Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Signals of Oddity: Sabbath, 2

Mountain Sunset
Originally uploaded by paynehollow

So, in chapter 1, divine consciousness speaks creation into existence, replacing a formless watery void with sublime Order. We learn that the world is good. Humans are good—the climax of God’s handiwork, the image of divine reality, the only creatures with God-like qualities—reasoning, creative, relational, responsible beings—God’s poetry in a world of beautifully crafted prose.

And the poetry that is humankind finds its voice when it breaks from routine, takes moments to ponder, to wonder in awe, to perceive what is good.

Now, the 2nd story... The Torah’s editors were compiling a collection of religious lore that would unite the north and south, and they knew that southerners had their own creation story. It’s pretty different. It begins with dry desert. A human is created first, not last, and not from a spoken word but out of dirt, before anything else is created. Then come plants, then animals, and birds, and then a woman (poetry again!).

And even though this more ancient story was different, they wisely included this one too. Remember, they weren’t writing a science text or a history text.

Factual consistency is a modern concern belonging to our scientific age, which is why we argue about literalism in these texts and thereby miss their point (and their power).

So why the second story? I think these editors wanted to guard against any self-satisfied conceit the first story might create. Its exalted view of human nature needed some balance. So the second story shows a God scooping up some dirt to form a human. Here, the first human is molded out of mud.

Now there’s an interesting wordplay in this story, at chapter 2, v. 7.
In Hebrew it says, the Lord God formed man (“adam”) out of dirt from the ground (adamah). Adam is made from adamah. Humanity is of the earth. In other words, we are “earth creatures.” That’s how “Adam” should be translated.

The point that comes from the balance between the two stories is that we are indeed unique and god-like—the very image of God—but we are also dust, tied to the earth, terrestrial not heavenly beings, finite, and subject to limits.

THIS IS ANOTHER REASON WE NEED SABBATH. We have forgotten. Sabbath is not only time to take a break, to ponder the beauty of creation and the majesty of a creator, to take stock of our purpose. It also helps us remember our finitude, our earthiness, our limits. In short, Sabbath is the time we set aside to remember that God is God and we are not. And this basic stance of humility is odd, peculiar, weird.

It’s about limits—a word humans have never liked. The rest of this story shows humans rebelling against limits, trying to escape their finitude, trying to build defenses against the fragility that is part of the human condition. We’re OK with the “image of God” part of our nature, but not so keen on the finitude and limits side of things.

Reinhold Niebuhr summarizes our human dilemma well when he says: “We are mortal. That is our fate. We pretend not to be mortal. That is our sin.” So humans eat the fruit of the tree we think will make us divine. God responds in chapter 3 (22-24), they are trying to become divine…

So they’re expelled from the garden. Unwilling to accept mortal limits, their quest for security gets them insecurity. And it gets worse. Soon they’re scheming to “build a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves.” Babel. We build empires, towers, marvels. And we congratulate ourselves for our achievements. It never ends. We never stop. We work and work and work. No time for Sabbath.

The Hebrew writers knew the pattern and imagined a divine response that reflected their warning (11: 6): “This is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.”

In other words, one of the great dangers of the human condition is our tendency to build fortresses of security and power we think will shield us from our limits, satisfy some inner quest, protect us from our mortal frailty and the existential uncertainty that’s always in the back of our minds. Ultimately, these efforts only lead to confusion, insecurity, and dissatisfaction.

So the thrust of the story is that we are finite. Mortal.Tied to the earth. And we’ll find our deepest fulfillment only when we cease the endless striving, accept that we’re not ultimate, and reconnect to what’s real.

And this is the purpose of Sabbath. It critiques a society that believes bank accounts and insurance policies make us secure; it challenges a society that accepts technology as the new reality in which we live and move and have our being. In the world we’ve created, the relentless pace of technological advance seduces us.

The natural environment seems almost secondary. The environment we dwell in is technological —computers and text messages; fully digitized economic, transportation and communication systems; whole mountaintops removed to air condition our homes; whole ocean ecosystems fouled so we can drive to corporate stores to buy industrially-produced food raised from genetically-modified seeds.

In this techno-Babel environment, it’s truly countercultural to acknowledge that we’re not God, that humans are not the source and end of all value, that human creation is not the only creation, that there’s something greater than us. Sabbath gets us in touch with who we are.

The truth is, we really need times of worship to get in touch with “the beyond in the midst of our lives.” Sabbath is when we set aside the routine to nourish an inner life.

The more we’re surrounded by technology, the more pressed for time on an anxious treadmill of work and consumption and bills, the more alientated, the more essential it is to break from our distracted busyness to make reflection and worship a part of our lives...


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