Monday, October 13, 2008

JW Study Meeting #9

I was at a denominational missions conference on October 11th (WorldFest 2008, to be precise) and so wasn't able to meet with my JW friends then; thus, we agreed upon today as a good alternative, since I'm on fall break. After getting the house tidied up a bit and showering, I decided to begin to jot down some questions I wanted to discuss. As I was continuing to think, the doorbell rang, so I said a quick prayer as I walked to the door.

Only Uriah was there this time; as I found out later, Shem's father passed away a couple days ago. So we began with some assorted chitchat about my cats, about the contemporary Obamessianic craze, about the Clinton family, and so forth. We then agreed to move on from the Trinity topic to other things, such as the next chapter in What Does the Bible Really Teach?, but we didn't actually get around to the chapter; we managed instead to occupy well over 90 minutes with just the material I wanted to discuss at the beginning!

I first asked Uriah if he'd had a chance to look into John 20:25. (To remind everyone: I pointed out that Thomas states in that verse that he won't believe unless he sees the prints of the nails - emphasis on the plural - that pierced Jesus' hands. Yet in JW portrayals of the crucifixion, invariably it portrays a single nail fixing both wrists to the 'torture stake', between Jesus' head and the INRI sign.) He said that he'd looked for about 15 minutes or so, but then had forgotten all about it, so he said that he'd look into it more next time.

For my next topic, I wanted to discuss the issue of the Watchtower Society's authority, so I asked him to clarify again for me what Jehovah's Witnesses believe about the Society. He answered that the Society is the "faithful and discreet slave" appointed by Jesus. Publishing began c. 1880 C.E., and then in 1914, Jesus returned invisibly to choose a religion that was being faithful to Jehovah's requirements. This could have potentially been any group. It was seen that other Christian sects were acting in explicit disobedience to John 13:34-35, since Christians should hardly kill Christians in war. The Bible Students, however, were being faithful to even this command, as well as others. Until around 1919, some of the Bible Students, even among its leadership, misbehaved; they became haughty and political, using resources for themselves. Uriah gave as an example the case of a member in England who was in charge of the Society's presses there; he went apostate and started trying to collect disciples around himself, but was removed. After the purification was completed in 1919, Jesus began to oversee the Society, and so from then onward, the organization as a whole will not be corrupted.

As an example, in 1974, a group of Witnesses began proclaiming that 1975 would be the long-awaited end; the slogan was, "Stay alive 'til '75!" Many even borrowed money against their homes, believing that they'd never have to pay it back since this system of things was concluding so swiftly. Uriah said that the Society never actually said this, but it was actually a rumor that the Society warned against. Still, 1976 came and many of these Witnesses fell away because the end hadn't come.

I asked Uriah about whether Society literature since the coming of Jesus was fully truthful. He replied that everything in Society literature since 1919 was good at the time, but that the light has continually been getting brighter. As an example, he mentioned that just two weeks ago, the Society 'refined' their understanding of the parable of the fishing nets (Matthew 13:47-50). Whereas once the Society reasoned that the net was the message and those caught were the saved, the organization's people, they now realize that just as many of the fish caught are bad and must be thrown away, so even some of those caught won't ultimately make it. As a second example, Uriah said that two years ago or so, the Society refined its understanding of the word "generation" (as in, "this generation shall not pass away"). Once, "this generation" was understood as those who were literally alive in 1914 and shall be alive until the Great Tribulation. Now, Uriah says, the Society understands "this generation" to be any contemporaries of those people. In other words, whereas they once believed this:

(1914) -------------this generation------------- (Tribulation)

they now believe this:

(1914) ------------------------
_____________________-----this generation----- (Tribulation)

I asked about the reasoning for the change, and Uriah said that while he remembered them giving it, he couldn't recall off-hand what it was. However, he said he's gonna try to find me an article from The Watchtower about it.

After we went through that for a while, I asked when the Society came to understand itself as the "faithful and discreet slave". He answered that he believed it to be around 1919, and when I asked if it might've been later, he said that he didn't think so. I then revealed that the reason for me asking this was that I'm currently reading The Harp of God (1921) by Joseph F. Rutherford, and I came across a statement to the effect that his predecessor Charles Russell, and not the Society as a corporate body, was himself the "faithful and wise servant":

Without a doubt Pastor Russell filled the office for which the Lord provided and about which he spoke, and was therefore that wise and faithful servant, ministering to the household of faith meat in due season. Pastor Russell finished his earthly course in 1916. (The Harp of God, p. 239)
This fact--I didn't have the quotation on hand at the time, though--caught Uriah a bit off-guard. He had a slightly confused look on his face and laughed, saying that if Rutherford had said that, then Rutherford was simply wrong. So I asked further about why this statement was there, and he went into a discourse about Russell's ex-wife, who (allegedly) separated from Russell because the latter was too generous with their wealth, while she wanted to retain her prestige; she then purportedly printed things that he would've disagreed with. Of course, this didn't really pertain to a statement from one of Rutherford's books at a time when it should've been clear that Russell was, as a person, not the "faithful and wise servant", and so when I inquired further, Uriah said that there are times when the Society's humans run ahead of what they really know, so a person or group can be wrong and Jesus might let it go for a while so that they can be corrected more gently in his own time. As an example, Uriah mentioned, we had already discussed how Russell believed in a rather bizarre interpretation of the Great Pyramid as a symbol laying out God's plan of salvation; Uriah didn't remember all the details, so I filled in what I could remember. Thus, as the "faithful and discreet slave", the Society is a perfect organization filled with imperfect people.

(Somewhere in all of this--it's out of order in my notes--we discussed how last January, the Society decided to begin publishing two versions of The Watchtower, one regular and one study edition. The reason behind this, Uriah said, was because the study edition could then more directly challenge Jehovah's Witnesses to live up to biblical standards and thus be more frank about various problems, and also so that they could refer to JWs as God's people without offending those who might be receiving The Watchtower for the first time.)

I didn't press too much further on that point about the Society, but Uriah agreed to look up that paragraph in The Harp of God and discuss it further with me next time. I then asked a question about allowable disagreement with statements in contemporary Society literature. The answer was that the allowable amount of disagreement is, well, zero. Jehovah's Witnesses, he says, are never told what to believe, only what the Bible says; those who find things to doubt are told to hang on and pray about it, then to research it in the Bible and wait for God to act. In 1973, he said, the Society first declared tobacco use to be a sin. Everyone was given six months to quit, but some refused and were consequently disfellowshipped. Disfellowshipping, Uriah said, isn't for sinning, but rather for refusing to repent of the sin.

It wasn't entirely clear, but I pressed forward, asking how long the zero-disagreement policy had been in place. He said that it had been so since 1919, he imagines, but with an acknowledgment that people make mistakes. Thus, in the disfellowshipping process, first come a series of reasoned meetings, and the elders then visit annually to ask about the possibility of a return.

Most of the examples that had been used were cases of immorality--Uriah says he thinks that out of about seven million JWs in the world today, around 35,000 are annually disfellowshipped for immoral conduct--and so didn't really touch at the heart of what I was getting at, so I made myself a little clearer by asking him to consider a scenario--I projected it back a few years, since I don't think he thinks it could happen today--where the Society said something that, from today's perspective, is not just "old light" but wrong. (For example, someone might've disagreed with Rutherford's aforementioned statement.) So what would happen in the case of someone disagreeing and being correct in doing so? It was an interesting thought experiment, and Uriah's answer was that if they had Bible principles to back up their belief, there simply wouldn't be consequences for them. Jesus would watch over them and protect them by adjusting the Society's teachings to be more in line with the truth through a dose of new light.

I tried to raise a couple examples. First, I mentioned that I had heard that vaccines used to be prohibited, but Uriah denied that this was ever the case, so perhaps I need to look that up again. I then asked about the use of blood fractions, and his answer seemed fairly satisfactory. Jehovah's Witnesses, as many know, are prohibited from receiving a blood transfusion. However, these days, a serum can be manufactured out of certain blood fractions, and a Witness is allowed to receive such serums if his or her conscience permits it. Uriah showed me his blood card which allows him to list fractions he's willing to accept, or what sort of measures within certain limits can be taken. (Another example of a possibility is an extension of the circulatory system whereby blood is circulated out of the wound through a tube, put through a cleaning process in a machine, and then recirculated through an IV back into the body. Since the process can be viewed, in a sense, as merely extending one's circulatory system without removing the blood in the first place, it's considered allowable.) Uriah used the analogy of a pizza: if pizza were prohibited by God, it might be the case that tomato sauce or cheese would be nonetheless permitted. I inquired as to the change, since I was aware that at one time these fractions were prohibited also, and Uriah answered that this had come about with the advance of technology, such that technology probably had a slight but ultimately less-than-significant lead. And, he said, no one has ever died from not having a blood transfusion; rather, people have died from the lack of some procedure that puts an acceptable fluid into the bloodstream, which may include other substances as well.

We meandered on from here through some other brief topics, and he mentioned that apostates sometimes make charts of how to trip up JWs. Jehovah's Witnesses are not to argue with such people, since Paul directs Christians not even to greet apostates; thus, if put into confrontation with someone armed with that sort of thing, Jehovah's Witnesses frequently lose because they're up against the power of Satan and they're already in disobedience by virtue of having disobeyed the biblical injunction against dealings with apostates. Sounded rather 'convenient' to me.

At some point here, we adjourned, and he handed me the latest issues of The Watchtower and Awake! for reading. I also informed him that next fall I'll probably be studying in Athens, so I'm looking forward to visiting the Areopagus and meeting with Greek JWs (they have their Greek HQ in Maroussi, a suburb of Athens, on Kifissias Avenue). I then followed him out to his car to receive a couple books he'd brought me. There was a brochure called Jehovah's Witnesses: Who Are They? What Do They Believe?, as well as two books: The Greatest Man Who Ever Lived, which is about the life of Jesus, and Revelation--Its Grand Climax At Hand!, which is (obviously) about Revelation. Uriah told me some humorous stories about the 2.5-year book study he'd led with some other JWs on that book, particularly since one of the older women in the group was having some difficulty understanding it. Uriah and I then had a brief discussion about the history of JW interpretation of Revelation, and I mentioned that either Russell or Rutherford had taken a historicist interpretation of the seven churches, seeing the 'angels' as historical figures beginning with Paul and John and then moving through Arius to Luther, Wycliffe, and eventually (lo and behold) to Russell himself. Uriah remarked that it might've been Russell, because folks should've known better by Rutherford's time.

Anyway, Uriah is still trying to get me a copy of "The Word"--Who is He? According to John and also waiting for a copy of Reasoning from the Scriptures for me; he's also now going to get me a copy of Knowledge That Leads to Everlasting Life and hopefully eventually a copy of Jehovah's Witnesses--Proclaimers of God's Kingdom. He also plans to bring me two movies, one about the blood policy and another about the Nazi persecution of JWs. We're planning to meet again on November 1st.