Bible is a collection of diverse ideas

LATERAL VIEWS OF DIVERSITY

  • How to read Esther, Ruth, Job, Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and Proverbs –

For many centuries, the Church had tried to see the Bible as the book that would bring unity of faith. Christians believed there was one continual chain of thoughts; ultimately reaching a consensus – one correct doctrine. However, after two thousand years we are discovering that is not possible. The churches are divided as ever. We must realize the Bible is a collection of diverse literature arranged laterally, like a drug store shelf displaying different brands of nutrition supplements. Linear approach to understand it does not work. The Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament is a good example where even opposing views are co-existing side by side.

* When the Hebrew word “wisdom” was translated into Greek, the feminine word “Sophia” was chosen.  It introduces an image of God as a female figure.  So, I believe in the fourth person of God, Wisdom, in addition to God the creator, Jesus the human, and the spirit the friend.

The Old Testament is normally divided into three categories of literature: Torah (Law) – Genesis to Deuteronomy, Prophets (history) – Samuel to Ezekiel and13 minor prophets, and Wisdom Literature. All of them refer extensively but often not factually, to the history of Hebrew people. In this paper, I propose to discuss the thirdt category, Wisdom Literature.

I bundle the following books into one category as Wisdom Literature: Esther, Ruth, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of songs (Song of Solomon.) Some Biblical scholars do it differently by including some prophets and history books as Writings such as Jonah and Daniel in this category because they are mostly fictitious and stand on thinner ice to claim historicity than other Torah and Prophets.

One thing that distinguish them from Torah and Prophet is its diversity of content. For one thing, it is impossible to find any unity of thoughts among them. Esther and Ruth for example. Esther is adamantly Hebrew nationalist, and Ruth is delightfully universalist: totally opposing views. In other words, it is impossible to find any co-relation between them to formulate one cohesive doctrine: Diversity prevents any simple and homogeneous description of one unified faith. In this sense, they are very appropriate to be quoted in our age of diversity and ecumenism (unity as humans, not of one faith as such). This is rather astonishing as we have long considered Judaism as the founding faith of monotheism (belief in one God), such as Christianity and Islam. It is ironical that the two religions are notorious in history for their intolerance and doctrinal conflicts and disputes. Wars have been fought over doctrinal differences and heretics were burned at the stake.

Also they include different types of literature. Psalms are hymns; Esther, Jonah, and Ruth are fictions; Proverbs are exactly that, “proverbs”; Lamentation and Song of Songs are poems; and Ecclesiastes is like a collection of succinct sayings of sages. In other words, they are not related to each other, and they lack of unity of thought. It means they were not compiled in one book in linear sequence but offer lateral thinking. They do not demand “either or” choice but rather “and also” inclusion.

I think there is a reason for this. They were written by people who were exposed to different cultures and the cosmopolitan way of living in a pluralistic society, like ours. All those books I mentioned the above as Wisdom Literature were included in the Hebrew holy books after traumatic experience of defeat and exile as captives in Babylon. ((Circa 600 – 400 B.C.E.) Up until then, the experiences of defeat had not caused to question their faith in their God, Yahweh. In fact, some of them strengthened it because of suffering and made them stronger in their resolve in their faith in one God. Liberation from slavery in Egypt gave them the nature of God as the Law, thus giving them a stronger self-consciousness as the God’s Chosen People. The secret of their strength after Holocaust is another example.

However, the exile in Babylon was different. Unlike enslavement of common masses of labourers by Egyptians, Babylonians selected and removed the Jewish elite; aristocrats, educated, priests, and scribes (scholars) away from the populous. It was a cultural and spiritual genocide, that left the masses without the caretakers of the spiritual foundation and the traditions. Many who remained in Palestine were uneducated and easily became acculturated into pagan spirituality, and intermarried racially and religiously. Furthermore those in captivity were also exposed to different cultures, and often forced to practice different religions. It was impossible not to be influenced by them. Wisdom literature was the result.

When they were liberated by Persian King Cyrus, and were allowed to return to the homeland on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, there were two different groups among the returnees: Nationalist Traditionalists and Cosmopolitan Universalists. The first was led by Ezra and Nehemiah, who gathered people in Jerusalem and read Torah known as the books of Moses in pubic squares. Esther is the fiction representing a typical example of this school of thought. The second group was pluralist who accepted the cultural and religious practices that the traditionalists adamantly rejected such as inter-racial and inter-religious marriages such as Samaritans. Ruth is a good example of that tolerant attitude. It’s intriguing to note that two opposing views are complied into one Holy Book as the Old Testament as we know it.

Also, because those captives were educated elite, they were able to observe foreign culture and spiritual practices of their captors. That experience was devastating, but also educative. Traditionalists rejected to heed the wisdom in those foreign sayings and poetic traditions; insisted on purity of race and spirituality; like Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther. But cosmopolitan pluralist recognised the value of foreign traditions, and adopted lot of their wisdom and interracial marriage were valued. Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Ruth are the examples. It is interesting to note that today among many religions the same dichotomy exists: Exclusivists and Universalists e.g. Fundamentalist and Liberal Christians; Orthodox and Reform Synagogues, Radical Jihadists and Muslim majority.

WOMEN AND MINORITY ARE TAKING OVER PROFESSIONS

PROFESSIONALS FROM MINORITY GROUPS

When theological schools began to see more women than men, the same trend was unfolding in Law and Medical Schools. That was more than three decades ago. We see the results at the press conference where mostly women are Chief Medical Officers of the Provinces. The same can be said of other professions like dentistry, veterinary, and law: you see more women. Also you see larger number of persons from minority ethnic groups.

Though it is a positive development, there is a dark side to this trend. There are misogynist and racist attacks, at times violent, by angry white men. The attack on Dr. Theresa Tam, the Federal Chief Public Health Officer is an example. This shows some people have not quite caught up with the 21st Century. They will soon find themselves left on the dusty shelf of antiques. They may also find themselves without a family doctor if they insist on being seeing by a white male physician.

Another interesting thing about the trend in question is the reason for larger number of women and persons from minority ethnic groups in the professions. There is an invisible wall built around the big business. For many decades, persons of Jewish ancestry have led the way encouraging their children to go into law and medicine. Americans and Canadians of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean background have followed suit. Why?

According to a Sociologist who specializes in “Sociology of Work,” there is an unspoken protective barrier around the class that controls big corporations. It’s like a transparent plexiglass. For women, it is known as the “glass ceiling.” It prevents them to join the high executive positions and/or membership in the “board rooms” of multi-billion dollar corporations. In Japan, it is often “old boys’ network” of elite universities that controls the board rooms. It’s called “Gakubatsu.” Few people admits its existence, but it’s there. Just look at the number of universities where they come from. The excuse is “collegiality.”.

The result is law and medicine have become the choice for those who are excluded from high executive positions in big corporations, namely women and minorities. In law and medicine, skills count not the connections with “old buddies,” When I came to Canada in 1957, I worked among Japanese Canadians. I saw it was common for parents to encourage their children to go into law and medicine. And they did.

NATURAL RESOURCE IS INHERITANCE

Inheritance

Suppose I inherit a rich uncle’s money: Common sense tells me that I should invest it, and dip into the capital only in an emergency. You live with what you earn. Saving account is for rainy days. Do not plan to live on it. Canada is wealthy thanks to natural resource. But we are taking money out of our inheritance and are living on it.

Canadians are lucky to live in a country with so much natural resource. It is the gifts from God, Mother Nature or whatever. We didn’t earn it. It was gifted to us. It was here when we got here. Generous original inhabitants of the land allowed us settle here to catch, extract, and harvest it. Settlers worked hard with blood and sweat to grow and raise and dig it out. However, rich soil was here to begin with. We cleared the land and put down seeds. Fossils had already been buried under our feet. What have we been doing with them? We must be grateful and treat them with respect as gifts not entitlement. Are we investing it for the future or are we living on it like a spoiled brat? Are we managing it, or harvesting it and driving it into extinction like we did with Atlantic cod and Pacific salmon?

I should also remind ourselves about volatility of resource market. Unsavoury rulers of the countries like Iran, Russia, and Saudi Arabia often make it the weapon against civilization, like they are doing with oil today. We are only waiting for the tide to change direction. We are vulnerable. It’s humiliating to feel powerless being dependent on unpredictable market.

It’s about time we think seriously about change. Let’s stop fighting people who criticize our way of life. Everyone must try to see other’s point of view. The solution often comes from compromise. Some people argue that coal is almost limitless and oil will last many more decades. I accept their argument only for now. We still have to buy groceries and pay mortgages while changing our way of life. It’s the cost to finance our transformation.

Resource based economy is notoriously uncontrollable as the current crisis in oil market shows. Keystone XL may restart. Bitumen may start flowing over mountains. But it’s only for the short time in transition. Let’s not continue to be a hostage to the unstable economy.

Learning to Grow Old – Canada

ART OF GROWING OLD

In Asian culture, old people are honoured and respected. So when I was ordained to be a minister, I tried to look older. The tenet still dictates my consciousness. I don’t want to be young again with all that struggle with self-confidence and frustration. Nevertheless, getting old is never easy.

The ultimate insult for a Japanese man’s ego is having to ask for a fork at a Japanese restaurant. The muscles of my hands atrophied and can not handle chopsticks any more. I drop things. Body parts are replaced by artificial ones one by one. At the bottom of the staircase, I don’t remember why I came to the basement. “Aging isn’t for a SISSY.” said late Stuart McLean. The most difficult is to be honest with one’s conditions without self-pity and whingeing. Someone who is trying to help you is not insulting you. You must recognize reality with dignity and accept help gracefully.

Once, at a board meeting of a not-for-profit organization, the discussion focussed on the status of one person’s membership on the board, who had become a liability. He seemed to have joined the organization only for power and social standing. The question was: “Why should he stay with us when nobody can work with him?” No one could think of a good reason to keep him. But one person pointed out, “But he’s got money.” The board kept him on.

When libido recedes and stomach shrinks, you find yourself more desperate to hang on to the only thing left, pride. Some men become more greedy: yes, mostly men. There is no more pathetic person than a shrivelling old man obsessed with wealth and power. I notice that the rich and powerful die about the same age as average people. What they crave don’t seem to add even a year to their lifespan. Death lets us know that pleasure, money and power are only for what Japanese call “ukiyo” – the fleeting world. You can not take them with you once you leave this world. Then I have to ask myself, “What for?”

It’s good that I do not make unwise decisions as often as before. It seems accumulated pieces of knowledge have been sifted through a mesh. Trivial and unimportant junk seems to have been deleted with a click. It’s time to sit and wait for the spirit to catch up with me.

We are what we are, not what we do.

GOVERNMENTS ARE PAYING MANY PEOPLE FOR DOING NOTHING during the current crisis. Is this our future?

Once I nearly missed a flight because I got confused with a self-check-in machine and needed a help of an airline attendant. Furthermore there were fewer luggage drop-off counter; the customers had to spend more time in line. Airlines is saving money with smaller staff at the expense of customers’ time. Progress means less people?

A 14 year old geek can handle the automatic checkout with one eye on smart-phone, but not me. I didn’t want to wait in line for just a bunch of green onions. I got all muddled up and an attendant had to come to rescue me. Here again, I noticed there were fewer check out-counters with real persons serving; another case of a business saving money at the expense of customer’s time and grief.

Is all this automation a way to make humans redundant? Thanks to mechanization farmers who constitute 1.7% of population are now producing more food than the time when farmers numbered multiple times more. More is on the way: driver-less cars, parcel delivery by drones, automated factories, self-directing vacuum cleaners. During the Cold War, there were rumours about the development of neutron bomb. Its idea was a weapon that kills humans without damaging physical assets: absolute abomination.

I don’t think Mr. Trump is right to blame trade treaties for unemployment. It is automation, computerization, mechanization, robotics that are making people losing jobs. But humans are not disappearing; if at all we will be more in number. In these circumstances, there has to be a radical paradigm shift with our idea of who we are.

We have to move away from the notion of “We are what we do.” We have to accept ourselves as what we are regardless of what we do. I am a human being whatever I’m doing. When I introduce myself as a retired person, I feel obliged to find a way to justify my existence by describing how I spend my time. If I say, “Actually I do nothing,” people think I am being funny. So I say something like, “I write.” But I should not have to say what I do to win the right to occupy space and eat food. “I don’t apologize,” something like that, said John Wayne. I have a right to live and be loved by simply being alive and cranky.

humans think in story

SYSTEMS CREATED BY IMAGINATION:

“No amount of evidence will ever persuade an idiot,” said Mark Twain. What troubles me nowadays is what is called “Post-Truth” culture. Facts are called “fake news” when it’s true, scary scientific evidence is dismissed as “unbalanced.” Innocence or guilt is determined by partisan votes. Popular votes are rejected by the “Electoral College” like in 2015. After Japan was defeated in 1945, a bunch of cheeky 7th grade boys voted to resolve “Cheating in exam is acceptable” after a talk by an United States Information Service agent who came to school to explain the principles of democracy. That kind of idiocy is nothing new. “Democracy is the worst form of government,” said Winston Churchill. Hitler was first democratically elected. Does that make us idiots, ready to repeat the same terrible mistakes?

Historian Yuval Harari said, “humans think in stories not in facts, numbers, and equations.” It’s what makes us human. Animals see only facts and do not see beyond what’s apparent. This is also how we make arts and music, come up with new ideas and ideologies, and imagine existence of the power beyond the visible. In other words, we write scripts and stories, and have faith in the system we have created. Money is such a system, a created mechanism. And it works. The value of money is nothing but the trust in the system of exchange we agree on. Without the trust, money is a mere IOU written on a piece of paper. “In God we trust.” says Greenback.

Science is another one; it is the efforts by human persons who try to prove hypothesis to be real by accumulating facts. Human society is built with institutions, mechanisms, organizations, systems, and structures created in the mind of people, and by trust in what is imagined. They can be called ethics, ideals, ideologies, and principles.

Since imagination is invisible, greed and hubris can easily deceive public with “fake news” for the benefit of a few. But deception fails eventually . Like the famous saying: You can fool some people all the time; you can fool all the people some of the time; but you can not fool all the people all the time. Time will come when deception is exposed. Humans think beyond facts. We think and behave according to the common stories we share. Trust works when there is evid4ence of truth in the story. If there isn’t, it fails; often tragically.

DEADLY ADDICTION

Addiction

I saw a woman of certain age at a restaurant, who was obviously addicted to her phone. She looked at and clicked on the devise every few minutes. Her table was next to ours. I felt guilty lurking, but could not help it because her behaviour was so extraordinary. Her sister, I assumed she was judging from the resemblance, kept putting her hand on sister’s phone to restrain her. In the end, the woman put her phone on her laps and continued checking it while eating dinner. If that was not addiction, what else could it be called? I shuddered to think of her driving a car. However, one sees similar scenes everywhere nowadays.

I saw a recent statistics showing that the traffic fatality caused by distracted driving is six times that of driving while intoxicated. It is 16% of all road fatalities. Most are cases of speaking or texting on the phone while driving. The report says it is now the leading cause of death on the road. It is a very serious problem, more serious than that of death by opioid overdose. Why is it then the problem is not talked about more prominently?

I understand that addiction to internet causes damages to the same organ made by other types of addiction like alcohol, drugs, and gambling. I also understand that internet addiction is caused by not merely psychological but also biological change. It is a serious public health issue. Digital technology has now become integral part of our life. Society would not function without it. Then the question is; what can you do to avoid the damaging effect of internet addiction?

Speaking as a recovered dialled-up “Chat Room” addict (remember those days?), the solution is the same as that for any other addictions: Disciplined consumption. It can be harder than “cold turkey.” Besides, total abstention often does not work. It has been tried before with drugs. We can get addicted to all sorts of things, not only to alcohol and drugs. But you can keep consuming under a strict regime with right amount, frequency, and timing, without being totally destroyed. We can avoid destructive result of addiction to devises by setting time, duration, and frequency. It takes will-power. Once it becomes a habit, it is easier. This is what we do with alcohol, food, and recreation; disciplined consumption. All can be good for you in moderation.

I WAS READY TO QUIT RELIGION

I believe in religion. I go to church regularly and never miss the chance to go to a mosque when invited. I enjoy chatting with my Buddhist colleague Rev.Yasuo Izumi about religion. As Yuval Harari said, “humans think in stories not in facts, numbers and equations.” Religion is a story; a system created by imagination. If it’s not religion, it’s beauty, ethics, ideal, ideology, or tradition. Money is another product of imagination. Its value is nothing but the trust in the system agreed upon. Without the trust in what it promises, money is worthless. “In God we trust,” says Greenback. We create stories by imagination and put trust in what we imagined. But greed and hubris can easily transform religions into dark force.

It was in Jerusalem: I used to go there yearly during the 1980’s for refugee work. It was not the constant conflicts between two groups of sons and daughters of Abraham and Sarah; Arabs and Jews. It was the centuries’ old enmities between the believers of Jesus the Christ that made me ready to quit religion altogether. Go and see the Church of Holy Sepulchre, for example. Churches have been fighting over ridiculous inches of the space in the sanctuary. It’s all about property, and the money pilgrims/tourists bring in. I realized that Jerusalem was the location of butchery by Christians more than a millennium.

Marriage of religion and power makes it the agent of evil (paraphrase), said Salman Rushdie when he was under the threat of death “Fat’wa” by Ayatola Khomeni. Christianity became a demonic power after Emperor Constantine made the Christian Church the establish state religion during the fifth Century. Butchery: Crusades, Hundred Year War, Inquisition, Misogyny, Witch Hunt, Colonialism, Holocaust, including “Indian Residential School” ensued. All because of the pursuit of domination in stead of justice and love. I speak of Christianity because that’s the one I know. But other religions are guilty as well. Think what’s Buddhists are doing to the Muslims in Myanmar, for example.

My co-religionists lament secularization and demise of religious institutions. I don’t. After 15 centuries of living in the “glorious misunderstanding” (the words by Swiss theologian, Emil Brunner), the Christianity finally has a chance return to its true being, sort of like a homeless bare-foot prophet in the wilderness crying out for justice, love, and mercy.

LIFE IS A CONSTANT CHANGE Life is a river. You have to keep paddling to stay on the same spot. Likewise life is a process of continuous transformation. Mother Nature demands it. When you stop changing, it indicates you are dead. But the constant change is not easy. Remember the discomfort when you moved to a new school or a new job? I hated it every time but eventually I got used to it and became comfortable. Nothing stays the same. Even the words of a traditional prayer had to change with economy. “Debt” was a sin requiring forgiveness in the old Lord’s Prayer. Now debt is the engine of economy in the capitalist society. It’s called credit. So the wording changed to “trespass” to protect private property. Likewise ethics change with time. You can put an adulterer to death by stoning no more. Another example: Tattoo is in fashion and ubiquitous. But it bothers me. As a self-professed “progressive person,” this antipathy puzzles me. I think it is because memories die hard. Iin Japan only the members of “Yakuza” had tattoos. Yakuza, like Italian Mafia, are the outlaw gangs who have controlled gambling, debt collection and protection rackets for centuries. So hot spring hotels in Japan refuse anyone with tattoo; though white tourists with tattoo are reluctantly tolerated. How much traditions still control my judgement surprises me. I should know that nothing stays the same, but it is not easy to accept it. Having suffered many centuries of bloody turmoil, small island nations like Britain and Japan value order and stability. I realize reluctantly that I am Japanese therefore naturally conservative. This does not make sense. I am a son of a man, who got into trouble with the fascist police for singing the Socialist anthem “International.” He was in a theological seminary. He supported Japanese Socialist Party all his life. So I thought that progressive ideology was in my DNA. But I love some conservative qualities; cleanliness, clean desk, good manners, punctuality, order, proper clothes, stability, and traditions. In other words, I understand the frustration of conservative people. When things move too fast, you feel things are falling apart. You feel you are no longer respected. Change is upsetting but reality. I was born conservative (small “c”) but I know I have to persuade others that changes are normal and necessary. Change is a fact of life.

A FROG IN A POT

FROG IN A POT

Historian Yuval Harari of Hebrew University says in his book, “Homo Sapiens,” human species emerged in East Africa 90,000 years ago. The human population grew rapidly driving more than 90% of other species disappear. As the life-style began to switch from foraging to agriculture during about 12,000 BCE, mass extinction accelerated.

The museum in Morden, Manitoba features the story of gigantic 60 feet Mosasaurus that lived 70 million years ago. They became so powerful that their dominance was complete. They exploited all life-forms until had nothing to live on. So they perished, unlike Dinosaurs which were driven to extinction by a cataclysmic event. Humans seem to be following the Mosasaurian path.

Samson fought a lion with bear hands according to the Bible. There are no lions in Israel. In Lesotho, there are prominent tribes called “Tau – Lion” and “Koena – Crocodile.” But there are no more animals like lions or crocodiles. Dairy farmers in Chateauguay Valley, Quebec told me about their grand-fathers driving milk tanker trucks across on the frozen St. Lawrence River. Pacific islanders are losing their land to live on as the sea level rises. Cod stock collapsed thirty years ago in Newfoundland. Bisons that carpeted Prairies once were wiped out. Chimpanzees, elephants, rhinoceros, salmons, song birds, and whales are disappearing. Last year in Japan for the first time I heard stories like a mother watched her son dropped dead by heat stroke in the middle of a soccer game. An old woman died in sleep because she ignored the advise not to set the air conditioner on timer. A/C stopped on time and she died of heat.

But none of those facts seem to scare sceptics. They say, “It’s cyclical.” When a frog is in a pot of water getting warmer, it stays in comfort until it’s cooked in the boiling hot water. I am sure Mosasaurus did not realize they were killing themselves by enjoying their supremacy eating everything in sight. We too think being dominant is a good thing. Creating expanding economy is the purpose of life. We in the North enjoy warmer summers like the frog in a pot of warming water. Before long we may need to stop Americans escaping more frequent and violent hurricanes and wild fires. Some will say, “It’s cyclical; it comes and goes.” You mean other species like cockroaches will take over when humans are long gone?