“Fear not, for I am with you. Be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you. I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.” Isaiah 41:10
This is a particularly disturbing biblical passage for me. The first time I felt bothered by this kind of thinking occurred after reading the poem “Footprints1” for the first time in 2000. The feeling of danger from a reliance on anything which is outside of the physical realm gripped me immediately. Yet, even as I recall that event and write about it now, my mind is taking the other side quickly with questions. What is “The Book of Isaiah?” Is this the metaphorical God or the literal one? So how can I assume that this means what I think it means? Can thoughts be called physical or are they from the Æther? Upon first glance I thought I knew, but now, without answering these questions I don’t know if I should be disturbed or open to meanings outside of the text. Damn. Time to meet the challenge.
We’ll start with the question of what the book is. All historical evidence points towards the book being composed in two different time periods about a few different time periods.2 The evidence also points towards the later part of the book, (ch. 40-66) which is often called “Second Isaiah,” is around two-hundred years older than “First Isaiah.” Which is the status quo for The Bible, and indeed most texts from antiquity could justifiably undergo that type of scrutiny. “Isaiah, the son of Amoz proclaimed his message to Judah and Jerusalem between 742 and 687 BC[E],” while chapters forty through the end refer to the “fall of Babylon (October 29, 539 BC[E]) to the armies of Cyrus, king of Persia, and during the generation following.”
Indeed the two parts (some argue there is even need to consider a “Third Isaiah,” ch. 56-66) seem to have totally different flavors. The first half being prose based, and read much like an autobiography or memoir, and the second half is exalted verse, “[s]upporting Judah’s restoration to Palestine, for which Cyrus is God’s precipitating agent. (44.28)” (822) There is also mention of the Assyrians in the first part of the book, but the latter twenty six chapters “contain no references at all to the Assyrians, but frequently allude to events and conditions in the Babylonian period (605-538 BCE): Jeruselem and the Temple in ruins…the book was thus probably composed more than a century after the lifetime of Isaiah”3 (328)
Now some may think “who cares.” This is a very dangerous line of thought as the “book of Isaiah has played a central role in Christian liturgy and theology. It is sometimes called the ‘Fifth Gospel.” This makes the book one of the most important books of the Old Testament, as “Isaiah is more often quoted in the New Testament than is any other book of the Hebrew Bible apart from Psalms, and has provided the church with much of its most familiar language and imagery.” Indeed, I saw this quote come across, not from a Jewish user, but from the feed from Christian.
Okay, so now we know where “The Book of Isaiah” comes from. The next issue is should we take this literally or is this some kind of metaphor? Well it is easy to say that it doesn’t refer to a metaphorical God. In fact, since Isaiah is technically a prophet, he is privy to some things that most of us will never get to experience such as, “I see the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple./ Above him stood the seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew./ And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” (6.1-3)” Not much guess work in that statement, Isaiah believes he is looking on God. (Here is another contradiction from John 1:18 “No one has ever seen God.”)
So, we have a literal God that Isaiah can see, in a very popular and influential book of the Old Testament, which was written by several different people, well, minimum of two.
The book is a political book as well as theological one, therefore many of the sentiments that are contained within are actually rhetoric and propaganda. Anytime you see that kind of stuff you can go ahead and start sounding the alarm bells. The bottom line is, this book is not meant for us. It isn’t even meant to be a history. It is an old propaganda story, with a newer one attached to it.
For my purposes, all of this is still okay. My concern in this blog series is to look at how theological quotes on the internet, can affect our daily lives. This one, after looking into it, remains in the dangerous category. Some of the reasons it is so dangerous are repeated in my blog posts quite often, so I’ll try to steer clear of those. I will focus on the kind of damage that one can incur if they put the problems on the back of invisible forces rather than facing them head on, in fact, I will attempt to show my readers how much better healing is when one doesn’t crutch-out on metaphysical jargon.
“Think of all the good religion has done.” This is the go-to for any Christian apologist. Any cultist behavior is to be thrown out the window as “not really Christian” no matter the sect being criticized. I have also been told that I am as bad of a fundamentalist as any religious zealot. Really? Nobody can ever point out why they think that is, only accusations when I begin speaking “too” hard.
What is often ignored is how much fact I bring to the table for battling the pathology I see. Even some of the “Buddhists” I know have some of the worst problems with spirituality and mindfulness. How could that be? If they practice regularly it seems the dictum of Buddhism would work that stuff out naturally. Yet, statistics show that most western Buddhists are educated Caucasians.4 Whoa, whoa, and whoa. So the most educated among us practicing one of the most peaceful religions in the world have some of the highest rates of depression and mental issues per capita of any demographic5. This is only correlating data, but the picture it paints shows intelligence and spirituality aren’t helping these people live more fulfilling, healthier lives for themselves and their families.
The evidence for educating a society being one of the most important factors in equality, human rights, and personal liberties is overwhelming though.6 Denmark, which ranks high on the list, is likely the most religious of all the top countries, which by the way are all secular and occupy the top four out of five spots for quality of living. Denmark being the fifth. And really, their largest religious hoopla comes in the form of a cartoon controversy about images in Islam, a decade ago.
A look into the stats further show quite the opposite when spirituality is a state or societal goal.7 There are some exceptions. As well, there are people willing to argue that certain secular countries remain some of the worst places to live or have lived. Russia, right, Russian Orthodox. Nazi Germany, “Gott Mit Uns,” much. Not to mention, Hitler researched every piece of metaphysics he could track down and still lost the war, even while sayiung “God is with us.”
“What about the United States?” you might ask. The United States of America is one of the most religious countries in the world, if not the most religious when one thinks of press, imagery, idiom, etc. Guess what, we aren’t at the top of any list that involves current greatness, fairness, or competence.8 Tons of the worlds money, very spiritual, liberty plus justice for all, and yet I must inquire, “why can’t we solve our problems the way the mostly secular countries can? I think Isaiah 41:10 shows us one of the main reasons.
There can be survival advantage when the brain thinks that something is there but there is no evidence to support it. Early hominids didn’t lose much by running from a tiger that isn’t there, because they managed to have children after their mistake of perception. Therefore, if a person has a false alarm and can continue on with their lives like nothing ever happened the species will not suffer a transmission of bad memes or genetics based on the event. The symptoms are different if your agent detectors go turn on and then stay on to influence behaviors moment to moment.
Take the example I just presented, and run a thought experiment on it, now keep in mind there is no data for this. What kind of life is lead by an early hominid if they always see fake predators in their environment? I admit that there is good data for paranoid thoughts in tribal cultures resulting in shamans and rituals, but here is likely another side to that coin. What if your fellow helping hominid constantly saw imaginary predators all around, running for higher ground every time you were out trying to hunt or collect food? How well would that go?
This thought experiment isn’t really needed, I only wanted my readers to put themselves in that imaginary situation, because to me it sounds horrible and potentially life threatening. The truth is, one just need ask someone who has to depend on someone who suffers from paranoia to find out everything they need to understand.9 These stories are horrible, and some are very hard to hear or read. This seems to address the issue of can thoughts be physical, and the answer is yes, especially when they result in behavior.
Truth be told, when a “meme” like this comes across my computer screen I think of these stories. I think of that day fifteen years ago when I saw “Footprints,” and how even then, I felt appalled that a sentiment like that really exists. Even in my church days those kinds of thoughts weren’t part of church discourse, at least, I don’t remember them. They were absolutely not used in the home at all. My father expected you to mow the lawn, not Jesus.
I admit the feeling of being all alone is one of the most horrible feelings and can lead to real suffering. The work of Brené Brown reveals the power of what happens when we even feel disconnected, let alone when we fear it.10 The fear of failure will lead to discontent causing shame. Not the kind of shame that can healthily turn into guilt and then healing. The kind of shame that keeps people in depressions and can lead them to hurt themselves. The type of shame that I felt when I went to Sunday school and learned “where by we were created sick and commanded to be well. And over us, to supervise this, is installed a celestial dictatorship.” (Christopher Hitchens)
Isaiah 41:10 reminds us of this “celestial dictatorship” where one cannot shower, dress, walk, talk, grow, make mistakes, or anything else without being monitored constantly from the heavens. At least the Greek gods had the capacity to ignore people if they chose. This obsessive father figure reminds me of some of the paranoid fathers from the testimonials written of a few paragraphs ago. The mere concept in peoples minds is indeed poisonous. Imagine that any of the fathers talked about were a flying, invisible man that knew all of everyone’s thoughts. Would you pray to him? Remember his name is Jealous, and he is watching you.
Isaiah 41:10 is the tale of a hallucinating man put forth by several governments to control their people. It has an inspirational tone, but don’t be fooled. The quote is propaganda at best, and pathology at worst.
The vast majority of us have the ability to cope with anything. We are built adaptable to nearly any situation mentally or physically. One of the most powerful books I have ever read is Waking, the story of a paraplegic who teaches yoga to non-handicapped people.11 His story made me realize, I would be an amazing father from a wheelchair or while doing cartwheels. The only help needed is the compassionate hands of friends and loved ones. This invisible, hurtful, angry God can keep his victorious, jealous hands off of my life, my loved ones, and most of all, my daughter. So that we, all of us, can figure our lives out right here and now—today and together.
2. The Oxford Annotated 822-907
3. Coogan, Michael D. “Isaiah, The Book of.” The Oxford Companion to The Bible. Ed. Bruce M. Metzger. New York, Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993. 327-29.
4. Coleman, James William. The New Buddhism: The Western Transformation of an Ancient Tradition. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001. 19-20.
6. Hadden, Kenneth, and Bruce London. “Educating Girls in the Third World.” International Journal of Comparative Sociology 37.1 (1993): 31-46. Print.
10.Brown, Brené. Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. New York, NY: Gotham, 2012.
11. Sanford, Matthew. Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence. Emmaus, PA: Rodale, 2006.