Monday, February 28, 2005

A simple thought experiment

Reading an essay by Vincenzo Vitiello, I'm struck by his mention of something that is really rather a commonplace: the idea of Israel rebelling against their God.

The context is Israel outside of Egypt, and also outside the Promised Land, and their actions that lead to the judgment of God that Israel will spend 40 years in the desert before coming to the place God has promised. And it isn't that action that struck me; it is the concept of rebelling against "God."

A god is a constitutive item of human identity. Kierkegaard called it the Power which posited the self, a self which is known in relation to itself. Gods are constitutive of human communities, too. This is the foundation of the "mythological" explanation for divinity in anthropology, sociology, and the general discourse in post-Enlightenment Western civilization. For Israel, this explanation was built into their sense of national identity: "A wandering Aramean was my father," the annual blessing began, in Deuteronomy. Passover is the recollection of the creation of the nation in the exodus from Egypt. The God of Abraham is the one who created this rebellious people. What, then, does it mean, to rebel against one's god?

"Israel," as the stories in Genesis make clear, means "struggles with God." It is the new name given Jacob after he wrestles with an angel all night at the Jabok, just before he goes to seek peace with his wronged brother (Jacob being the one who wronged Esau). But in most cultures, to struggle with the god would mean death. Greeks don't struggle with their gods. They may struggle with the consequences of their decisions, but the decisions of Zeus or Apollo or Venus, even Cupid, are not challenged by the nation. Yet Israel is a "rebellious people." Even God names them so.

What does this mean? Can we conceive of this struggle in non-metaphysical terms? Do we struggle with our gods, and expect them to change? Politics; money; economic systems; science; reason: what is it that is transcendent, more than "us" or even the sum of "us," that gives life its meaning. If you struggle with it, do you expect it to yield? Or do you expect the struggle to make you yield, to put you in a position where, finally, you understand? Israel struggles with God for a revelation, of a change of God's heart, or simply out of stubbornness. When we struggle with our "gods," at most we seek discovery, a change in our thinking, our selves. What would it mean to rebel against reason, except to expect unreason? We don't expect reason to change, or even to listen.

What would it mean to rebel against one's god, against the very thing you hold most sacred, most important? Not in terms of the goal sought, but just the idea of such rebellion. How is this even conceivable?

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