History and freedom

Nowhere is the Bible’s status as the fountainhead of Western civilization more in evidence than in its conception of time, its invention of history as a purposeful narrative with a beginning and an end. Some of that is in the interpretation rather than the literal content: for example, contrary to the vast majority of translations, Genesis begins with A beginning, not THE beginning. That is, it should read “When God was beginning to create the heavens and the earth . . . ” But this is almost irrelevant if we are interested in the Bible’s cultural influence. In fact, one of the things that makes it still so rich and rewarding a text, even for agnostics like me, is the immense multiplicity of voices one hears as one reads. Impossible to find a passage that has not been freighted with meaning by some faith community or another in the past 2500 years.

The imputation of meaning to Biblical and quasi-Biblical texts is probably a topic I’ll return to frequently in the course of my blogging. Today I am thinking about freedom and authority. Originally, of course, the core of the Bible was simply an ingenious anthology designed to give comfort and guidance to a priestly people in exile; only later did it become – let’s face it – something of an idol. (1) Faced with the nearly unquestionable authority of these ancient writings, what was a religious thinker to do?

The Christians, for 1500 years or so, allowed themselves the freedom of allegorical interpretations. This strategy did lend an air of legitimacy to a wide range of beliefs and propositions, many of them mutually contradictory. The downside was that it tended to vitiate characters and events and deracinate story qua story. The rabbis – probably partly in reaction – rigorously avoided allegory; their main interpretive strategy was to posit a timeless quality for each major event and character. That is to say, any given phrase or incident could be liberated from its immediate context and applied to other, superficially irrelevant situations, according to a continuously elaborated set of interpretative rules. Since the Rabbinical Fathers, like the Christians, assumed perfect internal consistency for the Tanakh as a whole, they could draw an effectively infinite number of lessons from the text simply by connecting discrete passages in new ways. In this way they, too, altered the original narratives to allow for multiple potential beginnings and endings, while preserving the particularity of beings and incidents.

The rabbis permitted themselves an additional freedom that the Church Fathers did not: the power to construct new, authoritative texts. It is interesting, however, that they studiously avoided all narrative in the first and most impenetrable of these, the Mishnah. Historian Donald Harman Akenson (Surpassing Wonder: The Invention of the Bible and the Talmuds, Harcourt, 1998) sensibly suggests that this avoidance stemmed from a heartsickness over the disasters that befell Palestinian Jews in the first several centuries of the Christian era, when the Mishnah was assembled. They were sick to death of the history they and YHWH had co-created.

The rabbis asserted a patriarchal version of vox populi, vox dei. There’s a wonderful story in the Talmud of a rabbi who successfully contended against multiple signs of displeasure form Heaven, including an earthquake, in a dispute over the interpretation of a law. He won by asserting that the Torah (Law, Dharma) is for human beings, and the majority were on his side, whatever God might think! Thus, the Mishnah – the great, lawyerly text upon which the whole grand edifice of Rabbinical Judaism is based – does not claim to derive authority from the written Torah, though Biblical references abound. Instead, it claims the cumulative authority of hundreds of communally sanctioned elders engaged in passionate and intense debate over the course of several centuries. According to Akenson, the Babylonian Talmud (a.k.a. Bavli) makes this freedom from the tyranny of the text explicit, on a few occasions going so far as to reinterpret passages from the Torah to mean essentially the opposite of their apparent meaning! And of course, the real wealth of the Bavli lies in the countless short stories that are introduced to illustrate one point or another. (Pretty much my whole exposure to the thing has been through translations of this Aggadah.) By hook or by crook, within or without the meta-narratives of historians, the real world in all its flawed and multifarious splendor will sneak back in!

But what I am wondering today is whether it makes sense to talk about freedom at all in the context of Jewish and Christian eschatology. This strikes me as the real problem with monotheism, as far as human rights and the self-determination and dignity of all creatures is concerned. Conceptions of the divine can shift (in some circles, have already shifted) to accommodate non-hierarchical and immanentist modes of thinking. But how do we escape from the finality of history, from the apparently arbitrary choice of yes or no, hope or despair? Isn’t the notion of a once-and-for-all judgement inimical to freedom? Can a freedom whose true, realized form inhabits the future alone ever be anything but a mirage? Isn’t it, in fact, like the proverbial carrot suspended forever out of reach, luring the donkey forward? Objectively speaking, isn’t the donkey as much a slave to his desire for the carrot as he is to the master who drives him with a switch?

The atheist has a simple exit strategy, of course. I would suggest, however, that the person of faith might do well to avail herself of much the same strategy! After all, didn’t Meister Eckhart say “For the love of God, get rid of God” and Linji exclaim that “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him”?

To return once more to this weblog’s main theme, that ultimate reality is ultimately recondite: it is not that It has no name, but that Its name must remain hidden until the end of time. What if time may be annihilated through a sudden act of grace? Does it even make sense to hope for such a revelation, given what we have just said about hope? But from long wrestling, the tradition suggests, some kind of grace or deliverance may come.

Recall again the trickster Jacob, journeying home and in fear for his life – walking, for all he knew, straight toward his doom (Genesis 32 and 33). Recall that Esau had been cheated out of his birthright for no good reason: that is to say, only the zero-sum determination that their father Isaac’s blessing could go to one son or the other, but not to both, had made his lying brother the favorite and him the outcast (Genesis 27). In some mysterious way that the text does not spell out (thankfully, for untold generations of exegetes!) Esau’s forgiveness is prepared by the “angel’s” act of grace in granting Jacob a new name and a deeper wisdom. (2)

The obvious anthropological precedent here is the initiation ceremony, the end product of which is a new name and a new man. (3) Enhanced self-knowledge and re-integration into society are the expected corollaries. In this case, Esau recognizes that the former sociopath has been transformed.

I can’t help thinking that the reconciliation between these archetypal warring brothers offers hope for the present-day situation in Palestine: “And Esau said, I have enough, my brother; keep that thou hast unto thyself. And Jacob said, Nay, I pray thee, if now I have found grace in thy sight, then receive my present at my hand: for therefore I have seen thy face, as though I had seen the face of God, and thou wast pleased with me. Take, I pray thee, my blessing that is brought to thee; because God hath dealt graciously with me, and because I have enough. And he urged him, and he took it.” (KJV, Genesis 33:9-11. Italics are of course my own.) Without a spirit of generosity and forgiveness, without a willingness to see God’s face in the adversary, there will never be true freedom for either side. And is it not in fact this sense of limited blessings, of a zero-sum game, that turns reality from a superabundance of “lights and mysteries” into a narrow tunnel leading toward a single, blinding light?

I must confess at this point that I cannot take full credit for the foregoing chain of thought. This whole meditation was sparked by my reading of the following passage from Abraham J. Heschel right before I drank my morning coffee:

“The opposite of freedom is not determinism, but hardness of heart. Freedom supposes openness of heart, of mind, of eye and ear. . . . Freedom is not a natural disposition, but God’s precious gift to man. [I can hear my anarchist compatriots howling already!] Those in whom viciousness becomes second nature, those in whom brutality is linked with haughtiness, forfeit their ability and therefore their right to receive that gift. Hardening of the heart is the suspension of freedom. Sin becomes compulsory and self-destructive. Guilt and punishment become one.” (A. J. Heschel, The Prophets: An Introduction, Harper, 1962, 191.)

Among other things, this offers a neat solution to the theological conundrum of how hell – a place without god – can exist, if god is omnipresent. Illusory as it may ultimately be, it is human beings in the midst of history who manufacture such an absence. I would add that, anywhere nihilistic thinking is allowed to predominate, anywhere that the “nothing more than” mentality holds sway over “nothing less than,” a kind of hell is created. But let’s hear the rest of what Heschel has to say.

“In other words, the ability to understand, to see or hear the divine significance of events, may be granted or withheld from man. One may see great wonders, but remain insensitive.” And drawing upon numerous Biblical examples, Heschel makes the following startling (to those unfamiliar with the via negativa) pronouncement: “It seems that the only cure for willful hardness is to make it absolute. Half callousness, paired with obstinate conceit, seeks no cure. When hardness is complete, it becomes despair, the end of conceit. Out of despair, out of the total inability to believe, prayer bursts forth.” (Ibid., 191-192.)

Heschel goes further and posits that God is not without blame: “The dark fact of callousness, just like the luminous power of understanding, goes back to God who creates light as well as darkness in the heart of man. The weird miracle of callousness, resistance of God, may be due to an obstinacy imposed by God. Punishment and guilt become one.

“While not denying that the people sin of their own free will, there is a subtle awareness of God’s being involved in man’s going astray, an involvement that adds bafflement to injury.
Oh lord, why dost Thou make us err from Thy ways
And harden our heart, so that we fear Thee not?
(Isaiah 63:17)” (Ibid, 192.)

And there, save for some additional quotes from Job (39:16-17) and the rabbinical commentator Kimhi, is where Heschel leaves us: with the bafflement. Theodicy (how God can be good and omnipotent, if evil exists) must remain an unsolvable dilemma, comparable to the existence of samsara in Buddhism.

My favorite approach to the problem is to turn it back on itself. Setting aside the question of how biological existence would be possible if no sentient being ever suffered, imagine a world where bad things simply couldn’t happen to good people. If good were automatically rewarded and evil automatically punished in an obvious way, then freedom would become hollow and meaningless. Good itself would lose all meaning, given the consciousness of an automatic reward. (If someone is being good solely or primarily because they think that will get them into heaven, are they really being good – or just looking out for number one?) The sad thing, I think, is that many, many people – of all faiths and none – would view this as a perfect world! In fact it would entail complete totalitarian madness; the only rational response to such a world would be suicide.

So where is the true freedom of heaven to be sought? My friend Fred Ramsey includes at the bottom of his e-mails the following quote from the great Yoruban-Nigerian drummer Olatunji: “Yesterday is history. Tomorrow, a mystery. And today? Today is a gift. That’s why they call it the present.”

“Ah, purported truth through punning – how simple-minded, how low-brow!” How come? Puns and rhymes and rhythms tell us as much about the way the world works as, say, mathematics. In any case, I think it’s true. Actually, I arrived at a similar spot at the end of a long poem – which, oddly enough, pivoted on a quote from a Yoruba hymn comparing the Creator (Obatala) to a swarm of bees. Trying to sound as vatic as possible, I ended up pouring this thought into a reductionist mold: “The kingdom of heaven is nothing but the world in bloom.” (See the last poem in Capturing the Hive.)

So yes, I believe this much: that we must allow the gift of the present to become fully present, within and without. How we get there, individually and collectively, is another question.

(1) The relentlessly monistic and iconoclastic Sikhs are honest enough to refer to their main religious text as a guru – the Guru Granth – and pay it frequent homage as the one licit object of near-worship. I gather that many Jewish congregations have a similar relationship with scrolls of Torah, and of course for many Christians – especially those of a Pentecostal bent – a physical Bible is far more than just a book. In each case, the text has become a talisman or icon. The terms fetish and idol now seem derogatory, but phenomenologically it’s all the same thing. I fail to see how the supposedly naive belief in a spirit literally inhabiting an image differs from the belief that the sacred may be concentrated anywhere – in mountain, temple, ark or book.

(2) Jacob is far from the only major character in the Bible to wrestle with god, literally or figuratively. Among other examples of note we should consider Abraham’s argument with god at Mamre (Genesis 18:23-33) and – most perilous of all – Zipporah’s defense of Moses against YHWH’s murderous intentions at the inn on the border of Egypt (Exodus 5:24-27). The latter case apparently had to do with the blood-guilt Moses had incurred through his earlier murder on Egyptian soil, which a diety committed to retributive justice would be bound to exact payment for – against what must have been Its own intentions. If this line of interpretation is correct, this is one of the few places in the Bible where something like the Greek notion of universal laws overriding the divine will appears to be invoked.

(3) Or woman, except that women don’t undergo initiation in most societies. The Pueblo Indians generously spin this as a mark of women’s natural superiority – they are already “finished” in some sense that men are not – though I doubt that such a perception has ever had a very wide currency.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

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