Tag Archives: revelation

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.

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Ya Gotta Believe — Something (Part 2)

The most familiar statement of Jewish belief is the section of prayer we call the Sh’ma and its Blessings. The Sh’ma affirms the absolute oneness of God. But most major religions affirm monotheism, so accompanying the Sh’ma are three surrounding blessings that delineate the nature of this one God whom Jews affirm. We believe in a God who a) creates all things, b) reveals Torah to Israel, and c) promises redemption.

So far so good. But here’s the problem. The minute we make those statements, we are in danger of evoking an image of some old man who creates the universe the way Geppetto created Pinocchio; who dictated Torah to Moses the way Donald Trump instructs his executive assistant to “take a letter”; and a military genius who foiled the Egyptians at the Red Sea the way the Duke of Wellington beat Napoleon at Waterloo.

These are exactly the “humanized” versions of God that most moderns reject as childish. Is God some super combination of Geppetto, Trump and Wellington? Is creation like Pinocchio? The Torah like an executive memo? And the Red Sea like Waterloo?

Of course not. What we have is a liturgical set of metaphors for God, the rabbinic attempt to envision God in a way that would stretch people’s imagination. Ever since then, Jews have struggled with these metaphors, making them over into new ones of their own, if need be, so as to express the inexpressible essence of the Divine.

The best-known modern effort to do so avoids saying anything about God at all. Instead it names the processes in which God seems here to be engaged. God, we have been taught to say, is a God of creation, revelation, and redemption.

Again, so far so good. But literalists then try to translate process back into person. God, they conclude, is a creator, revealer and redeemer — which puts us back at square one, likening God to Geppetto, Trump and Wellington again. Besides, creation, revelation and redemption do not resonate for us the way they did for the nineteenth-century philosophers who came up with them. No one these days is likely to encounter a discussion on any one of them.

If we are to believe in anything sustainable, we require more up-to-date metaphors that capture best this three-fold insistence on creation, revelation and redemption; which are, therefore, equally true to the original intent of the prayers; but which speak to our time. I suggest a metaphor that combines time, space and history.

What astounds about the universe is the aesthetic and scientific miracle by which the finely-tuned network of natural law accords so beautifully with mathematics. For modern Jews, therefore, the doctrine of creation is best translated as the affirmation that the universe has pattern. It runs by an amazingly small set of universal laws that never ever fail.

Revelation describes our faith that this cosmic order is not without human purpose. We humans can matter in a grand scheme of which we know almost nothing but into which we have been thrust.

Redemption is the realization that over the long run, purpose within pattern gives us the right to hope.

Pattern, purpose and hope are the contemporary equivalents of creation, revelation and redemption. They sustain us on the tiny bridge of time called history.

If the age of the universe were a line in space equal to the distance from New York to Los Angeles, Jewish history since Abraham and Sarah would cover only ten feet, and human existence, prehistory and all, would encompass only part of a single span of the Golden Gate or George Washington Bridge. The Holocaust, therefore, in all its unspeakable horror, is insufficient to shatter optimism. The State of Israel is a similar, albeit positive, tiny step in time, an outpost of hope we must defend, but hardly a sign of imminent messianic victory, as some extremists imagine. Life is lived in the narrowness of bridge spans. Faith is the insistence that the bridge goes somewhere, connecting past and future in a present that has meaning.

For the bridge is not without direction. Creation pulses forward toward ever-increasing freedom. If God is the power behind universal pattern, the guarantor of purpose and the ground for hope, we can say, in short, that God (as it were) wants human freedom; has designed a universe that invites it; and summons Jews to champion it. The Jewish People’s moral purpose is to tell our story of servitude and freedom; to act it out in ritual that revives our vision and steels our nerve; and then, in all we do, to demonstrate our faith in freedom as the redemptive end of history.