Thursday, February 4, 2010

Understanding faith & human history

There is a lot of talk about two historical issues:

1. How can the Bible be "accurate" (and the Qur'an) when so many incredible events are documented?

2. Do we as adults, and our children as students, really understand human history (whether of our country or of the world), and related to this question, how can anyone understand genuine history when whoever is in power cooks the books?

Here is the most essential thing to remember and help you to understand how to learn about and correctly perceive history.

When it comes to human history, even the best of history courses, books and curriculum barely convey one percent of the truth of that time. That's correct, you are reading right, even the best of history books, classes, teachers, and even original source material (letters or archaeology of the time for example) do NOT convey 99 percent of the truth, but only 1 percent. Wow, you paranoids are probably saying, who is "hiding the truth," aliens? Ha ha, no, nothing so dire. It is simple human nature that no one can understand the previous generation of humans, say nothing of humans many generations ago. That is because it is increasingly impossible for humans to understand themselves when you live under totally different circumstances.

Here is an easy example, one you can see as a living case study today. When Americans read about the Founding Fathers, for example, you cannot at all comprehend what life was during that time because, just for one example, they had no electricity. The entire world lacked electricity. But it was not "a lack," because they had what they needed to cope, which was fuel and fire. So much of their life day by day, you know, the way people actually lived day to day between glamorous "historical" events was that a lot of people had to keep busy gathering and storing fuel (usually wood) and the means to utilize it (for cooking and heating) when needed. It is impossible to imagine just that one fact of life today.

It is impossible to imagine because even in poor countries that lack electricity for the public (like Haiti, and that is one reason the landscape is so denuded is that every tree that could be burnt for fuel was long ago cut down), people still know electricity exists and also have access to it via places that have it, like refrigeration in stores. You see, when I point out there was NO electricity I mean it, there was no electricity anywhere in human history up until the past one hundred years. You cannot compare even a poor country where most people have no electricity to those times because 1) electricity does exist in the structure around them (main street lights, the grocery stores, other public places such as schools) and 2) in a way, people were "wealthier" in fuel and heat/lighting in times when they had a cycle by which they harvested and stored wood than people today who lack both that cycle AND electricity. So you cannot look at an electricity deprived place like Haiti and say "hmm, it must have been like that during the American Revolution" and during "colonial times." No, it was not like that at all because no electricity was "the normal" and not "the lack."

So you cannot read the historical facts about Thomas Jefferson, for example, no matter how numerous the facts and how accurate they are, and yet have any genuine comprehension of those times because modern humans cannot imagine the human context as it really was. Modern humans look back with two simultaneous errors: glamorizing certain aspects of human life, and demonizing/diminishing the good qualities of that life. Thus one might think that if someone in Haiti suffers due to lack of electricity in their home, that "it must have been like that in colonial times." No, my friends, it was not like that. No household, no matter how poor, suffered in that respect if they had able bodied men and women who gathered, chopped and stored the wood. They lived the life of the times, which was the back breaking work but the satisfaction of having one's sufficient supply of fuel, gathered by one's own family's hands.

I can now list for you all sorts of fuel issues (such as not understanding the horror of whaling without understanding how whale oil relieved so many poor people of back breaking work) that are just a small part of the backdrop of many eras of human history, but I've made my point and don't want to distract. Just the single issue of not understanding (and in fact, when it is mentioned, demonizing or making it look more primitive than it was) how life was totally different when people ALL had to self gather fuel demonstrates to you that understanding Thomas Jefferson, for example, is more than figuring he was rich enough (or had slaves) to light candles when he sat at his desk to write. Everyone was in the same boat: everyone had responsibility to collect fuel for their household, or they suffered and died, and all of humanity has always been organized around the need for fuel (since that is a cornerstone of food and shelter, of course). That was the normal and one cannot jump to the conclusion that those were "worse" times than today, because they "lacked electricity." More to the point, to really "get" history one must understand the normal of the time one is studying in those boring everyday contexts because that shaped everything.

A bigger example is that one cannot understand (just like the mistake of over-whaling) the world busting error of Communism without understanding how the people were actually living at the time. You cannot understand how people in Russia could have made the incredibly stupid error of Communism without understanding how people lived (and suffered) day to day, including the excesses of the Tsars. I'm not going to go into all this but just remind you that people are perfectly able to go from one horribly unjust situation to another opposite and even more unjust situation (remember, Communists threw out God, who is the only Truth that anyone ever really has).

So whenever you read anything from history, whether from one hundred years ago or thousands of years ago, one cannot really understand it at all, despite the accurate "facts," (and those are lacking enough in modern education) without understanding the normal life people led in those times. Without understanding normality of day to day existence, no history is genuinely comprehended, whether of a person, an action, or those times in general. Most of history "is what it is" of millions of people leading normal lives of necessity in those times. The "dramatic" events are always punctuation marks, not the full sentences of those times.

Now, more urgently, to get to understanding how the Bible (and the Qur'an) can be so "accurate" when such marvelous events are recorded there. There are two reasons you can be assured they are accurate, but let us focus on the Bible since that what I will cite from. The first reason is that God knows humans far better than they understand themselves (obviously, since God not only made humans all all life and all the universe, but he knows the answers to all "what if" scenarios as he is the All Knowing) and thus God knows that humans need written Truth as they can barely interpret reality of events they are living at that very time, say nothing of the past. That is why God carved for Moses the Ten Commandments. It's not like people could not memorize ten things, duh. God as All Knowing knew that people can barely record and comprehend their own history from generation to generation. So God gave the first great history lesson in his many talks with Moses, and that became the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. Moses learned about early faith history and the events of God's hand (such as creation) from God, and then had what he learned inscribed. God is therefore, through Moses, both providing the truth of what happened prior to the Exodus and also demonstrating to all people how to record (witness to) human and faith history with accuracy and truth.

The second reason one can rely on the Bible is that things that seem "wrong" or "unlikely" are no longer unlikely if one actually understands the context of the event. I'll give you an obvious example right here.

After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision....Then the Lord led him outside and said, "Look at the heavens and, if you can, count the stars." And he said to him, "So shall your posterity be" (Genesis 15:1, 5).

Now, here is an example where a modern person who is an unbeliever (or weak in faith) can say, "Ha. God promised Abraham that he will have as many descendants as there are stars in the heavens, and that's obviously bogus because there are trillions of stars and there's never been more than a few million Jews. So obviously those Jews wrote this to look important."

Um, slight problem. That's first of all not what God said. The main point is that God promised that Abraham's descendants would be uncountable, and God meant those who believe in God due to their spiritual (Jewish and Christian) lineage to God from Abraham forward.

But here's the history lesson context point I am going to make. "Back then," before the telescope was invented, people did not realize that there are trillions of stars. They thought there was the number of stars that they could see with their own eyes and count, in theory. They did not realize that the Milky Way (the part of our galaxy that we can see like a fuzzy band across the dark sky) is fuzzy because its trillions of stars. People thought stars were just as they were, exceedingly numerous, but all visible in the sky, and thus in theory countable, but too many to have the human time to count and many so faint that they are not clear in vision. So the number of stars meant to people before the telescope was invented, "thousands and thousands and thousands..."

To understand the conversation between Abraham and God, you would have to do this. Walk outside on a clear, dark night where your visibility of the stars is maximized. Imagine God saying that you will have as many descendants as the stars that are right in front of you, in your vision, that you could, in theory, count. You have to forget all the stars that actually exist (outside your vision) and you have to forget that there are many stars that you cannot see, as they are too dim, too distant, and are part of the fuzzy nebulae and galactic clouds. You would nonetheless be wowed and impressed, and have the accuracy of God's message, knowing your descendants will be as numerous as the stars you can see in the sky at that moment and if you had the time that you could count based on your own eyes. THAT was God's point.

You see, God is very precise when speaking to humans. He stoops down to talk, but not at all in a condescending way, in the lingo and frame of reference of people at the time. He speaks their language, but always uplifting, always so they, the humans, better know God. God is not making a promise he cannot keep, which if you misunderstand by using modern knowledge to ruin the analogy God is using, you falsely assume. God did not say "Someday astronomers and computer scientists will be able to look with enhanced vision and know that there are trillions and trillions of uncountable stars and that's how many Jews will descend from you." I mean, duh, could that be any clearer? God took Abraham outside and had him look at the stars that he could see in his sight and understand that his descendants, his FAITH descendants, will be that numerous (as the stars he can actually see with his eyes above the horizon) and uncountable (as the faith and knowledge of God goes on and on and on....)

I hope this has helped!