Sunday, August 3, 2008
A Day Trip Thought Experiment
I love Duluth. Gateway to the world's largest lake (by surface area) and the famed "North Shore" of Minnesota. Home to the longest freshwater stretch of beach on Earth. Scene of both human and natural activities on a Titanic scale, with much of the city forming a huge amphitheater around the harbor, as if the landscape had contrived to say, "Look at me and be amazed!" And on a more personal note, searching the shore for its best skipping stones and flinging them out onto the water in my lifelong quest to turn rock skipping into an art form--well, for me leisure activities don't get any better than that. I'm a kid among kids with my family there.
How, then, did it come to pass that Duluth took second place to the drive there yesterday? Simple. I was delighted beyond expressing to have had such an engaging and intelligent conversation with my family on the way up. The conversation culminated in a thought experiment about, of all things, the first Christian martyrdom. (I know, it's a bit weird to describe a discussion about that as delightful beyond expression--but the source of the delight was to have a great discussion with my family.) To the thought experiment.
Imagine being there with Stephen calling out that he sees "the heavens opened, and the Son of man sitting at the right hand of God"? (Acts 7:56--And just pretend that Stephen and the other First Century Jewish people around you are speaking English.) The context of Stephen's claim is that he had been appointed a leader in the early Church, became well known for confounding those he argued with in public about the Church's message, and had that very thing get him arrested and accused of blasphemy.
Up to this point his story parallels the passion story. But before his accusers--instead of remaining silent like a lamb about to be slaughtered, as with the gospel portrayal of Jesus--Stephen takes the opposite tack. At length he recounts examples from Hebrew Scripture where the Jewish people did not listen to the prophetic voice of those who spoke for God.
Conceptually, Stephen's defense makes great sense. If God's people have failed so many times in the past to understand the plain will of God, perhaps those who have brought the charges against him for blasphemy are doing the same. Sounds good, in the abstract. But in the concrete situation of facing people accusing him of blasphemy, accusing them in return of enacting one more instance in a long line of corrupt and incompetent judgments, well, that's a bit like throwing a bomb on a hot fire.
And it went off. That is, Stephen got stoned to death and "on that day a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem; and they were all scattered..." (Acts 8:1)
In discussing this scene we noted a complete lack of trust on both sides paired with emotionally charged, contradictory points of view. One side viewed the other as a blaspheming purveyor of lies while the other side in turn viewed its opponent as an incompetent, corrupt judges about the charge in question. If you are wondering where the cooler heads were in this matter, apparently there were none.
This story got me thinking, because it is my hope to prompt discussion about alternative points of view about religion and philosophy in my posts--the "big ideas" in a phrase borrowed from the Templeton Foundation's series. And it seems that we could set up a dilemma of sorts that would make my hope seem naive. On the one hand there are questions that people care about deeply because they support the values and assumptions that they live by. Those are the big and important and interesting questions. But they are also emotionally charged, potentially explosive even, and it might well be unrealistic to expect a cordial, enlightening "conversation" to be had about them. On the other end of the spectrum there is small talk--the topics that fill most of our interaction with other people during the course of the day. You know, the weather, the local sports teams, the price of gas, and the like.
So we drove we discussed how the dilemma of choosing between big but potentially explosive versus boring but safe conversations might be foiled. And on the way to Duluth we came up with this--helpful, I think--insight: Before asking one of the big questions, one ought to ask whether our conversation partner would mind considering the opposite point of view. If they say no, you have avoided a possible "explosion." If they say yes, you have gained a partner in what will possibly be a great conversation. And that is precisely what my family and I discovered on our way to Duluth, because as we discussed religious points of view we did not agree about everything. Yet we had a wonderful conversation--including thoughts about how credible Stephen's "defense" and his claim to see the Son of man sitting at the right hand of God were.
For my part, if I were at the scene of Stephen's trial, I'd call out, "First ask them whether they are willing to consider your point of view!" And what I'd really like to know is whether the Son of man was shaking his head with incredulity in Stephen's vision. But then again, perhaps my little insight doesn't apply at a blasphemy trial... I do hope that we can avoid that.