WISDOM FROM THE MOUNTAINTOP
MOSES SEEKS THE DAO
Bruce Epperly and Jay McDaniel
In Jesus, Jazz, and Buddhism we see life as a process of seeking and finding one's dao. This process may take one lifetime or many lifetimes. Your dao is your way of living in the world, your way of interacting with others, your way of understanding yourself, your way of understanding the mystery from which the galaxies emerge. Everyone is seeking his or her dao. The woman on the right is seeking a dao she calls "living in the black." She knows as do we that black is beautiful. In the house of the dao there are many forms of beauty.
We can seek our dao as communities and nations, as ethnic minorities or subcultures. This is what is happening when, in the nineteenth and twentieth chapters of Exodus, the great prophet of Judaism -- Moses -- goes to the mountaintop to receive the Ten Commandments from God. Coming from a tribe of slaves, he represents a minority and a subculture seeking to be a nation. We realize that many of our readers are not familiar with the Ten Commandments and we will have a Jesus, Jazz, Buddhism interpretation of them shortly. But in this article we have a different emphasis.
As he ascends the mountain he hopes that he might discover some guidance and some guidelines from the one who has helped liberate his people from slavery. Let us speak of these guidelines as laws. When we hear the word "law" we often hear the idea of a rule. Some people do not like the word rule. The very idea can feel confining and static, as if it inhibits our freedom.
But rules can also be freeing and life-giving. In the language of Judaism and Christianity, they can be channels of grace. In the language of Jesus, Jazz, and Buddhism, they can be springboards for fresh possibilities. This is how laws often function in the religion of Judaism. They are channels of grace.
There is something ethical in many laws, and there is also something beautiful. Laws are not unlike the rituals of propriety which Chinese call Li. They are patterns for living which, when actualized in concrete situations, add beauty to the world. Even as patterns -- even apart from their actualizations -- they can have a kind of beauty. Consider the rules of writing poetry. We can, if we wish, write free verse, without any discernible structure. And yet, like the father of our columnist Xie Bangxiu, we can also write song poems (GO). These poems have a given structure within which we operate, but which provide a context for creativity that we might not otherwise have. In his way Bangxiu's father is following laws, albeit laws inherited from the Chinese tradition. And these laws, when combined with his own creativity, add beauty tto the world.
As we approach the laws in Exodus, we can think of them as structures within which to live. They are guidelines for living. Possibilities for Dao.
Can Laws Be Unjust?
Some laws -- some guidelines -- are not beautiful at all. Some provide life but some lead to death. Some are just and some are unjust. The latter are but tools for the powerful.
For example, a society can develop laws which restrict the rights of minorities to self-expression, in the name of harmony or stability. This happened in the United States when "laws" permitted African Americans to be enslaved by European Americans; and when, later, such "laws" restricted the rights of African Americans to eat in restaurants with European Americans, or to have the same kind of education, or to vote. The laws were unjust.
Martin Luther King Jr., -- one of the guiding lights for Jesus, Jazz, Buddhism -- resisted them. He felt the calling of what he believed a higher law, the law of a God whose very heart is love and justice, and who has a special affection for slaves and former slaves. He was a Christian, but for him as for all Christians, the wisdom of Christianity originates with a deeper wisdom: the wisdom of the mountaintop discovered by Moses.
The Rule of Law
There is still another problem that can emerge in societies. Their laws can be good; but they can also be ignored. They can be ignored because they are not enforced, or simply because people do not think they are very important. If you go to China today, many scholars of Chinese law will tell you that the problem for China is not that the laws are bad, but rather than people are not accustomed to thinking laws are important. In the language of one Chinese scholar: "What Chinese need today is a sense of the rule of law." Her point was not that people needed to be afraid of punishment, but rather that they need to have respect for laws themselves.
In the Abrahamic traditions, this respect begins with a sense that laws are -- or at least can be -- rooted in a kind of love and justice that transcends the human will-to-power. Laws be derived from Goodness and Goodness transcends human ideas of Goodness. This, too, is an idea important in Jesus, Jazz, and Buddhism. It is the idea that people can believe in Goodness even if they do not believe in God, and that they can try to live from the dao of Goodness.
Atheists for Goodness Sake
There are many people in China today who believe in Goodness even though they may not believe in God. They will say that they are atheists, and by this they mean that they do not believe in a supernatural entity who created the world out of nothing, who intervenes from time to time performing miracles, and whose primary business is to reward certain people and punish others. There are many people in the West who are atheists, too.
In Jesus, Jazz, Buddhism we distinguish between reactionary atheists and spiritually-sensitive atheists. Reactionary atheists are dogmatic about the fact that there are no gods. They are as fundamentalist in their way, as are religious fundamentalists in their way. But spiritually-sensitive atheists are more humble, and they have much in common with the kinds of theism we advocate in JJB, which we often call pan-en-theism.
Our webmaster, Vivian Dong, gives a very vivid sense of this kind of theism in her article on the Chinese film Nanking! Nanking! She shows how people can find God, not simply in the sky above, in the eyes of other people, including and perhaps especially in those who are victimized by others, as were the Chinese in Nanking. She speaks of this God as the "tiny" God. The one who is as close to us as our neighbor, and as vulnerable. (GO)
Is God tiny? Is God non-existent? Is God galactic? Is the very word God just another name for Goodness, albeit with intimations of personality added? We do not think these questions can be settled definitively. To pretend that we have the answers to these questions would be to fall into fundamentalism, whether atheistic or religious. But we do want to suggest that there is wisdom to be gleaned from the Bible when read in its historical context and as literature. In its pages we find many stories of people who were seeking their Dao, as are we all. Consider Moses, whose archetype dwells within each of us as we seek perspective on our lives and life itself.
Moses Seeks his Dao
The mountaintop is the place where we go for inspiration and perspective. Far from the crowds, we can see broad horizons of life and gain wisdom for the journey. Ancient peoples saw mountains as the home of the gods. Zeus and the pantheon of Greek deities lived on Mount Olympus. Jahweh, the God of the Israelites, was identified with wind, wilderness, and mountain. Even today, people speak of heaven above and earth below. From the heights, we can see the broad horizons of our lives.
Moses, the Israelites’ spiritual and political leader, ascends Mount Sinai to encounter the Living God, the Voice and Vision that had guided his people from the beginning of time. The mountain is shrouded in smoke and fire. The divine energy is so intense that no one can ascend but Moses. C.S. Lewis once said that Aslan, his name for Jesus Christ, is not a “tame lion.” Nor is Yahweh tame either. While God is intimate as our breathing, God is also the dynamic energy and love that moves through 125 billion galaxies and any parallel universes that might exist. God’s presence dwarfs the energy of the Big Bang. As German scholar Rudolf Otto asserted, God is mysterious, tremendous, and fascinating.
On the mountaintop, Moses encounters the Holy One of Israel. From his birth, Moses was “chosen” for spiritual and political greatness. While God chooses everyone – and all are gifted – some receive the gifts of spiritual leadership. Some people hear the voices of God and are able to share these voices with others. That was Moses’ calling as the prophet and leader of the people. He spoke for a god for whom issues of economics, politics, and relationship were central to God’s work in the world.
Now, most Bible readers skip the next several chapters, with the exception of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-21) God gives the people rules about diet, economics, clothing, sickness, and religion. God sets boundaries between clean and unclean things. These rules serve to define the Israelites and their relationship to God. For many people, the laws smack of legalism; of strict ordinances that we must follow or else! But, 613 laws of the Torah, attributed to the divine-human encounter at Sinai, can also be described as 613 ways to worship God. Many of these rules also promote good hygiene. Accordingly, following the law becomes a matter of self-affirmation and integrity rather than external judgment. Paul Tillich described the nature of law in three ways:
Heteronomy: laws imposed from the outside.
Autonomy: laws that we choose apart consideration of others, self-willed behaviors.
Theonomy: alignment of our will with God’s will; a divine-human synchronicity.
The Ten Commandments describe the creative laws of our nature. When we are, broadly speaking, in line with the spirit of the laws, we experience ourselves as in synch with God. It is important to recall that the laws of Israel begin with God’s grace: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt.” Following God and living in accordance with divine law is our response to God’s graceful calls in our lives.
The Ten Commandments are About Relationships
In essence, the Ten Commandments are about relationships – first of all, our relationship with God and then our relationships with others. We begin with our relationship with God – God alone is to be worshipped; no human-made thing (idol) should be confused with the divine. No emperor is God; no government official is God; no Chairman of the Board is God. In the spirit of good poetry, God’s name should be invoked with respect and love. God should not be invoked to support our political or economic interests.
Relationships with others are to be characterized by honesty and fidelity. Well-being emerges from contentment with our relationships and possessions. Sabbath-keeping transforms not only our attitudes toward time, but also our physical and spiritual well-being. Far from abstract, these commandments are intended to guide us gracefully through the challenges of day to life in community.
Moses receives wisdom on the mountaintop. His encounter with God transforms his life and gives the Israelites their identity as people whose lives are grounded in their relationship with God and another.
Did Moses Find his Dao?
We cannot say. But we can say that he was right to link the Dao with healthy relationships with others. And we can well understand that, in seeking this Dao, he needed to gain perspective, to leave the world of convention behind and seek guidance from deeper sources. And we can appreciate that, in the seeking, he took as his task -- not simply talking to the mystery within which life unfolds -- but listening to that mystery, with ears wide open. And we can wonder if, by chance, some of the "laws" he was given by the voice he heard might not be relevant to us today, too.
Would it not be good if we, too, learned not to covet, or steal, or kill? Would it not be good if we, too, on certain days of the week and during certain moments of the day, simply rested, without work, in a sabbath spirit? Is it not possible that the Dao of Moses can be our Dao, too, even if we are Atheists, or Chinese, or Christian? Doesn't the wind of the spirit blow freely, in the hearts of all who seek goodness and justice, mercy and beauty? We think so.
Jay McDaniel is editor of JJB.
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, writer, and spiritual guide. He is the author of twenty books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age.