Category Archives: religious language

A Realist’s View of Heaven; or Just, “Heaven, Really!”

The universe, we like to imagine, encompasses two categories of reality: the heavenly and the earthly. We know what the earthly is – science has been studying it for centuries. But what, exactly, is the heavenly? The usual explanations are often unenlightening – they just replace one problematic word (heavenly) with others (divine, Godly, spiritual, and so on), leaving us pretty much where we started: wondering if “heavenly” is anything real altogether — anything more, that is, than a wishful figure of speech.

The medieval commentator Ibn Ezra objects to this evasion of clarity. In the portion of Torah called Ha’azinu (Deuteronomy 32) — which Jews read in synagogue this coming week — for example, Moses calls on heaven and earth as witnesses (v. 32:1), and Ibn Ezra disparages interpretations that identify “the heavenly” as angels, or even rain. Yes, the angels must live in heaven and yes, rain comes from on high, but neither term tells us anything about heaven itself. “Actually,” he concludes, “heaven and earth” denote the two categories of “everything that has permanent existence.”

Let’s start there: we have two categories of existence that are permanent: the heavenly and the earthly. What can we add, without lapsing into dubious metaphysics?

The earthly is familiar to us. Over four centuries of scientific analysis has built up massive sets of laws describing it. Unfortunately, these laws are stunningly amoral – they explain the phenomena of nature, but without regard for good and bad, right and wrong. Philosopher John Stuart Mill captured the problem by observing: “Nature impales men… burns them to death… starves them with hunger, freezes them with cold…. A single hurricane destroys the hopes of a season…. All this Nature does with the most supercilious disregard both of mercy and of justice.”

So religion adds a category: the heavenly, something equally real, albeit not amenable to scientific measurement. We should not think of “the heavenly” as a separate realm, however, some actual space somewhere or other. It is just another perspective on the same phenomena that we study with science. It too looks at nature but from the perspective of human empathy, and the consequent demand for mercy and justice.

The earthly perspective of science provides an unsympathetic calculus of how the universe works: how hurricanes happen, for example. The heavenly perspective of empathy evaluates the way that universe affects the lives of those who live in it: not the science of how hurricanes happen, but sympathy for the way a hurricane devastates this ruined farmer or that grieving mother whose child was crushed under a falling tree. “Science and the earthly” measure truth; “empathy and the heavenly” allocate kindness.

The two perspectives coalesce in our concept of life. From a scientific perspective, the various forms of life come and go; Darwinian selection favors continuity of the species, but cares not one whit about any given instance of it. By analogy, sociology or economics, say, can rightly be called “sciences” insofar as they study the laws by which human organizations and the economy operate – without, however, any necessary sympathy for the poor, the sick, and the victimized in the systems that they study. When economists or urban planners actually decide to address these unfortunates, they adopt the perspective of the heavenly.

Thank God for the heavenly perspective that supplements scientific knowledge with kindness. But thank God for scientific understanding too – without it we wouldn’t know how to alleviate the misery that empathy uncovers.

Scholars tell us that the last three portions of the Torah (Deuteronomy 31-34, that is) follow from the portion before them, Nitsavim (Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20), which Jews read in synagogue just two weeks ago (and which Reform Jews read on Yom Kippur as well). There, Moses also summons heaven and earth (v. 30:19), this time to witness the claim that we are given life and death, and the insistence that we choose life. But who wouldn’t choose life? Why remind us about the obvious?

The point must be that in choosing life, we risk choosing only one of the two perspectives on it. We actually need both: the scientific laws on how life works, and the empathic kindness toward the way those laws impact the less fortunate among us.

Quite rightly, Moses calls both heaven and earth as witnesses to history. Either one alone, science without empathy or empathy without science, will ruin us.

Can God’s Mind Change? God’s Second Book (Part 2)

Isn’t it possible for authors to change their minds between books? Even if (as I argued in the last post) both Torah and the universe are products of the same divine author, it does not follow (as I thought it did) that the two books cannot contradict each other. So argues Rabbi Rick Block in a thoughtful note that I greatly appreciate.

Let’s rethink the issue, using a test case, philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the most influential minds of the twentieth century. In 1921, he wrote Tractatus LogicoPhilosophicus, a densely argued study of the logic behind language. Following the school of thought that we call logical positivism, he limited meaningful sentences to statements of fact that are ultimately rooted in evidence from the senses. That excludes religion, ethics, and aesthetics, none of which is open to empirical proof. Statements about God, goodness, and beauty are neither true nor false: they are simply meaningless.

Later, however, his Philosophical Investigations (published posthumously in 1953) seemed to contradict the Tractatus, in that it included religion, ethics and aesthetics as meaningful. Language, he now declared, was like a toolkit, that can be used to do different things: promising, hoping, describing (as in science) and so on. He called each of these things “a game.” The Tractatus described the game of science; but not the games of theology, ethics, and art, which are “meaningless,” perhaps, but only according to the game-rules of science. Investigations pointed out the need to describe the rules for these other games.

The Investigations does not disprove the Tractatus. It just limits its applicability and goes beyond it to include that part of reality for which the Tractatus did not work.

Like Wittgenstein, God too, we may say, has two books: Torah is God’s book of religion; Nature is God’s book of science. They are about different things; they cannot disprove each other, because they operate as different games with different rules of meaning..

Scientific knowledge works in mathematics, the language of Nature, it seems. When we translate those formulae into prose, we get sentences that follow Wittgenstein’s rules in the Tractatus. When we shift to religion, we change the game — and with it, the context in which to understand the sentences. Two sentences that seem to say contradictory things (“God created the heaven and earth,” from the Book of Torah, and “A big bang created time and a universe,” from the Book of Nature) sound like opposites because their syntax is similar. But they may both be right, because they operate in different realms of thought. In that way, they are like Wittgenstein’s two books. They complete, rather than deny, one another.

One more analogy is in order: fiction. Fiction is an art, much like painting, where Monet, for example, can paint several versions of haystacks, all of them equally accurate. A composer of fiction may, similarly, write two novels that contradict each other but be equally true. Insofar as scientific authors write metaphoric explanations of nature’s phenomena, they may do likewise, but when they try actually to frame nature’s laws, they may not make two contradictory claims, without one of them being wrong.

We can liken God’s two books to a nicely boxed set of two volumes, one on science and the other on what we loosely call religion. God’s first book, Torah, is the religious one. It is a work of art, containing such things as fiction, poetry, aphorisms, laws, ethics, values, and a subjective view of Israel’s history. Like any work of art, it regularly attracts new readings. The second book, Nature, is scientific. We change our readings there as well, but contradictory readings of Nature must refute one another, because the Book of Nature (as measured by mathematics) is changeless and, unlike art, a zero-sum game of “true or false.”

I do not mean to say that any reading of Torah is as possible as any other. Some interpretations of art are just wrong — as I said in an earlier blog, Hamlet cannot be a Marxist spoof on Capitalism. Also, ethics, unlike stories, poetry, and such, are absolute, so, like science, cannot admit two absolutely contradictory claims.

But comparing Torah with Nature, we can say that Torah and Nature are God’s two books which cannot refute one another. Like Wittgenstein’s two books, they represent extensions of one another – what we can call a dual extension of God’s mind.

When we look back at great authors, we call it a retrospective. Think of Torah and Nature as God’s retrospective, which we array with awe and reread with care.

Verbal Stretching, Word Rustling, and the Fate of Religion

Words live in fields, where they stretch, grow, and expand with the reach of human inquisitiveness. Take “fishing,” a word some ancestor must have coined many eons back, upon successfully spearing a swimming thing in the water. When fishing became a leisure-time activity instead of a means to procure food, “goin’ fishing” came to mean the blissful inactivity of watching a fishing line bob in the water – fish or no fish on the other end.

The New York Times of June 5 testifies to the freedom with which “fishing” still circulates in its verbal field. A stock broker accused of insider trading proclaims his innocence by calling the investigation “a fishing expedition.” That’s a verbal and a metaphoric stretch, or, at least, it was once. Now it’s too commonplace to count; it is, if anything, a dead metaphor. So too is the idea of “stretch” in “metaphoric stretch,” but “stretch” is a good word, because calling the FBI’s actions “fishing” stretches linguistic use, and, therefore, the imagination, as well as the world itself. The world now comes with potential “catches”: the “little fish” who get thrown back into the street, and the “big fish” whom the little fish help the FBI to hook.

A second article describes the scam by which emails from seemingly reputable corporations, like our banks or employers, request personal information that can be manipulated for identity theft. It’s called “phishing,” another stretch of the imagination, not just conceptually this time, but visually too, because of the clever substitution of “ph” for “f” – like the rock group PHISH.  It turns out also that China has been phishing for American diplomats. This is not just a mass email going out randomly to millions. Its targeted nature earns it the name “spear phishing.” The high profile of the would-be targets may even make it a case of “whaling.”

Words and the world work in tandem. Simply by opening our senses to the changing world around us, we stretch it into more than what it was. Like an animal hide stretched out to dry, this expanding world requires pegs – verbal pegs — to stake out the new territory. It is easier to use old words than to make up new ones, because old ones come with meanings we can borrow. So metaphors become the very best pegs with which we stretch our consciousness of what the world is newly made of.

Words aren’t allowed to roam completely wild, however. Technical language is guarded by linguistic police who fence off the field where the words have grown up and demand they be used properly. Biologists, for example, mean something specific by a virus. Still, viruses attack computers and web messages can go viral; so even technical vocabulary can be hijacked for general use.

It’s a good sign when linguistic rustlers multiply; it means your words are prolific, doing well enough to be desired for the light they can shed on someone else’s corner of the universe. When linguistic rustlers no longer care enough to carry off stray words from their technical holding pens, the words in question may as well be dead.

That seems to be the trouble with religion. Nobody wants to carry its words away captive any more. We still have echoes of when they did: “revelatory finds” once harked back to revelation from Sinai; “redemptive moments” recalled the parting of the Red Sea. But nowadays, the religious verbal police can relax: no one wants our words any more.

Words are also like currency. When no one wants them, their value goes down. Ours is an era of theological currency debasement. Take even the word “God.” People use it all the time, but, God knows, it doesn’t buy the serious attention it used to.

The easy theological answer is for religious personnel to hunker down in their theological verbal fields and continue making sentences to each other about things that no one else cares about. I imagine the alchemists did that at some point or other. Religion too can aspire to becoming alchemy. A better course is to head out into the world, riding our theological verbiage with wild abandon, and showing people how poetically our religious vocabulary can get at the very heart of things. We can even do a little rustling of our own, showing the theological implications of such secular words as “pattern,” “purpose” and “promise” (see “Ya Gotta Believe – Something [Part 2],” May 15, 2011).

The world will go on no matter what, stretched by whatever verbal pegs people find useful. Whether it gets stretched religiously depends on how well the keepers of religious language provide powerful religious metaphors to do the stretching. The alternative is to retire from the task and go fishing.