This is why you must now know, and fix in your heart, that the Lord is God in the heavens above and on earth below, and that there is no other. You must keep his statutes and commandments which I enjoin on you today, that you and your children after you may prosper, and that you may have long life on the land which the Lord, your God, is giving you forever.Deuteronomy 4: 39 -40
One of the best measures of the state of my psyche is the degree of order in what surrounds me. Now I realize that this is not necessarily true of everyone. For those who tend toward the obsessive-compulsive mode of being the demand for too much order constricts their life possibilities. For many if not most of us, however, the spaciousness of our spirit is reflected in an ordering of the things around us in such a way that we can experience a spacious way of being in time. When my mental and emotional state is somewhat disordered, I tend to incarnate that disorder in the physical spaces that surround me. The “stuff” of everyday living tends to pile up around me and begins to choke off the breath of spirit and creativity in me.
As I write this I experience a growing awareness that many of my reflections this week are circling around the theme of human freedom. In order to be free in the human sense, there must be a certain accepted order. Prior to God’s act of creation there was only chaos, and that primordial chaos is always threatening to engulf us once again. As a gift from God, creation is born from and inheres in a certain principle of order — a covenant of love between Creator and creature. If our lives are not for something, then we become mere elements of the chaos. We cannot freely act, in this case, because our actions have no larger or cosmic meaning.
For me, there are elements of the secular consciousness that hold much promise. Richard Kearney addresses the possibility of a return to God after the restricted Gods of our conventional doctrines have fallen away when he speaks of an “anatheistic” consciousness. I suspect this is what the great theologian Karl Rahner alluded to when he said the the Christian of the future would be a mystic or would not exist at all. To be a Christian after “Christendom” requires a true experience of God. The possibility of the secular attitude lies in its freedom from the confusion of the accidental with the foundational to which every human tradition falls prey over time.
Yet, as we live in increasingly non-traditional cultures, at least in the so-called developed world, we suffer the danger of falling irredeemably into the “chaos.” Much of the growth in the fundamentalisms of both the religious and political spheres is a result of the fear not only of independence and responsibility but of a being thrown into the chaos without any moorings. In the United States, but we see this also in many other places, we find ourselves in a state of populist reaction in which those structures of belief and governance that held us together have disappeared, with no consensus on the horizon of any acceptable new structures. The pervasive emotional state, at least in the political and even ecclesial realms, seems to be anger and rage — perhaps the expression of a deep sadness that reflects our feelings of powerlessness.
Today we read from Deuteronomy of the covenant that God makes with the people of Israel. The faith perspective it describes is that God has created the cosmos as an act of love, a love requiring a reciprocity that is the condition for its very continuation. For the Jewish believer, the very nature of that love is described and commanded in the Torah. Human beings are free to keep the Torah’s statutes and commandments or not, but, if not, then the cosmos will return to chaos. This is true both individually and collectively.
When we live impulsively and not from some deeper and more ordered ground, we are not acting feely. This is what Jesus teaches in today’s gospel: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16: 24-5) We do not have life for ourselves alone. We can only know our life and its purpose in submission to the way of Jesus, which is also the way of the Torah, and of the Tao, and of the Bhagavad Gita and of the Buddha. It is the way of living not for ourselves but for the end for which we have been created.
The horror of our present political moment is also a time of opportunity. As we are bombarded with meaningless words and with expression and actions that have no rootedness in the truth, we are confronted with the possibility of falling into utter chaos. It is only in recognizing that everyone in his or her actions and words is responsible to the real and to the truth that we can discover our moorings. Not everything is meaningless and not every word or deed is equally helpful or useless. In recent days poor, humble, simple people have given up their lives to save their loved ones from mass shooters. At the same time, public figures have uttered banal and meaningless statements of concern, but demonstrated again that they lack enough concern to act. We know the difference!
Rabbi Hillel, roughly a contemporary of Jesus, was supposedly asked to teach the whole Torah while standing on one foot. He is said to have replied: ““What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah while the rest is commentary; go and learn it.” Life and world are not purposeless and meaningless. There abides within a deep order, and that order is love: the love of its Creator and the reciprocity and mutuality that the Creator’s love requires. There is in every human being that which will destroy love in service to our own falseness. As fallen, we readily tend to put our life (or our mistaken understanding of it) before the greater life of the whole, before the Reality of creation.
As Charles Dickens reminds us, every age is the best and the worst of times. The greatest threat of our time is our refusal to hold each other accountable to the true and the real. Rabbi Hillel understood that there can be a chasm between how we want to be treated and how we treat others. While we hate to be used and manipulated, we can far too often find ourselves doing this to others. While we know how vulnerable we are and how easily we are hurt, we can be quite careless with our hurtful actions and words toward others. While we continually experience our need for others, we can easily reject the others’ need for us.
For a very long time in our country, in our politics, in our jurisprudence, even in our religion, our public and private discourse has been pervaded by “rights talk.” Even our legislature and our supreme court have read our Constitution as affording an unlimited right to speech of any kind and to personal ownership of weapons of war. Overemphasis on rights, however, brings with it the unleashing of the id. We can begin to see that every unconscious want on our part is a right. That brings us to a place where we have leaders who are incapable of serving anything but their own unconscious drives.
Perhaps such a development was inevitable, given the often overly dogmatic and repressive demands of many forms of culture and religion. Perhaps this is the way that we human beings begin to discover our own individual value and our own capacity to be responsible in our unique way for the whole. If, indeed, we read the signs of the times, however, it may now be time to recognize what our personal freedom and liberty is for. It is to love the Creator and the others and to give our life in service to them. It is serve the flourishing of other human beings, but also of all other beings and of our planet.
Jesus says this is the way in which we are realized as human persons, in losing our own self-centeredness by taking up our cross and following him, who gave his life for the world. The profound teachings of the great traditions are a description of who we are and how, in that light, we are to live. To follow them is to live in reality, not in the illusion of our own unconscious pulls to falseness and self-gratification. Only we human beings have a choice in this matter. We can choose life or we can choose death. We can live in the truth or we can live in the miasma of our own selfish and distorted imaginations. If we fail to recognize the difference, then we shall remain impotent before the forces of chaos. The way out of our untenable political situation is not as complicated as we might make it.
At our recent congregational meeting, the moderator said to us all: “You know who you are called to be. The task is not to spend your time debating and discussing that. The task is to act in accordance with it.” We know the difference between good and evil, between the truth and a lie, between responsibility and not caring. To act on this knowledge requires that we die to our own selfishness and arrogance. We must so desire to act in truth and in love that we are willing to lose what we take to be our lives to do so. As Jesus tells his disciples: ‘You know the way to the place where I am going.” (John 14:4) We are only free to the degree that our choices correspond to the truth of things, to the Real. That truth is the way that we know, that has been taught to us in the Torah and in Jesus and in the uniqueness of our own lives. The task is to exercise that freedom in response to the reality before us and in service of God’s loving plan.
Not only was the existence of the Torah the necessary requirement for the creation of the cosmos; it is the necessary condition for its continued existence. The world was created on approval. Unless the Torah was accepted at Sinai, the cosmos would have to be returned to chaos. There could be a cosmos only with the Torah. The absence of the Torah would imply the absence of the universe. With Torah comes the divine blessing of an ordered creation. Without it, there is a danger of a return to the abyss of cosmic confusion. The Torah is the ground of all beings. The creatures of heaven and earth cannot exist without it.Abraham Joshua Heschel, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, p. 193
When one gives a gift in love to another, part of the giver is given with the gift. The Torah is God’s gift to his creation and to his creatures. When God gives the Torah, it is as if he gives of himself.