I've been thinking for a couple weeks now about the story of Noah's ark, and trying to find the good in it.
I'm assuming that you know the story: A person creates something, and then sets it up to fail, and then in a fit of hatred at himself for having made something so wretched, he screams at it and tries to destroy it.
No, that's not quite the tone that we're aiming for in Sunday School, so I'll try again.
A father, angry at his children for playing a with a dangerous weapon which he left laying out in their playroom, waits for years and years before he decides to kill all his children for being so naughty. Except for his favorite son, whom he spares.
Dang. I still don't have it quite right. Okay, I'll try to follow the Bible story a little bit more literally.
God is an all powerful, all knowing, and all good spirit who created the world and the people in it. But, once people started thinking for themselves with their own knowledge, God didn't like them much any more. See, people were doing evil things, like murder. So, God decided to kill them all, except for one that he liked, and a few tag-alongs. God killed pretty much all the animals in the world too, even though they hadn't done anything wrong, but he spared a few, by putting them on a big old boat with the lucky elite human survivors. Then, when God was done killing, the people and the animals got off the boat, and proceeded to breed with their siblings. Then God promised not to kill everybody any more, except for exterminating a few cities and few civilizations, and then in Armageddon, but that comes later.
I just can't find the good in this story. Not even if it's a metaphor. What kind of good idea could killing almost all the people on the Earth, including a huge number of children, be a symbol for? Purging ourselves of evil? What kind of purification from evil can be accomplished through an evil act?
What's really bothered me is that I encountered this ancient story of righteous mass murder in a Unitarian Universalist church. I'm not going to identify the particular church, because my intention isn't to make particular people a target of shaming. Still, I don't feel able to restrain myself from writing about what happened in that church, because writing is how I deal with things when they disturb me.
I've been going to this particular Unitarian Universalist church because my wife is religious, and part of being married is establishing a family through loving compromise. Besides that, I've been trying for years to go further than atheism.
I also kind of like the church and the people there. The Unitarian Universalists stand for a lot of great ideas, among those ideas being the lack of any required belief for its members. In spite of being without a required creed for individuals, the Unitarian Universalists nonetheless have a set of seven core principles which its congregations have democratically crafted and voted on as a representation of a Unitarian Universalist ethic:1. The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
I don't see how the ethic inherent in the story of Noah's ark fits with any of these 7 principles. In the story:1. All human beings, except for one, were judged as unworthy even of being spared a terrifying and painful murder.
Yet, two Sundays ago, I was stood up in the pews to sing a Unitarian Universalist hymn with my kids next to me, when I found that another song had been placed in the order of service. It was a song celebrating what God did in the story of Noah's ark.
"Rise and shine
and give God the glory, glory
Children of the Lord.
The Lord said to Noah:
There's gonna be a floody, floody.
The Lord said to Noah:
Theree's gonna be a floody, floody.
Get those children out of the muddy, muddy
Children of the Lord."
Standing next to my kids, watching them listen to and try to sing this song, it struck me that the whole point of the Noah's ark story is that God wanted most children to be left in the muddy, muddy, to run from the waters and then be drowned. This song went through several verses, each one suggesting how glorious it was that God created a flood to kill huge numbers of people and animals. Then, there was a short play of a part of the Noah's ark story up on the stage, and a sermon building on the theme of Noah's ark. How could I explain this to my children? Was I expected to say that it all turned out all right, because there was a dove and a rainbow at the end?
I don't want to get too judgmental, but aren't there worse things than being judgmental - like the idea of drowning huge numbers of people, for example? Yes, I think that the ideas inherent in the story of Noah's ark are not good ones, and I don't think that they're ideas that are worthy of being taught in a Unitarian Universalist church.
I get the impression that many people in my Unitarian Universalist congregation would feel a bit uncomfortable with me saying this. I've seen many people in the church teaching the concept that we need to accept others people's beliefs without judgment, citing the core principles listed above, saying that we need to show acceptance of one another and value the inherent worth and dignity of every person.
Does accepting another person require me to avoid judging their ideas? Can I not acknowledge some inherent worth and dignity of a person and still believe that the ideas that they promote are harmful? I'm seeing in my congregation that issues of what constitutes a responsible search for meaning often are made secondary to issues of acceptance. The values of peace and interdependence within the church seem to make many Unitarian Universalists there disapproving of the rejection of religious ideas.
I see the congregation embracing Huston Smith's assertion that we ought to focus on what's good in other people's religions, and not emphasize the negative aspects when we evaluate their worth. It's not a worthwhile thing, I hear them advise, to get wrapped up in finding fault in other people's beliefs.
So, I've been trying over the last several days not to find fault with the Noah's ark story. I've been trying to find some redeeming aspect of the story - like the idea of God's promise at the end, and what that might symbolize, as some kind of promise of nurturing nonviolence and stewardship of the natural world.
The truth is that I cannot accept the validity of those interpretations of the Noah's ark story, because they completely ignore the core idea of the myth: That killing people is just fine when you judge them to be wicked, and you can exterminate their children and their animals and wreck their homes too. Some may say that ethic of righteous killing doesn't really apply to the story, because God did it, and God is above the morality of humankind. To me, that concept makes the story even worse, because it teaches that people in positions of high power are subject to different moral standards than people who are subject to their power.
In the Noah's ark story, the promise by God after the flood to not kill nearly the entire human race again seems arbitrary. There's no genuine self-judgment in God's decision to be more merciful in the future. The God character just decides to be that way, while retaining the power to change his mind, which he does in some rather non-merciful Old Testament events as well as the New Testament's End Times prophecies of the righteous destruction of the entire world.
The Noah's ark story represents an uncompassionate and unjust religious attitude. It is a religious story, but I don't think it's wise to give it a special exemption from criticism just because it's a part of some peoples' religious traditions.
The truth is that the violent, unjust attitude taught in the story of Noah's Ark isn't just an historical footnote from ancient Israel. It's a strong influence in our present day culture. Politicians and religious leaders continue to use the story of Noah's ark as a justification for extremely ugly statements - like some preachers' declarations that God sent Hurricane Katrina to kill gay people in New Orleans. The righteous violence in the Noah's ark story is also used to justify capital punishment and war.
I don't accept the idea some propose that all religions, or all parts of any particular religion, support the same truth. I see a conflict between the values promoted in the seven principles of Unitarian Univeralism and the values promoted in Noah's ark. So, that's why it's my hope, having thought this through, to speak with the person who organized the service around the theme of Noah's ark. My purpose isn't to make this person feel bad, but I'd like to hear how they think that the Noah's ark story contains a positive ethic and how it fits the vision of Unitarian Universalism. Yes, I'll communicate my negative reaction to the story as well - not because I want to stop someone from following a religious path that they are interested in, but because I think it's important for people to know how their religious ideas affect other people - especially when the effect is negative.
Irregular Times require open minds and vocal mouths.
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