or the religions, the problem is with our choices; which ones we make and why we make them. The problem is that, having once made a choice, we stop checking in on the purchase. We stop making sure we understand how it works and what our part is in investigating new “truths” about the interface and what lies beneath. We cannot settle. We cannot arrive at the belief that lying drunk in a gutter is Gan Eden. We have to keep searching for God everyday along our path and we have to choose reliable markers on that path rather than fog and illusion. We have not yet arrived at total truth and we will never arrive until the say of the blowing of the great Shofar that announces the Messiah’s return.
But we have a traveling companion along the path and he urges us everyday to be honest with ourselves. The path to truth begins with sometimes brutal honesty, not in satisfying our dreams and wants. God is truth. We just have to want to listen to Him more than we listen to ourselves.
Then our eyes will be able to see when it is day and when it is night, at least as through a mirror dimly (1 Corinthians 13:12).