The irony wasn’t lost on me. I had a good laugh at myself as I realized I was frustrated with the Bible and complaining because God was too merciful. “If He would just follow the law, my life would be a whole lot simpler.” True enough, dead is a whole lot simpler than alive. I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, I will show mercy to whom I will show mercy God said to Moses after giving the law at Mount Sinai. I had certainly seen the verse. I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion Paul reiterated in his letter to the Romans. I had read that one, too. But it seemed so arbitrary and unfair I had blipped it. I wanted to think of God as good not evil, and righteousness meant obeying the law. Didn’t it?
It was another crack in the shell my contract with God had become. I experimented briefly with calling these events “consequences,” rather than punishments. But “consequences” seemed to imply more universality than I believe to be the case here. This particular concatenation of events is uniquely and personally David’s life. So I called it “David’s personal karma from the hand of Jesus.”
David’s personal karma from the hand of Jesus
|You have killed him [Uriah] with the sword of the Ammonites.
2 Samuel 12:9 (NET)
|So now the sword will never depart from your house.
2 Samuel 12:10 (NET)
|For [Because] you have despised me by taking the wife of Uriah the Hittite as your own!
2 Samuel 12:10 (NET)
|This is what the Lord says: “I am about to bring disaster on you from inside your own household! Right before your eyes I will take your wives and hand them over to your companion. He will have sexual relations with your wives in broad daylight! Although you have acted in secret, I will do this thing before all Israel, and in broad daylight.”
2 Samuel 12:11,12
|…because you have treated the Lord with such contempt in this matter…
2 Samuel 12:14 (NET)
|…the son who has been born to you will certainly die.
2 Samuel 12:14 (NET)
This karma had something to do with David’s sin, obviously, but it also had something to do with God’s forgiveness. I can’t actually recall how soon I began to wonder if it had something to do with “all things working together for good” and making David’s “sins as white as snow” as well.
If David’s child didn’t die as a punishment, why did he die? I began to ponder. Come on, I argued with myself, a child contracted a fatal disease and died three thousand years before the advent of modern medicine. What’s the big deal? I agree with that statement, believe it or not.
I was born in the middle of the last century. I was as thoroughly socialized in this age of medical advancement as anyone. I expect this medical advance to continue without foreseeable end. I don’t take The Lord struck the child that Uriah’s wife had borne to David, and the child became very ill literally. I assume this is an ancient manner of speaking, that the Lord’s actual action was inaction, not protecting this particular child at this particular time from infection, or not healing this particular child after infection. I don’t believe that every child’s death is as theologically meaningful as this particular child’s death. Nor do I believe that this child’s death is a statistically random event mistakenly imbued with theological significance. The prophetic pairing of this child’s death with David’s contempt for Jesus infuses it with significance. And that significance is what I’m trying to understand here.
One more thing, the Lord Jesus/Yahweh, whether by action or inaction, has taken full responsibility for this child’s death: The Lord struck the child. I realize it is more customary to argue that God’s hand was forced because David had treated the Lord with such contempt. I’ve probably argued this way myself. But it seems to me now that any attempt to exonerate God by limiting Him, saying He was backed into a corner, or his hand was forced by some circumstance, is simply not to know Him. And I am always mindful now of what happened when Jesus took responsibility for Peter’s denial.
One thought occurred to me early on: Perhaps the Lord Jesus didn’t want David to have the blessing and benefit of a son by such ill-gotten means as adultery and murder. The Psalm I took as my point of departure is actually credited to Solomon (Psalm 127:3-5 NET):
Yes, sons are a gift from the Lord, the fruit of the womb is a reward. Sons born during one’s youth are like arrows in a warrior’s hand. How blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them! They will not be put to shame when they confront enemies at the city gate.
Though the pen was Solomon’s the thought here seems to me to be David’s. First, the warrior language seems more like David than Solomon. Second, my own, “yeah, right” response to this Psalm the first time I read it, informs me that a man is not likely to feel this way about his sons unless he has first been treated this way by his father.
My father advised me to watch out for women. They would try to trap and trick me into raising their children. At school I was learning other things about the evils of children. Children had real value in the past, helping out on the farm or in the family business. But during my childhood, though it may have been somewhat true for rich business owners, for most working-class families children were an unnecessary expense, a meaningless burden and a general nuisance to have around. Besides all this the population bomb defined the social and political climate of my upbringing. We were all going to die because there were just too many of us already. Children were not a blessing, but a curse, the punishment for sex.
As I became an atheist I thought I was being logical and consistently rational. As I turned again to a semblance of faith in God I thought I was being logical and consistently rational (though I was a bit concerned as I devoured the Bible that I was “swallowing all this religious stuff hook, line and sinker”). I assumed that I could not have been truly rational in both instances unless there was some fatal flaw in logic itself. The binary nature of logic seemed like the culprit to me.
Its insufficiency is fairly obvious in law: “Have you stopped beating your wife? Answer yes or no.” But an axiom of more conventional logic—either a statement or its negation is true—seemed just as flawed. If one has any affection for truth, is it possible to believe one can know it by adding the word “not” to an obvious falsehood? If I negate the word of Satan, the father of lies, do I then possess the word of God? I believe it? That settles it?
That kind of instinctual argument doesn’t mean much in logic. But the best I could conjure was the statement: Jackie must eat her vegetables. There is a world of potential truths between Jackie must eat her vegetables and the negation of that statement: Jackie must not eat her vegetables. Jackie might spit up her vegetables. Jackie might fling her vegetables against the wall. Jackie might dump the bowl of vegetables on her head.
Of course the logician would counter with the formal: It is not the case that Jackie must eat her vegetables. Still, I hoped that even the most hardboiled logician might concede that he was resorting to this formalism simply to maintain the truth of the very axiom in question—either a statement or its negation is true. I began to suspect that the two choices, true and false, were insufficient to account for reality. Reality was tripartite in nature—three not two. I began to collect quotations for my magnum philosophical opus “The Tripartite Rationality Index.”
Also, to counter the “hook, line and sinker” effect of reading the Bible, I began to search for ballast to keep me honest. I started with Why I am not a Christian by Bertrand Russell, but he didn’t seem to know much about the Bible. Russell did introduce me, however, to Nietzsche.
I quit my job. It was no great sacrifice. I hated that job. I got a part time job, read Nietzsche, the Bible and everything else I could get my hands on, and collected notes for “The Tripartite Rationality Index.”
Finally, the day came. I sat on the floor in my apartment, arranging and rearranging my note cards in various relationships. I said to myself, “You haven’t written a word yet. It’s time to put up or shut up. What is the third thing? Describe it.” I sat there all afternoon trying—ever more clearly—to define the third thing. In the end I couldn’t distinguish my clearest description from faith. I picked up my notes, put them away, and enrolled in college for the second time in my life.
One thing was gained from my reinvention of the wheel. Before that afternoon the opposition of faith and reason was deeply ingrained in me. No matter what I thought or said, I believed at the very core of my being that faith was opposed to reason as reason was opposed to faith. After that afternoon, I believed at the very core of my being that faith and reason were joined in a virtually eternal pas de deux, or dance for two, swirling and twirling, tracing out ever more complex arabesques, their patterns as individual and unique as the content of the faiths that started, and the individual application of reasons that sustained, their dance.
It was in college this second time, in a Geography class, where I first heard of The Social Construction of Reality by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann. I wanted to read it. I went to the Library immediately after class. I intended to refute it. I couldn’t. I don’t intend to endorse every aspect of Berger’s and Luckmann’s thesis. I’m not sure I understood every aspect of it. But that taken for granted knowledge—this is the way the world works, this is the way things are done—is a social construct handed down from generation to generation, locale to locale, family to family, even guild or occupation or virtual community to guild, occupation or virtual community. It is deeply internalized by all recipients, believed without question, twisted, bent, nudged and deformed by all manner of individual quirks, tastes and idiosyncrasies, until it no longer delivers the goods it was intended to deliver. And on that last point, Berger and Luckmann may have been overly optimistic.
And though my conservative, evangelical, fundamental Christian upbringing made me desirous to argue that reality is not—and cannot be—socially constructed, it was my socialization in that community that made me most aware that the knowledge of reality is, in fact, socially constructed. I had witnessed how alarmed and concerned my elders were any time they heard or read anything contrary to the laws of God revealed in the Bible. They couldn’t very well deny the social construction of reality when they spent their lives trying to halt or reverse it (at very least, they complained about it) because it proceeded without reference to God, Christ or the Bible.
No, it’s not what I had meant by reality; it’s not what I had hoped for reality. But I was beginning to see that this knowledge of reality mediated my experience of reality. And the knowledge of reality is socially constructed by parents and teachers and legislators and thinkers and writers and pundits and poets and entertainers and all manner of people, even theologians, priests and preachers.