The Problem with Miraculous Healing:

leprosy

From a guest writer who’s work I hope to see more of…

For some time, along with two friends Mary and David, I have pondered the problem of spiritual healing. Apart from other types of miracles such as controlling the elements, various types of human inhabitation and incarnation, and transmutation, spiritual healing identifies a flaw in religious belief that I cannot let stand without a few words of deliberate thought. Let me begin with the most flagrant of these irrationalities, that is Leprosy.

The Biblical Law of Leprosy

The following passage is the first law concerning Leprosy. Later accounts in the Old Testament and New Testament have prophets instantly curing Leprosy, or being asked to do so, by waving or laying on of hands. Why this law should ever have a dispensation will not be covered at this time, but make no mistake, the following text is referred to as a “law” (v2).

Lev 14:2 “This shall be the law of the leprous person for the day of his cleansing. He shall be brought to the priest, Lev 14:3 and the priest shall go out of the camp, and the priest shall look. Then, if the case of leprous disease is healed in the leprous person, Lev 14:4 the priest shall command them to take for him who is to be cleansed two live clean birds and cedarwood and scarlet yarn and hyssop. Lev 14:5 And the priest shallow command them to kill one of the birds in an earthenware vessel over fresh water. Lev 14:6 He shall take the live bird with the ´ and the scarlet yarn and the hyssop, and dip them and the live bird in the blood of the bird that was killed over the fresh water. Lev 14:7 And he shall sprinkle it seven times on him who is to be cleansed of the leprous disease. Then he shall pronounce him clean and shall let the living bird go into the open field. Lev 14:8 And he who is to be cleansed shall wash his clothes and shave off all his hair and bathe himself in water, and he shall be clean. And after that he may come into the camp, but live outside his tent seven days. Lev 14:9 And on the seventh day he shall shave off all his hair from his head, his beard, and his eyebrows. He shall shave off all his hair, and then he shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and he shall be clean. Lev 14:10 “And on the eighth day he shall take two male lambs without blemish, and one ewe lamb a year old without blemish, and a grain offering of three tenths of an ephah of fine flour mixed with oil, and one log of oil. Lev 14:11 And the priest who cleanses him shall set the man who is to be cleansed and these things before the LORD, at the entrance of the tent of meeting. Lev 14:12 And the priest shall take one of the male lambs and offer it for a guilt offering, along with the log of oil, and wave them for a wave offering before the LORD. Lev 14:13 And he shall kill the lamb in the place where they kill the sin offering and the burnt offering, in the place of the sanctuary. For the guilt offering, like the sin offering, belongs to the priest; it is most holy. Lev 14:14 The priest shall take some of the blood of the guilt offering, and the priest shall put it on the lobe of the right ear of him who is to be cleansed and on the thumb of his right hand and on the big toe of his right foot. Lev 14:15 Then the priest shall take some of the log of oil and pour it into the palm of his own left hand Lev 14:16 and dip his right finger in the oil that is in his left hand and sprinkle some oil with his finger seven times before the LORD. Lev 14:17 And some of the oil that remains in his hand the priest shall put on the lobe of the right ear of him who is to be cleansed and on the thumb of his right hand and on the big toe of his right foot, on top of the blood of the guilt offering. Lev 14:18 And the rest of the oil that is in the priest’s hand he shall put on the head of him who is to be cleansed. Then the priest shall make atonement for him before the LORD. Lev 14:19 The priest shall offer the sin offering, to make atonement for him who is to be cleansed from his uncleanness. And afterward he shall kill the burnt offering. Lev 14:20 And the priest shall offer the burnt offering and the grain offering on the altar. Thus the priest shall make atonement for him, and he shall be clean.

— ESV —

The first obvious problem with this cottage cure for leprosy is that it presumes some manner of sin has ben committed and that the individual feels or should feel guilt because of it (v14, 18). What is lacking here however is any act or class of acts that causes leprosy. Was it murder that was the vector for leprosy? This cannot be so because enemy armies were not struck with leprosy when killing combatant and noncombatant Israelites. Was it some manner of lust? Not according to the story of David. Was it theft, worship of foreign Gods, or bearing of false witness? If so, we have no record of consistent use of Leprosy as punishment.

Perhaps then God was not required to specify in any way what act or acts would have led a believer or nonbeliever to contract Leprosy. If this was the case however, it was impossible for a devout yet errant follower to know when an act was so iniquitous as to deserve leprosy. This would surely have made the application of leprosy as a punishment for sin capricious and made any priestly advice about how to avoid leprosy foolhardy. Again remember that the above text leaves no room for Leprosy to be caused by any physical means such as parasites, bacteria, prions, and etc. This is necessarily the case, else a sin offering and a guilt offering would not have been universally required.

To be sure, physical ailments were generally seen as such and did not require a visit to a priest and holy intervention. A soldier injured by a sword in war was not required to be healed in any similar manner to Leprosy. Children injured while at play were not presumed to have sinned. Thus what we have as a remainder is the presumption that, since a cause for Leprosy could not be readily identified, some secret factor, sin, must have been the causative agent.

In later stories of Leprosy, we see kings and men of valor hoping for prophets to heal them. Why the Levitical cure was closed to them is a mystery. Certainly a king could have paid the Levitical ransom, and a man of valor, even if not a Jew, could have been healed by a priest, especially if that was the will of God. Thus, once again, the story of Leprosy and its attendant law break down due to lack of consistency.

It is conspicuous by absence that other maladies have no attendant law nor method for priestly intervention. God claims to have struck various individuals deaf, blind, or mute, and yet, it is not so clearly specified how these individuals could ask for spiritual intercession and be guaranteed a return to health. That is, there is no law for the deaf, blind, mute of lame, even when God claims direct responsibility.

The Natural Law of Leprosy

Today, the WHO (World Health Organization) has tracked over 14,000,000 cases of Leprosy that have been cured via drug therapy. The therapy continues to evolve from multi drug treatments to potential single drug courses, and the cure takes many months. However, the cure exists and is being rigorously tracked. The primary hindrance is still shame and ostracism of those who have contracted it along with the difficulty of reaching some infected populations.

The specific cause is Mycobacterium leprae which is carried by Armadillos, some snakes, and other animals. As the name suggests this is a bacteria. It is slow growing and not as contagious as once thought. Children are more susceptible and prolonged exposure is usually required. Now, due to free treatment, Leprosy is under control in 119 of 122 countries with which the WHO is most concerned, and new case reports continue to fall dramatically.

Broadly, there is not much more to say about Leprosy today. It does not take a priestly ransom to cure, and there is no need to speculate about causes. Causes, symptoms, and treatment are well understood.

Further Implications

This will not be the first observation that blood rights exposed the practitioner to potential harmful pathogens during and after each ceremony. This suggests one of two possibilities. Either God was watching while sacrifices were being chosen and was guiding the devote’s hand away from any animal with a harmful microbe, or God cast a permanent and long term miracle over all sacrificial animals to ensure clean sacrifices. Since neither of these seems particularly satisfactory, it is certain that when harmful exposure from a sacrifice occurred, it was ignored or ascribed to another cause. Further, the blood sacrifice is not, by far, the first place where quiet chaining of miracles is necessary to achieve a described miraculous end.

Next, one should ask what the implications were when a priest required a sin or guilt sacrifice where no sin was committed but healing from a disease was required? In the case of Leprosy, no provision was made for Leprosy to be passed from individual to individual, which implies a fundamental difference in Leprosy then and now. If though, Leprosy was ever transmitted from one person to another through natural causes and priest required a sin or guilt sacrifice as payment for the cure, this was dishonest at best. All other explanations are worse.

The worst explanation would have been the priest’s inability to discern what cases were sin cases verses natural causes. Here, the priest was a thief and a charlatan, and the power of God comes into question. After all, the priest is a conduit for God who knows all.

Let us then turn to the general biblical narrative concerning sin. If ever one case of Leprosy or any other malady was ascribed to sin and was indeed caused by anything else, the narrative cannot be trusted. This seems extreme, but the narrative internally claims to be authoritative in this regard. The two following verses constitute adequate proof for this article but a more lengthy discourse can be found in Leviticus chapters four through six.

Exo. 32;33 But the Lord said to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me, I will blot out of my book.

Psa. 51:2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!

— ESV —

At a minimum, if we are to believe that Leprosy has a physical and not spiritual cause, it must be concluded that the results of sin are falsely described. Further, if the consequences cannot be trusted, some doubt exists about the concept of sin itself. This places natural law in contraposition to spiritual healing.

Perhaps as the most compelling and thought provoking problem of spiritual healing, it must be asked why God never passed along the knowledge to cure any human illness? It might be argued successfully that as we work back toward creation, man was less and less capable of performing the technical acts necessary to prepare chemical compounds required for vaccines and treatments. However, as God was preparing man for his spiritual journey, he, God, certainly could have provided consistent instruction in life sciences.

As humankind becomes increasingly more adept at medicine, God and his miracles become more suspect. One solution would have been to partner with man in solving real world problems such as disease, poverty, governance, and etc. and to do so in a clear concise way.

Some have suggested that God has done exactly this through providence. Because the same providence provides for eventual cures and ongoing disease, wealth and poverty, oppression and freedom, it is not possible to rationally depend on providence as proof that God is involved in human affairs in any tangible ongoing way.

Conclusion

From its outset, The Bible misunderstood the nature of physical illness, and because of this lack of understanding, men turned to God, and indeed many Gods, for help. The Psalmist David wrote the following, and there can be no doubt that he was speaking of physical affliction:

Psa.38:1 O Lord, rebuke me not in your anger, nor discipline me in your wrath! 2 For your arrows have sunk into me, and your hand has come down on me. 3 There is no soundness in my flesh because of your indignation; there is no health in my bones because of my sin. 4 For my iniquities have gone over my head; like a heavy burden, they are too heavy for me. 5 My wounds stink and fester because of my foolishness, 6 am utterly bowed down and prostrate; all the day I go about mourning. 7  For my sides are filled with burning, and there is no soundness in my flesh. 8 I am feeble and crushed; I groan because of the tumult of my heart. 9 O Lord, all my longing is before you; my sighing is not hidden from you. 10 My heart throbs; my strength fails me, and the light of my eyes—it also has gone from me. 11 My friends and companions stand aloof from my plague, and my nearest kin stand far off. 12 Those who seek my life lay their snares;    those who seek my hurt speak of ruin and meditate treachery all day long. 13 But I am like a deaf man; I do not hear, like a mute man who does not open his mouth. 14 I have become like a man who does not hear, and in whose mouth are no rebukes. 15 But for you, O Lord, do I wait; it is you, O Lord my God, who will answer. 16 For I said, “Only let them not rejoice over me, who boast against me when my foot slips!” 17 For I am ready to fall, and my pain is ever before me. 18 I confess my iniquity; I am sorry for my sin. 19 But my foes are vigorous, they are mighty, and many are those who hate me wrongfully. 20 Those who render me evil for good accuse me because I follow after good. 21 Do not forsake me, O Lord! O my God, be not far from me! 22 Make haste to help me, O Lord, my salvation!

— ESV —

The Psalmist then and many now still believe that the physical condition can be directly attributed to God. These assignments fail the test of credibility. Disease vectors, personal carelessness, misfortune at another’s hands, and similar circumstances are all that is required to explain the negative aspects of the human condition. Conversely, science, personal responsibility, and kindness from others provides progress, as well as happiness.

Recently, Christians have accepted the position that Leprosy in The Bible was actually a wide variety of skin conditions and not the Leprosy of today. This new position attempts to reconcile the problem of Leprosy described herein. Even, if such reconciliation is possible, it does not obviate the antithetical relationship between God’s predictability and inconsistent application of punishment for sin. In fact, the situation becomes more indecipherable because multiple maladies are applied inconsistently for an unknown collection of sins. That is, if one does not understand what act required punishment and no specific punishment can be assigned to a particular transgression, it is not reasonable to expect understanding.

It should now be clear that Leprosy or any other disease as a product of sin is nonsensical. This requires that the narrative abut sin be disregarded because it claims authority over this subject. Similarly, if a doctor claimed perfect knowledge of a life saving procedure and some subset of patients who underwent the procedure died, the doctor would not be trusted. This is the level of authoritative claim made in The Bible, and consequently, the result is equally necessary.

It is time for change. The change that is needed is this. Quit lining the coffers of the charlatans and the incompetent. Let all hands be turned to that which has demonstrated results that are tangible and reproducible. Let us all turn our minds and our resources to understanding the world in which we live and not some vague misguided approximation peddled by those who believe this life worth disregarding.

— Andrew Knight, Fall 2013 —

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Grief counseling, or state sponsored religion?

UnknownThere is a new, crime fighting program in the state of Alabama. It involves the use of clergy as grief counselors for victims of violent crimes. From AL.com:

The city of Montgomery says its new program that dispatches trained clergy to comfort victims at crime scenes is in an effort to combat violent crime; its purpose is not for “religious promotion or recruitment.”

There are so many things that are obviously wrong with this I find it difficult to narrow it down. I offer you six. And consider yourself lucky I didn’t make it 50:

  1. Unless applied to the criminal, no brand of counseling can deter crime. Imagine the violent criminal who is unconcerned by the medical, first responders, the police, and CSI. But who trembles at the thought of a preacher coming onto the crime scene after the fact. Obviously, there is no such criminal. The best this program can hope to do is combat the emotional effect of violent crimes. But that is not the stated goal.
  2. This program assumes all victims of violent crimes are God believers, and receptive to religious counseling. For those who are not, having a member of the clergy descend upon them with prayerful incantations, and the anointing of oil and holy water, is a second assault.
  3. At an appropriate time, after the body is on the mend, all people who desire the counsel of a minister has only to walk three blocks in any direction, from any location, to stumble upon a church or three. Ministers are always standing by. Furthermore, a person so inclined, likely, already has a personal, clergy critter at her disposal. State sponsored men and women of the cloth are not required
  4. On the religious and philosophical side of things, the god of the clergy counselor is the same god that allowed the crime to happen in the first place. He was there when the crime was first conceived and being planned. He watched the criminal gather the materials for the crime, and drive to the scene without erecting a single roadblock. Why would anyone appeal to that god after the crime has been perpetrated? Perhaps the crime was in keeping with God’s will.
  5. Similarly, if we say that the crime was not God’s will, but he could not interfere with the exercise of free will, why, then, would we call upon him to interfere with the exercise of free will after the fact? Bringing in a representative of God after the fact is to call upon God to miraculously protect the victim from psychological damage that would have been the natural result of the crime. We want God to help this person cope with what has happened. But such action on God’s part would constitute him intervening in the natural process, which is something he was unwilling to do before the crime. What has changed that he would be willing after the fact?
  6. In this situation, what dose the clergy offer that a secular grief counselor could not provide?

A couple more, miscellaneous thoughts: In the conservative South, there are plenty of religious people who do not believe that women should be clergy. Yet, this program cannot discriminate. What of the Fundamentalist who welcomes a minister, but would be offended by a woman in that role? What of the Jew being spiritually tended by a Muslim? There are many who would not accept the counsel of a Mormon.

Also, why not a psychic? Sure we’re just talking about a different kind of nutter. But at least, on the surface, it fits the stated goal. If you want to deter crime, why not employ a nutcase who believes they can pinpoint the location of the criminal? God is not in the crime-solving business. To my knowledge, the clergy are not even claiming that they can catch or deter criminals.

When, exactly, do the preachers enter the scene of the crime? is it after the police check things out, but before the medics take over? It has to be before CSI. But isn’t that problematic?

When it comes right down to it, this has nothing to do with crime fighting. By now, that much should be obvious. This is the kind of policy we get in places where religion is allowed to run amuck. This quote from the linked article is really all you need to know:

American Atheists stated that Montgomery Police Department Chaplain E. Baxter Morris described the program as offering an “evangelistic advantage,” and indicated his desire to share “a word from Christ” with victims of crises.

David Johnson

One Prayer

prayer11

This post is inspired by an overheard conversation, and a conversation had with a friend, who, like me, considers good conversation a blood-sport. Thanks, Kip.

I don’t quite recall the conversation I overheard. Somewhere in it, one person may have said something to the effect that they would keep the other in their prayers. That triggered my musings of the hundreds of thousands of times I have heard sentiments like that over the course of my lifetime. For the first time, It occurred to me to ask why anyone would need someone else to pray for them. That question led to another.:Why would anyone need to pray the same request more than once?

I thought about the countless prayer lists in church bulletins. You can find them in every church, and on many church web pages. It is easy to see that many people are regular fixtures on those lists. I have personally, been on a couple of such lists for periods lasting more than a year. I cannot track the number of prayers that focus, solely, on prayer requests. Those prayers often feature the same people making the same requests.

In almost all cases, both the pray-re and the pray-ee are believers, often, within the same faith system. All are considered children of God. All have God’s ear and undivided attention at all times. By most faith systems, none is more worthy than the other. Why, then, would it ever be necessary for one believer to ask another believer to pray on their behalf?

Compounding the issue is the fact that we do not just seek the unnecessary prayer of one, but of many, as many as we can get to pray for us. It seems, the more, the merrier. Why should our chances of answered prayer be dependent, in any way, by the number of people praying the same prayer?

Of course, the question at the root of this line of inquiry is, why would any prayer ever need to be repeated. Why is it that one person praying for one thing, one time, on her own behalf is not enough? After an hour of debate, My friend and I came up with the only answer that made sense to us both. We pray for the same thing more than once because we do not believe that the first time was sufficient.

If we ask a person to help us to move, and he agrees, we do not go right back and ask him again. We would only revisit that situation if we think he has forgotten, or has backed out. We might ask again if we did not get an answer the first time. He might have to think about it. That may warrant one more attempt at resolution.

None of these situations should apply to God. He either said yes, or no. Asking a second time shouldn’t change his answer as, he is not human that he should change his mind. That is a description from the bible. Look it up. He didn’t forget about your request. He needs no reminders. If he needs more time to think about it, a ridiculous notion, he will get back to you when he has an answer. Again, there is no need to ever repeat the request.

All of this equally applies to requests from multiple people at high frequency. One righteous person praying is enough to file the request, and get priority treatment. Convincing 10, 100, or 1,000,000 righteous people to pray for you does not move the request through the system any faster, nor does it help in gaining the attention of the holy benefactor. 1,000 people making a request 1,000 times a day should be no more efficacious than one, small voice raised one, brief time. Is God a politician who only responds when enough of his constituents complain loud enough? Surely not!

The bible is not very helpful on this matter. It seems to be equally divided between confidence and persistence, as if the two were not mutually exclusive. One who prays with confidence is certain that his prayer will be answered. One who prays persistently is not confident in any one prayer, but hopes to wear God down through dogged determination. You can do one or the other, but not both. The two strategies stand in opposition of each other.

Finally, the strategy of persistence seems to eliminate the possibility that the answer is, no. To be ever persistent is to never take, no, for an answer. It is said that God answers every prayer, but that the answer is often, no. If that is the case, then it does not square with the strategy of praying persistently.

It works like this: You ask for something. God says, no. You ask again. Again, he says, no. A third time, you ask. A third time, the answer is, no. Frustrated, anxious, and a bit desperate, you gather a few of your closest friends, and enlist them in the prayer campaign. Armed with a small army, you send a salvo of requests fired off, as if from a Gatling gun. The answer comes back, no. But it is just the tiniest bit weaker.

Confidence buoyed, we increase the ranks of our prayer warriors, and storm the throne-room of Heaven with our tired, much denied request. At this point, the answer doesn’t even matter. We’ve got our army firing on all cylinders in a 24/7, prayer vigil. We’re gonna get grandma out of that sickbed even if we have to stage a Heavenly coup d’état. God is going to answer our prayer regardless of his will, because we are not taking, no, for an answer. That’s right. We’re persistent… and confident… How does that work again? I’m pretty sure it doesn’t.

There are other problems with the persistence strategy. What is the statute of limitations on prayer? If I request that my three-day flu be heeled, and it finally goes away… after three days, can I claim that as an answered prayer? If I pray, daily, for a drought to end, and it does so after three months, is that an answered prayer?

It gets more ludicrous when the reverse is considered. How long and often should I pray for a promotion before accepting the answer that I am to be content where I am? How many bank loan applications do I need to pray over before accepting that God does not want me to take out a loan? How long should church leaders publicly pray for world peace before accepting conflict as a necessary condition of humanity? When are we supposed to give up, and take, no, for an answer, and when are we supposed to persist?

Before I stopped praying altogether, it was one prayer, or no prayer. I could no longer logically justify the reflexive repetition of a request to a God who already knew what I needed long before I asked. If someone I loved asked me for something that was mine to give, they only ever needed to ask once. If Heaven’s responsiveness could not match my own, then there was no more need to send requisitions to that address.

David Johnson

Beyond Flattering Titles

catholic-priest-shutterstock

Let me not, I pray you, accept any man’s person, neither let me give flattering titles unto man. For I know not to give flattering titles; in so doing my maker would soon take me away. Job 32:21-22

Before diving into this piece, let me just acknowledge up front, that this passage has absolutely nothing to do with using honorifics to address others. From my childhood to this day, the, above, passage has been taken out of context, and abused to support a doctrine that, while good, is unsupported in scripture, particularly, this one.

This is the last of the preamble of a speech by the fourth person who would attempt to diagnose Job’s condition. The speaker, Elihu, was about to lay down some tough love on a man who was not only his senior, but of much higher estate. It was improper for one such as Elihu to address one such as Job in the way Elihu intended. Therefore, Elihu made it clear that he was about to drop some hard truth without regard to Job’s age, titles, or social position. In other words, Elihu was not about to start kissing up to Job. The Message rendered it this way:

And I’m going to say it straight—the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. I was never any good at bootlicking; my Maker would make short work of me if I started in now!”

That said, this was the passage used by the church of my youth, to prove that those who used honorifics to address their preacher, were sinning when doing so. Such an act was clearly a transgression of God’s law. And those who did it were in violation of a most sacred precept. Any church that encouraged, or even allowed such behavior was obviously a false church.

Though I acknowledge that such a teaching does violence to this passage, I still believe that the core of the doctrine is valid. I can think of no such honorific that should be applied to men or women of the cloth, no matter how honorable they may be.

Reverend

Back when I was preaching on a semi-regular basis, I never allowed myself to be called, reverend. I never regarded my self as one to be revered. I have never trusted or respected those who did. Anyone who things they deserved to be revered, top the list of those who never should be regarded so.

I am having a hard time wrapping my mind around the brand of narcissism required to believe one is actually worthy of such honor from other humans. I don’t even feel worthy of such honor when it comes from my dog.

Pastor

I am not a sheep, and have no need of a shepherd. To shepherd a flock is to feed and keep it from danger. Calling another person your shepherd is to suggest that you need someone to feed and watch over you. It also suggests that the person who regards himself your shepherd sees you as a smelly, stupid, weak-willed creature that needs constant tending, and that you need saving from the constant danger of wolves, and marching off cliffs. Thanks.

Rabbi

Potentially least offensive of the four major titles is Rabbi. It just means, teacher, or teacher of Jewish law. Generically speaking, it’s fine. If I style myself as a student of Jewish law, it is only right that someone, or a group of people be considered my teacher. But the word is not used, generically. It is used with religious overtones.

It sets up a pastoral relationship, and implies reverence. There is no since of curriculum and accomplishment. It is a relationship of permanent submission. By now, we should all know the difference between learning from a teacher, and submitting to a higher authority. The Rabbi relationship is on of power and authority, not an exchange of ideas among equals.

Father

I could write a book on this title, alone. But I’m sure someone has already done it. Therefore, I will leave it to a single observation: I have a father. A Catholic child must be the most confused person in the world. God wants to be his father; every priest wants to be his father; and his father wants to be his father. Of the three, his bio-dad is probably the least of his fathers.

Unlike with bio-dad, one never grows up in relationship to his priest father and heavenly father. To those, he stays a child, always needing one to intercede on his behalf to the other. I have a father who’s knee of love and discipline, I have forever outgrown. I am not in the market for another.

Conclusion

In the end, all these titles are the same. They represent our smallness compared to the god we choose to serve. No matter how much we babble about a personal relationship with the Almighty, we intuit that there is so much distance between us, we need someone higher than us, better than us, more connected than us to interface with the big guy on our behalf.

They are less about the men and women on which we bestow such titles, and more about the recognition of our own inadequacy before a god too big for us to face. We dare not go into the Holy of Holies lest we be burned, so we appoint one to do it for us.

For my part, I cannot serve a god that I cannot directly access. If I need to access him through one I revere, then he is too holy for me. If I need a shepherd, he’s too sheltering. If I need a lifetime Rabbi, his law is too complicated. And if I need a third father to reach him, Then he is a sick, creepy bast**d!

David Johnson