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On Obedience, Bias and Brokeback Mountain

Many years ago, while teaching Brokeback Mountain, I was approached by a student who professed that her religious beliefs obligated her to not read a text and to not participate in discussions that normalized what she – as a devout practicing Christian – considered “sinful behavior.”

I appreciated her raising the issue with me and we talked a long time about it. Her bottom line was that I was basically forcing her to disobey – by actively questioning the judgment of – her God. She wanted me to exempt her from the reading and class discussions and from the assigned paper relating to Brokeback Mountain.

At one point in our discussion I suggested that any God worth godhood could not possibly be threatened by questions from a devout follower who was sincerely only trying to understand the teachings that underlay the divine judgments.

She answered that following God meant not asking those questions. It wasn’t a question of faith but of obedience. God decreed; humans obeyed.

For many reasons I have thought often of that discussion over the years, two of which are presently germane.

First, that conversation made utterly clear to me the degree to which “God” tends to enter our thinking in the form of bias. In order to think about God, you have to actively not think about other things, or only think about them in certain ways. The young woman was intelligent and insightful and yet, on this issue, her intelligence and relative precision of thought literally evaporated. I didn’t see obedience; I saw passivity.

Of course I understood that this happened to people, but I had never observed it so clearly. I had never been called to be in dialogue with it so personally. The upshot was, I realized that being smart was no defense against ignorance, which was terrifying because “being smart” is pretty much the only arrow in my quiver.

We do not know what we do not know and, critically, we do not know what we forgot and forgot we forgot. The memory hole is real. Bias is real.

I began to wonder where in my life I sounded like this young woman. Where did passivity enter? Magical thinking? Unquestioned bias? And how would I know?

It was easy to answer those questions in a casual wordy way – in an intellectual or academic way, which comes easily enough to me – but to actually undertake an investigation that would actually change my thinking and living . . .

That was not so easy.

The second reason that conversation lingered – and lingers – was because the suggestion I made to the young woman (that God was that which by definition demanded inquiry) had ramifications for my own thinking. I often reflect on Exodus, largely because it figures so prominently in Bob Dylan’s excellent song I and I.

I and I
in creation
where one’s nature
neither honors nor forgives

I and I
one said to the other
no man sees my face and lives

Here’s the relevant passage from Exodus 33:20.

“But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.”

[Note there are Rastafarian overtones here as well – “I and I” referring to the conjoinment of self and super-self. I think Dylan’s treatment is primarily Christian, however.]

There are a lot of readings of those lines; in general, my preferred reading is that you can’t actually see God, so it’s folly to even try. And “see” can be extrapolated here – you can’t know God in the sensual way you can know your dog or your friend or a beach or the concept of equality. It just doesn’t work that way; it’s not of the body or of the world. So don’t even bother.

But why did the writer(s) of Exodus frame their directive in such bleak and unconditional terms? Why assign a penalty of death to an activity that has zero chance of success in the first place?

It’s important to remember that the bible was written by men who were educated, acculturated and politicized – and, generally, they were writing for one another. Most of the population couldn’t read and the idea that they someday would read would have been laughed at. The Bible is an anthology that like all anthologies reflects the politics of its editors; the text we read was never the only text or the best text, it was the favored text of those who had the power to force their favor on others. This doesn’t mean there’s no value in the text; it simply means we need to read critically and carefully, aware of the naturally inherent bias.

I suspect the warning was being issued by someone who a) saw God’s face, b) lived and c) decided that what he saw was somehow too great a threat and the only way to minimize the threat and the potential harm was to warn folks on pain of death from trying to look for God.

I mean, whoever wrote those words really really really wanted people to stop a little shy of actually seeing God. They knew you wouldn’t die if you saw God’ face, because they hadn’t died upon seeing God’s face, but something had happened to them upon seeing God’s face, and whatever happened justified the priestly class bringing death into it, the ultimate penalty to persuade the uneducated and unwashed to look the other way.

What was the “something” that happened?

What if, when you finally see the face of God, you realize that there is no God as such? No distant father calling the shots, no first cause setting the universe in motion, no infinite and omniscient mystery-being . . .

What if you discovered that “God” as such was simply the light in which all living occurred, and was given equally to all beings, and didn’t require initiation or penance or tithing or anything?

What if what dies is the idea that there is or ever could be a gap between you and God, you and love, you and absolute joy? What if what dies is the notion that the Kingdom is remote in time and space and thus can actually be enacted here and now?

That would be a big existential threat, both to a human being who had organized their whole life around God-as-separate-causal-being, and to a priest class whose raison d’etre depended on others accepting that the priests know something and have access to something that most people don’t.

One can understand their insecurity of the priests and still set aside the doctrinal nonsense they espoused that God is other than a present love, and the Kingdom other than a present reality presently unobserved.

That is, read Brokeback Mountain (Really! Read it – it is one of the most precise, effective and moving pieces of fiction ever written in English) and question seriously and critically those who claim to act as brokers of God and Love and the Kingdom and question God.

Doing so promotes two questions, which are actually related, and cannot be answered by anyone except our own self (though obviously dialogue and communion with others helps a lot).

1. What do you not know? How will you find out? Who will help?

and

2. Are you ready at last to see the face of God?

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