Friday, January 23, 2009

The "Tyranny of Space"

It is often pointed out that we Americans are much too concerned with things. Buying things, consuming things, coveting things. And the usual insight people come up with is that we ought to be more concerned with people. Hence the contrast between I-It and I-Thou relations. Hence the interpretation of heaven and hell, not as "places" per se, but as "relationships"--not a "place of eternal torment," or "place of eternal delight," but a "being in the presence of God," or "being painfully cut off from God."

But! I have been reading a book called The Sabbath by Jewish author Abraham Joshua Heschel, for one of my classes. Heschel also speaks of an inordinate attachment to things--the "tyranny of space"--which he contrasts, instead of with relationships, rather, with time. He describes, then, the Sabbath, as the day on which all the objects which give humankind power over the spatial realm (various tools, appliances, money), are to be set aside, left utterly untouched, that humans might declare their independence from such objects.

This high valuation of time is a difficult concept for me to get hold of. It helps when I consider that in Hebrew, the verb is more important than the noun. The verb usually comes before the subject in the sentence. Even Hebrew nouns typically come from verbal roots. And in the Hebrew Scriptures, the name of God is in the form of a verb, not a noun (I am who I am/I will be who I will be).

It also helps noting that some passages in the New Testament we translate as contrasting "this world" with "the world to come." But the Greek word we translate as "world"--a spatial term--is actually better translated "age"--a chronological term.

So perhaps rather than saying, heaven is not so much a place as a relationship, we should say, it is not so much a place as a time--and not just any time, but eternity.

Anyway, I have no idea whether any of this is at all coherent to someone who has not read Heschel's book--but if you want to know what the heck I'm babbling about, by all means, read the book; it's great!

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