Friday, July 09, 2010

Man's works and God's works

Today's reading included Exodus 20 and Job 38, both involving the incomprehensible gap between God and his works, and man and his.  Exodus 20 is the first delivery of what has come to be called the Ten Commandments; three commandments having to do explicitly with man's relationship to God, sometimes called the First Tablet, and seven commandments addressing man's relationships to other men and their possessions, called the Second Tablet.  (This is the Catholic division; the Protestant division finds four commandments in the first tablet, considering the prohibition of the making of images to be separate from the command to not worship images, and six commandments in the second tablet, combining the command not to covet a neighbor's wife with that requiring us not to covet any of his non-personal possessions.  I like the Catholic division, as it splits the Ten into two numbers that have ancient meaning, 3 and 7, and it does not prohibit the making of images per se, which amounts to the prohibition of representational art, not to mention photography.)   It ends by specifying that altars must be built of earth, or of uncut stone upon which no tool has been used, and have no steps up to them lest our "nakedness" be revealed.  This latter struck me as a bit strange.

In the chapter in Job, God demonstrates his sublime difference from Man by asking a series of questions that amount to, "Where were you when I created the cosmos, and what do you know of the deep workings of the world you live in?"  The answers:  Nowhere, I am but of yesterday, and know nothing.  We moderns might think we can answer some of the specific questions God asks; perhaps we could recite our knowledge of the water cycle with regard to rain and snow. But fundamentally, we still don't understand the most basic aspects of the cosmos we live in.  What exactly is time?  Why is the speed of light unchanged in all frames of reference?  How can it be, and what does it mean, that the smallest "particles" we can discover are not really "things" but rather wave functions?  Why is mathematics, a type of symbolic mental language, the best tool for describing the world "out there"?

We can say that we have barely begun to understand the work of God in creation, and as for understanding ourselves, well, having just finished the bloodiest century in the history of man, in which over 110 million people were killed by their governments, quite apart from wars, it is hard to maintain that we know much about ourselves either.  Before the majestic mind and work of God we stand as ignorant children who have bloodied each other and trashed our playroom. 

Perhaps the rules about altar-building are to remind us of this.  We may build altars, but must make them of the stuff which God has made, without much elaboration on our part.  We may build them of earth, much as a child builds in the sand.  Or we may pile rocks, as a child makes a fort.  Not only may we not build finely carved marble altars, we may not even touch the stones with our tools.  Without our flimsy tools we are unable to change that which God made from nothing.  We must find them, as He made them, and recognize that they become holy not because we have had anything to do with them, but because they are dedicated to God.  To put our own mark upon them with our tools, to shape them according to our liking, is to "profane" them.  

The prohibition of steps up to the altar is also a measure to keep us from forgetting how small and dependent we are.  God's elevation above us, using the spatial metaphor, is so high that no stairs or tower that we could build could begin to be significant, and the effort only makes us ludicrous.  As we build our altars higher, our smallness just becomes more pathetic, and it becomes easier to see up our skirts, so to speak.  No, there is no elevation that can bring us closer to God, there is no elaboration of cut stones that can bring us closer to God.  If He does not meet us here, at our own level, in the world as we find it, then we have no hope.  

Do we do this?  do we meet God in the midst of our day-to-day earthen lives, living in the awareness of His sublime majesty and our evanescent dependence?  "Our Father which art in Heaven" while we are here upon earth.   It is the beginning of wisdom. 

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