If You Please

This weekend was none other than the 25th annual North Carolina Pride. Actually, the event has been going on all week, but it culminated with the Pride Parade on Saturday. I had the opportunity to go once before, and it was a lot of fun and so sunny all my pictures were washed out from the intense sunlight.

Yesterday it rained.

But in this rain, the festivities went on with a crowd as strong as could be, and after the parade I ended up in a lengthy conversation with a visiting Christian who was shouting to all of us that we were sinners and would all go to hell. I hadn’t realized how significant that encounter had been until I reread today’s teaching.

3.13 This was another favorite teaching of his:

When a person’s fellow creatures are pleased with him, God is pleased with him; when a person’s fellow creatures are not pleased with him, God is not pleased with him.

It is one thing, as we have seen, to discuss wisdom and what causes it to endure–whether it is reverence or good deeds or both one and the same–but it’s another to discuss those things that make God pleased with us. Arguably, the only thing that should please God is to do God-pleasing things–but this teaching seems to suggest something entirely different: That it is not God who must be pleased to please God, but our fellow creatures.

That’s the same thing as saying what’s pleasing to God is what’s pleasing to other people.

That’s like saying peer pressure is divine.

I don’t agree with that, and I don’t think many religious people would. We’re taught about the Ten Commandments and a number of the other 603 commandments in the Torah and each of these is given the utmost importance because they are the words of God. Indeed, our Christian friend yesterday–for the sake of conversation, let’s call him Jude–he seemed to agree with this: Because the Bible has a few verses that appear to speak about homosexuality, those who are homosexual must be children of Satan, sinners, and child molesters.

Yes. He did say that.

(As an aside, because I found it interesting, Jude insisted he had not said this, so I made it very clear that even if that is not what he had intended to say, it’s certainly what he implied. I went on to ask him how saying we–gay men–have the potential to molest little boys is any different than saying he has the potential to molest little girls. To this he simply answered that he “acts naturally.” Those of us surrounding him were in such disbelief, already layered upon layers of disbelief, that we could hardly speak in response to this.)

Coupled with today’s teaching, it seems to produce something of a paradox: To Jude, we were the ones displeasing to God, because apparently God’s word is against us, yet because we were Jude’s fellow creatures and to us he was displeasing, he was also displeasing to God. By conjecture, this also means that–in this particular crowd–those who were pleasing to God were the ones who had come for the parade, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender community and all of our many allies in all of our many and varied forms and expressions. Yet if we were the one’s pleasing God in that moment, God’s word–as posited by Jude and his compatriots–was now contradicted–by God himself!

If this teaching wasn’t confusing beforehand, I can’t imagine by now it’s not confusing everyone. I know it’s certainly confusing me, and yet, it brings to mind another conversation I had lately–not at Pride, but in my Political Theory course.

We were talking about happiness. Somewhere between Aristotle, Augustine, and Machiavelli, we began comparing cultures and stating that what’s positive and leads to happiness in one culture almost certainly is not the same as what’s positive and leads to happiness in every other culture. Our teacher–at least once or twice a class–would interject just long enough to assert that this concept is relatively recent, that our dear philosophers Aristotle, Augustine, and Machiavelli had no sense whatsoever of cultural relativism.

This teaching? It’s completely cultural relativism.

In a way it’s saying this: What is pleasing to others is pleasing to God, and what is pleasing to others depends on your culture. In the LGBT culture, being a part of the community is pleasing. In Jude’s arguably more restricted culture, what’s pleasing is telling people they’re going to hell and making scenes in front of children.

No matter, God loves all of us, so long as someone else loves us, too.

I don’t like that either. It seems to suggest the only thing good in life is what’s good for you–if what’s good for you is pleasing to others. It seems similar to what I’ve read of Plato and Aristotle, actually. On some level they both assert that happiness and wisdom are completely obtainable in our own lives, and those things that lead to them are the same things that lead others to them as well. For Plato, in his “Analogy of the Cave,” it takes someone leading you out of the cave to gain wisdom, but it takes someone returning to the cave to help others rise from it’s walls. In Aristotle’s Ethics, the act and end of being virtuous is itself a virtue, and through being virtuous, we create a community in which all our needs are met and self-sufficiency is an everyday fact.

Is this what our teaching is trying to tell us?

I don’t think it’s this either.

This past Friday was our second Hillel Shabbat on campus. We have a grad student whose studying different student populations joining us this semester to learn more about the special needs of Jewish students. When we did kiddush and motzi, I explained how these blessings over the wine and bread, respectively, are said in turn, with the challah covered while we bless the wine to keep it from getting embarrassed. Obviously, breaded and baked dough can’t experience anthropomorphic emotions, but the idea is if we can show an inanimate object that’s likely to be chewed inside our stomachs only a few moments later this level of consideration, imagine what kind of consideration we would give those who can feel and think as much as we can.

Similarly, we have to remember the words of another Rabbi, Hillel, who told us the whole of the Torah is to love your neighbor and the rest is commentary. (Einstein once said something very similar, stating, “I want to know God’s thoughts; the rest are details.”) That is, if we are so concerned with pleasing those around us–these fellow creatures that may be other people, or animals, or even plants perhaps–if we are so concerned with being pleasing to those in our community and environment, how much more pleasing must we act before God?

This argument raises a number of problems, however: Are we living to appease others? Are God’s instructions in the Bible invalid? Should we act simply to please another or are we free to decide? I think these questions fall away, however, if we change our focus from what our actions are to the values that fuel them. Two people lobbying congress may very well appear to be doing the same thing, but one may be motivated by the homeless and the poor with the hope of making a better future for others while another could be pushed on by big businesses and corporate leaders looking to fluff up their profits. The actions are identical, but the intent is not.

I think we often confuse action and intent in our day-to-day lives; that’s ultimately a discussion for another day, but a perfect segue to bring us back where we started: To NC Pride and Jude, our angry Christian who insisted we were all going to Hell. I can’t speak on behalf of God (no one can–not even Jude), but I can speak on behalf of my personal belief in God and say with absolute certainly I don’t believe being gay or bi or lesbian, or trans or intersex or anything else, is a bad thing. It is how God created us and how he intends us to live our lives–according to what he has prescribed as natural for each of us.

However, despite our own destinies that dance and diverge all throughout time and space, we each still hold the responsibility to belong to our community: to respect it, to support it, to share in its wealth and happiness. When he show consideration and kindness to others, we cannot wrong God. When we lend a helping hand and do our share in the world, we cannot wrong God. When we act according to his message with love for all, we cannot wrong God. The moment we come together as allies, for whatever cause or issue, the moment we set aside our differences and work for the betterment of the whole, that is the moment when become pleasing before God.

I can’t say if God was pleased or displeased by Jude’s show at the parade, although I can certainly form a number of arguments why I personally believe it was the latter. However, it doesn’t matter how God feels about Jude; that is between them. We can each deal with God–or choose not to–on our own terms and in our own ways, but our fellow creatures do not have that choice, and for our sakes, we should treat them as our neighbors–no matter who or what or how they are–and love them as ourselves. For then, God too will love us.

3 thoughts on “If You Please

  1. It did not seem confusing to me, but I found an answer that, though potentially wrong, is simpler and not paradoxical in the slightest:

    Pleasing another is not merely seen as a receiving act for the other, but a granting act performed by oneself. This would thus mean that what pleases God is acts done to benefit and bring pleasure to another person.

    If you take the stance that he speaks for God, then surely there is a contradiction. When, however, you assume he merely speaks for himself, as I’d tend to assume, he is the one displeasing others, diminishing their joy and pleasure and, with it, displeasing God by not projecting His love for His creation.

    One thing one would have to expand on from a theological point of view is the distinction by directly or indirectly displeasing others, and furthermore establishing whether the intent of the performed act is of significance.

    If he is intending to please God by speaking His word, he is doing no wrong unto God. However, by actively engaging in a displeasing (for the others) act he IS displeasing God.

    This makes sense and is not contradictory IF, and only if, we consider intent (to please God by spreading His word) and his direct target of pleasing (in this case: God) to be the determining factor.

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