This post is part four of a series on the development of my religious beliefs from childhood in the 1950s and 1960s to the present day. Previous posts:
I was about eight years old when I started to secretly read the Bible. My aim was to discover what I was sure adults knew but kept secret from children. Being ignorant of any scholarly practice, I started at the beginning – Genesis. I already understood that the creation story was a myth, just like the Maori creation myths, and wasn’t supposed to be taken literally.
To my surprise there were two creation myths. This puzzled me. I knew that there had to be a reason for this and each was supposed to have a specific meaning, but I was at a loss to know what those meanings were supposed to be. As I continued to read, it became evident to me that there appeared to be two different Gods. The first was loving and cared very much for his creation. The second was into insistence on man’s blind obedience, and cruel punishment for any disobedience. The second God also interfered not just in the lives of individuals, but also manipulated entire groups of people, often to their detriment.
I compared this to how my parents treated and respected their children and the world around them to the parents of some of my peers, whose parents controlled them with an iron fist, and meted out harsh and inconsistent punishment, and seemed to have little regard for anyone or anything beyond themselves.
A little background: I was brought up in a family where punishment of any sort was virtually unknown, and then it was in the form of restitution or compensation. No matter what our trespass was, we were drawn into a conversation where we learnt why a particular action (or inaction) wasn’t appropriate. Often, this was in a series of questions where we were encouraged to work out for ourselves what it was we did wrong, and what better alternatives we could have taken.
This method of handling transgressions worked, even for one of my siblings who had a tendency to test my parents’ patience whenever he could. In contrast, some of my peers, might learn that something they did was “bad” due to the punishment they received, but might not understand why they were bad. They often had to construct elaborate rules of behaviour to keep on the right side of the parents. Some thought they were intrinsically bad, because that notion was repeatedly reinforced by being told they were bad children. The parallels with some forms of Biblical teachings should be obvious.
Back to the story: I persevered with reading the Bible, on and off, for over a year, always looking for the meaning behind the stories, but generally failing to do so. In hindsight, it’s not surprising that an eight and nine year old boy would fail to comprehend an ancient text full of metaphor, allegories and myth.
What I did gain from the effort was that the only way to reconcile the apparent two natures of God, was to abandon the idea that God was an anthropomorphic being. Looking back on it now, I guess that my understanding of God during the next few years would waver between panentheism and pantheism. I was able to reconcile the experience I had in The day God spoke to me by reasoning that God would appear in a form I could comprehend.
In the next instalment, I’ll cover the period as I entered my teenage years.
29 May, 2015 at 4:35 pm
Now this is a really interesting post Barry. You know I have given some thought to this and have come up with an analogy. When I was a Safety Director for a tanker company that hauled gas, we sometimes put in new rules – if for instance we had an incident that our current rules didn’t cover. We would do training usually with a verbal component , a written component, a video component, and a demonstration component (out in the yard with a tanker)- so we would reach everyone regardless of their best mode of learning. Some were fun – like we practiced putting out a fire with a 3 meter by 2 meter pan full of a diesel/gas mix on fire. That gets the adrenaline running when you are confronted with a 4 meter high flame. Anyway, we trained carefully, then we had a breaking in period, where we gave warnings and explanations, then we enforced sternly – writing up every small violation-, then we backed off and would allow explanations if there was one – or if it was a first offence, even forgiveness. Notice the different modes of enforcement – believe it or not, we found thus paradigm of learning to be the most effective: teach, introduce, enforce hard, forgive.
I also worked as a transportation manger in a warehouse. There were literally acres of steel racking storing full pallets of goods and they were racked 4 high. The pallets could weigh up to 3,500 pounds (about 1,500 Kg). We had 67 electric forklifts, pallet movers, walkies, etc. Occasionally one of the machines would strike and bend the bottom of a rack leg, weakening it. One leg supported the racks on both sides and 1/4 (4 legs under each rack) of the weight – so if all three upper racks were loaded with 1500 kilos, hat’s 4,500 X 2 / 4 = 2,250 kg on each leg. We had strict rules against striking racks and punished everyone that reported. There were literally thousands of legs in a 350,000 sq ft warehouse (so monitoring was not an option). We started getting less and less reports and more and more bent legs. This was due to the fact that it was impossible to tell who had hit a rack after the fact. We pondered that and decided to remove the punishment for reporting as the possible collapse of a rack could easily kill someone- not even including the thousands of dollars of damage. Instead we gave a thank you to everyone who reported. Immediately we started getting all the damage reported and we fixed it as it happened (fixing meant removing the 6 upper pallets in two racks, taking off the cross bars, unbolting the rack legs and installing new – total time about 15 minutes, requiring only a forklift trained mechanic with a wrench and cage (for higher bars) and a new set of legs total cost about $25. Then something odd happened – the amount of bent legs started to decline . After about a year we went from about 8 per week to 2 per month – a level of damage so low it was unheard of in warehouses. Problem fixed. We pondered this surprising result (visiting competitors marveled at this result) and could only come to one conclusion – making the employees admit that they had F**ked up, caused them to accept the responsibility and then work to improve. When they were not reporting, they were not acknowledging their behaviour and hence not fixing it.
And so it occurred to me that by introducing forgiveness, God allowed us to admit our sins and in so doing allowed us to grow. This seems a perfectly logical step after we had been taught the rules and then punished for breaking them. In fact it still works today – for some cases.
Waht is your take on this Barry>
29 May, 2015 at 5:19 pm
Paul, I like your story except the god part.
We have observed in our office that instead of punishment, we reward those who comply. It works well all the time
29 May, 2015 at 6:15 pm
I did write the comment to address Barry’s post makagutu/ I’m not big on religion, but I cannot see how this universe could exist unless there was an intelligent creator – call him/her.it whatever you please. That’s just my own observation.
29 May, 2015 at 6:18 pm
Paul, I have no quarrel with you at all. Don’t take it as such.
29 May, 2015 at 7:03 pm
That’s fine makagutu – I was just explaining where I was coming from. Like I said I am not big on religion , I just see so much organization and integration in this world that I have no choice but to believe there is an intelligent designer.No argument perceived. To each his own beliefs. 😀
29 May, 2015 at 10:49 pm
The concept of God “allowing” us anything is problematic for me, but that aside, I believe I see where you are coming from.
The multinational where I worked for 33 years encouraged us to make mistakes. By that I don’t mean they wanted its employees to be incompetent. In fact just the opposite. The idea was to allow us to take considered risks, so that we could become better than we were. Note the emphasis on “considered”. Recklessness was not tolerated. Making the same mistake twice was also frowned upon and likely to get a severe reprimand. Make the mistake a third time and you’d be lucky to still have a job. It allowed staff to take responsibilities for themselves rather than simply handing things over to someone higher up the level of command and remote from the situation. It worked. The company had a vast resource of talented long term employed engineers who were prepared to think outside the box, and respected the freedom that the company culture gave them.
I think one of the features of the way my parents educated us was that they seldom, if ever, laid out rules. What they taught us was guiding principles, which are more flexible and adaptable than a set of rules. Rules always require exceptions, and then exceptions to the exceptions, and can be followed without thought or considering any factors apart from the rules themselves. Guiding principles, on the other hand, require a level of reasoning, and importantly, an understanding of the spirit behind those principles if they are to work.
29 May, 2015 at 5:20 pm
Hi Barry, this is so interesting. Looking forward to the next installments
30 May, 2015 at 1:31 am
Thanks makagutu. It’s been a long journey to get to where i am now. Looking back on the journey I can see many mileposts I’ve passed. Some, such as these, I’m prepared to make public now. Some I still prefer to keep private.
29 May, 2015 at 9:35 pm
Really enjoying these posts. Your insight into how your parents treated you as kids is particularly useful to me as a tired parent of a baby and three year old who’s lost sight if how to deal with things.
You were clearly a very smart child, I absorbed the odd contradictions in the Bible unquestioningly as a child. I’m looking forward to the next post!
29 May, 2015 at 10:34 pm
Thanks violet. I’m not sure about being smart, but my my struggle to understand the world (identified as autism when I was 60) did give me a unique perspective.
From what I understand, I and my siblings were the second generation to be brought up this way. How my grandparents did it boggles the mind, as my father was one of twelve children, and my mother was one of seven. I tried to bring up my own children similarly, and now my daughter is using the same approach with her kids. It’s not always easy, but I can assure you it’s well worth the effort.
30 May, 2015 at 3:26 am
Sometimes my experiences of God fit the punitive one, sometimes the loving one- and sometimes, the random material universe.
Pingback: being bad | violetwisp
19 Jun, 2015 at 11:26 pm
Barry, although you don’t say it, your insight seems to be that the Bible was written by people, not God. They are basically describing how they perceive authority. Some believe in a God who encourages; some in a God who punishes. You state that you perceived the creation stories to be myths. It seems to me a very small step to perceive the whole exercise as a myth whose primary purpose is to devise a narrative that explains the world and how we should behave.
I wonder if teaching children that authority is not to be questioned leads to a greater need for authority and hence a more literal understanding of the Bible. Teaching children that rules are to be questioned and understood (rather than simply obeyed) might help people to question the rules of civilization and establish their own goals, morals and beliefs. It seems to me that we are moving towards a world where this happens more and more, and that is a good thing. As you mentioned in another post, literal belief in the Bible is diminishing as this unfolds.
20 Jun, 2015 at 1:06 am
As is typical in NZ, I was encouraged to question authority from a young age. I think for most NZers, religion has never been particularly important, and while in the past most Kiwis believed in the existence of God and an afterlife, few would have taken it any further – theology was of no importance.
Yes, I most certainly do believe the Bible was written by mankind. I can accept that it was inspired in the sense that the writers were inspired by their belief in God. It’s full of myth, legend, poetry, metaphors, and rules and regulation applying to an ancient society. I personally don’t find it inspiring, although I know of many who do.
20 Jun, 2015 at 2:46 am
Even as an atheist I can see that some of the words attributed to Jesus are wise. For example, forgiveness seems to me to be a powerful way to live one’s life, and perhaps owes its origins to the New Testament. Much of the rest of it seems to be of little relevance to me.