"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Present Perfect

If I have a complaint against some of the religious thinkers of our time, it is in the area of their underappreciation of physical modernity.

Because they are so occupied with the battle against the fallacy that modernity brings new insight into the human condition, merely by virtue of coming to the table a day later, they allow themselves to drift into various forms of proto-Luddite disdain for new inventions and technologies. This is especially sad because it was the Biblical prophets who predicted consistently that the end of history would feature a radically different landscape in the physical Creation.

There are a number of branches to this critique, some of which have already been previewed in various venues.

Today I will venture out into a territory which I believe to be entirely uncharted. This involves revisiting Biblical questions from a modern perspective, not to try to take shallow swipes at the tradition but to see how it expands to absorb the new light added by new generations of life in history.

A brief example will suffice. There are many miracles that are known through the tradition but are not recorded in the explicit Biblical text. For example, every Jewish schoolchild knows that Nimrod offered Abraham a choice between relinquishing his belief in God (this was long before he had received prophecy; his belief was founded strictly on the argument from design) and going into a furnace. Abraham chose the furnace and he emerged unscathed.

They also know that Eliezer miraculously traveled from Beersheba in Israel to the Mesopotamian side of Syria in one day with a huge caravan of camels. Similarly, the spies sent to Israel from the desert were able to traverse all of Israel on foot in a single day.

Another such underreported marvel is the fact that Jochebed, the mother of Moses, was said to be 130 years old when he was born.

The question puzzled over by all the medieval commentaries is why the Bible deemphasizes such miracles and leaves them to the oral tradition, while stressing the splitting of the sea and the manna. Nachmanides (1194-1270) notably establishes a theological principle that the Bible wishes to negate the idea that miracles are themselves proof of anything. Only a miracle predicted by prophecy is valid as a true indicator of divine will. (Incidentally, a fact that always shocks "outsiders" is the rule that in any theological argument between Maimonides and Nachmanides, the view of Nachmanides is considered authoritative.)

It occurs to me that living in our time enables us to offer a different answer, one that was simply not accessible at earlier points in history.

Namely, that each of those miracles are things that can be approximated by using the technologies that nature has disgorged in this revelatory phase of history that we call home.

Today, we can send a man into a furnace wearing an asbestos suit and he can come out on the other side. Although that would not be quite the same thing, it remains a fact that a man can walk through a furnace. It's also a fact that a man can easily traverse those distances in the times allotted, albeit with the assistance of a motor vehicle or an aircraft. And any woman healthy enough to be alive and walking around can be implanted with a child today.

On the other hand, no conceivable technology will ever split a sea or feed a nation of millions from the sky.

Just a thought. But my larger point is that if you accept the Scripture as a prophetic document, it is absurd not to recognize that it would be crafted in such a way as to conform with every possible permutation within the natural order.


Hunter Baker said...

Fascinating stuff, Jay. I often spend time pondering the statement I've heard from Jewish thinkers about the Bible being a book not just for one time and place but for all times and that the book had to be written in a way that could be understood by people in different times. Such an interesting thought with so many permutations.

Kathy Hutchins said...

On the other hand, no conceivable technology will ever split a sea or feed a nation of millions from the sky.

This fellow thinks that not only that technology could split a sea, but that the Israelites used technology to do it themselves.

Not that I find his explanation convincing, just that we shouldn't expect to quell any die-hard skepticism with this line of inquiry.