Friday, May 22, 2009

On revelations and covenants

First Things comments on a journalists' question and answer dinner with Britain's Chief Rabbi:
The interesting question is: If we cannot derive morality from nature, then why is revelational morality not arbitrary? The answer, Rabbi Sacks said, is to be found in the concept of covenant: it is based on the bonds of mutual obligation. He cited Exodus 19, just before the giving of the Ten Commandments, in which the people of Israel agree to accept what YHWH offers. But because this covenant was offered to people wandering in the desert in desperate circumstances, it is renewed in Joshua 24, in which the next generation of Israel has the opportunity to freely choose to accept it.
First Things - Blog: Spengler

We can go a little further with this. Revelation is not arbitrary, or founded in but one person's desires, for it is founded in the minimal human (and sacred) nature that is common to all shared and memorable human events, of which our capacity to build or recognize covenants and reciprocity is but one aspect or stage of our experience of an event. Not only is revelation not arbitrary, but we recognize that any one individual's quest or desire for revelation is founded in a desire to know something that is ultimately shared. And it is because we can recognize the universality of human desire for the sacred that we can recognize that both desire (which is something supplementary to simple biological appetites) and revelation share a common origin in a foundational event.

Our experience of nature is not what we mean when we invoke the concept of "arbitrary". If I'm struck by a bolt of lightening, I am only prone to think this arbitrary if I attribute to some divine force the choice to cast this bolt. If I take a fully scientific view of the electrical storm, my apprehension of my random bad luck is not quite the same as my notion of the arbitrary.

What we usually mean by arbitrary is to be brought under the influence of another's desire in a way we find unexpected or unfair. And it is just such experiences that prompt our desire for, and facilitate, a further revelation of the sacred so that we may better recognize the shared covenants on which the successful, non-destructive, reciprocity-engendering articulation of any human desire depends. Even the master and slave must have some shared understanding of mutual obligations if they are to work together effectively, an understanding that will deepen as the unintended consequences of desires and demands are worked through.

It is when we come to an understanding of the nature of a human event or scene - of 1) its minimal preconditions which by no means determine or exhaust what can be realized in any particular instance; and 2) what is unique to any given scene/event - that we begin to achieve the means to think rigorously about the human condition. What all events or revelations share is a genetic relationship to the first event or scene, the first moment of human/divine creation that broke with the natural rhythms of the animal world by becoming a shared and memorable event or scene. As noted, this genetic relationship, linking the first event to all subsequent events, does not determine the nature or meaning of the scenes we live and share, but it makes them of a kind, recognizable as the uniquely human phenomena they are.

Serious thinking about the human focuses on the moral and ethical revelations that we derive, ultimately, from specific events and scenes, and so it does not get lost in abstract theories or grand ideological systems that have forgotten the primacy of the particular revelatory scene unfolding over time in a way that is not pre-ordained by some fundamental logical or systemic necessity. Necessity, flowing from the dangerous conflict of human desires, is the source of our freedom and reciprocity, and not an indicator of some hidden key we need to find to build a perfect model for understanding human systems. Yes, we inevitably need to build models, but we will find they are always in some way in error, unable to close off the eventful experience we are representing without various loose ends and uncertainties

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