Barack Obama’s speech yesterday at the Apostolic Church of God in
Some have argued that we are witnessing the waning of power of the “religious” right in American public life. If this is so, it is far more convincing proof of the existence of God than is the banana (see the video below if you don’t know what I’m talking about).
One of the consequences of the (now loosened) evangelical choke hold on the throat of democracy has been the electoral ritual of otherwise dignified public servants abjectly demonstrating the strength of their faith before delighted fundamentalist king-makers. Forgive them, Father, they [knew] not what they [did]. Oops, wrong religious tradition.
Perhaps in response to this sorry situation, a counter trend has emerged over the last generation as Americans been turning inward for religious meaning. Inside and outside of established religious movements, seekers have looked to traditional and untraditional rituals and belief systems fundamentally rooted in the private sphere: the individual, closed-off, personal world of spirituality. Here, meaning is not determined or even mediated by a community or tradition. Just the seeker, seeking alone, free to pursue the pleasures of the search.
Good for the Jews?
I’ve been doing some reading that brushes up against this which-way-did-he-go-boss back and forth. In Midrash Rabbah on this week's portion, God is compared to the white part of the eye – which does not see - and we are compared to the black – which does. The analogy works on the simple level because God is compared to fire, which burns brightly (white), and we, being material and inclined to all kinds of hijinx, are impure and so cannot achieve this pure whiteness. Beyond this, though, the analogy suggests that God is blind without humanity – God has no capacity, according to this midrashic analogy, to see into the material world without us, to see what needs to be done, perhaps, and to manipulate that world with our good deeds and create some kind of tikkun (correction).
This is not the Third Eye of some traditions – a perception of higher consciousness, an intuitive capacity to perceive a world of inner meaning. This is an outward looking, real, actual eye – the kind that we cut into little pieces in high school. An eye that sees, enabling the perceiver to react to and make judgments about the environment within which he or she moves. Here’s the fancy part of the midrash. The perceiver is not us – we are the iris. The perceiver is the Perceiver, who relies on the pupil of humanity to see.
In fact, though, the Perceiver – this is getting weird – relies on humanity as a Pupil, i.e. a student. The iris, which appears black, is not actually black. It appears so because the light that it lets in is absorbed by the inner part of the eye. Our darkness, it turns out, is directly related to our capacity to correctly transmit visual information. That is, our placement in the material world, and therefore our imperfection, is fundamental to our capacity to serve as part of the divine mechanism to bring goodness into the world. Without our imperfections, we would not be placed here, in this world, and God would be left blind.
All of this is to say that our role is fundamentally social. While we look inward for self-understanding and are of course encouraged to contemplate the meaning of our private reality, our essential task is to look outward, into the world. Our role is one of responsibility, which implies an engagement with the social world.
How do we avoid becoming arrogant Theocrats? That’s our challenge, and mine to write about….later.