Rabbi Sholom Ber of Lubavitch used to say that if the hedonists would know the ecstasy of mystic union, they would instantly drop all their worldly pleasures and chase after it.
It is not just pleasure. It is the source of all pleasures.
-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
I recently had a discussion with an (apparent) atheist in the comments section of one of my blog posts. As with many other Christian/Atheist discussions on the web, he found Christianity wanting due to its lack of morality. That generally means “lack of morality” as progressive secular humanism defines the term (and the definition tends to shift over time). But is the sole reason for someone to become a person of faith or a person of faithlessness to gain a sense of morality and ethics?
Probably not. At its core, I think a person selects one system of philosophy or theology over another in an attempt to seek a reason for existence. Rabbi David Hartman in his book A Living Covenant: The Innovative Spirit in Traditional Judaism (chapter 9) says it this way:
As history has shown, the human being is not only a fact-seeking animal, but equally and possibly more so, a value-hungry individual seeking direction and significance in life. We hunger for a frame of reference that orders and orients everyday existence into some meaningful pattern. In spite of the extreme importance of facts, their range does not exhaust the sources from which one constructs a vision of life that gives meaning and direction to existence.
Beyond the quest to determine the moral relativity of right and wrong, and even beyond the desire to understand the nature of the universe, its origins and its development, is the overwhelming desire of human beings to seek out and discover themselves. This is perhaps the greatest mystery within our awareness, greater than the origin of life and greater than the scope of the cosmos.
Who are we? Why are we here? Is this all there is? Is there something more?
I was recently watching the first part of a two-part episode of Star Trek: Voyager called “Scorpion”. The starship Voyager was about to enter an area of space dominated by the Borg, which is a highly malevolent cybernetic race and mortal enemies of the Federation. It is the only path Voyager can take to make it back to the Alpha Quadrant and home.
The Borg are under attack by an equally malevolent race of beings from a realm outside our universe who are referred to only as “species 8472.” The destruction caused by the war between the Borg and species 8472 is vast and multiple star systems have been destroyed in its wake. If Captain Kathryn Janeway (played by Kate Mulgrew) orders Voyager to go forward, the ship and everyone on board will be annihilated. If she turns the ship around to ensure everyone’s safety, she must admit that she will never get her crew home. She’s trapped in an endless loop of guilt and remorse, because it was her decision to save an alien race that stranded the Voyager crew over 70,000 light years away from home nearly four years ago.
As a diversion, Janeway had previously programmed a holodeck simulation of Leonardo da Vinci (played by the acclaimed British actor John Rhys-Davies) and his workshop environment. Janeway takes on the role of Master da Vinci’s student in order to relax, work on various art projects, and be inspired by a holographic replica of one of history’s most innovative creators. In the throes of despair, as Voyager is poised to either move forward to destruction or turn back in defeat, Janeway makes a midnight visit to the Master’s studio seeking a solution she cannot find within the limits of her own resources.
She finds da Vinci sitting in his darkened studio, softly illuminated by dozens of candles, staring at light and shadow as they play upon a blank wall. Janeway sits with him and asks him what he sees. da Vinci (Rhys-Davies) responds:
A flock of starlings; the leaves of an oak; a horse’s tail; a thief, with a noose around his neck… Uh… And a wall, with the candlelight reflecting on it. There are times, Katarina, when I find myself transfixed by a shadow on the wall, or the splashing of water against a stone. I stare at it, the hours pass, the world around me drops away, replaced by worlds being created and destroyed by my imagination. A way to focus the mind.
Out of desperation, with all other options exhausted, Janeway turns to this computer generated simulation of one of the world’s finest minds and imaginations and opens her soul to him.
There’s a path before me – the only way home. And on either side, mortal enemies bent on destroying each other. If I attempt to pass through them, I’ll be destroyed as well. But if I turn around – that would end all hope of ever getting home. And no matter how much I try to focus my mind, I can’t see an alternative.
Then da Vinci replies in a way I found absolutely fascinating, especially since Janeway has always been played as a pragmatic atheist (and after all, she programmed da Vinci).
When one’s imagination cannot provide an answer, one must seek out a greater imagination. There are times when even I find myself kneeling in prayer.
I’m sorry to take you through a mini-tour of one of my favorite Voyager stories (especially if you’re not a Star Trek fan) but this is the point I was building up to. This is what we as human beings are seeking; a greater imagination. I don’t mean one that we can possess, but something beyond ourselves and our reality. Janeway and Voyager are exploring the galaxy, or a non-trivial part of it, as they attempt to travel 70,000 light years from the Delta Quadrant back to the Alpha Quadrant and Earth, but the real journey; the human journey is far more wondrous and vast.
The human journey is the attempt to travel beyond the limits of observation, science, and the very conceptualization of a physical and temporal reality and to find what lies beyond, which must surely be a greater creative imagination than ours and the One who is responsible for everything we now experience.
On a website called The God Debates, a discussion on a cause for the universe’s existence is going on (as I write this). I seriously doubt that the matter will be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, but the need to have this discussion is completely human and shows us how much we need to seek out “a greater imagination.” An even more unusual example of this is a story at Jewish Ideas Daily called Disturbing the Universe. This is Kabbalah scholar Daniel Matt’s review of cosmologist Lawrence M. Krauss’s new book, A Universe from Nothing: why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing. In the same article, Matt reviews Alan Lightman’s new novel Mr g: A Novel About the Creation. An article where a Kabbalah scholar reviews both a very serious book on cosmology and a seemingly light-hearted but compelling work of fiction on God and Creation? Definitely worth a read.
However, why does one person seek the limits of the universe in a microscope, a telescope, in a chemistry class, in an archaeological dig, or using the cutting-edge tools of physicists? Why does another person seek to escape the limits of the universe entirely and encounter the infinite wonder that lies beyond the scope of the mechanisms mankind feebly constructs with flesh and blood hands?
Maybe sub-atomic particles and a vast, expanding universe are the only wonders that exist, but I certainly hope not. If it is true that this is all there is and there is nothing more, then everything mysterious, wonderful, and astounding about our existence is potentially within man’s grasp and one day, there will be no more mysteries. The universe will be “solved” and man will reach the end of his own adventure and become his own “god” (if he hasn’t already).
But in seeking God, man longs to go beyond the possible and to engage a mystery that can never be solved. But that’s the greatness of spiritual man: the need, the desire, and drive to seek out the impossible and to experience even the briefest glimpse of the unseeable, the untouchable, the unknowable.
In seeking God, man approaches the real purpose of his being. This is what pushes us past the barriers of despair, loneliness, hardship, and torture. This is why man endures. This is why man achieves. Without the search for God, man’s labors are no more significant than an ant pushing a bread crumb across a dirt lot, regardless of the illusion of “greatness” we bestow upon ourselves.
Some abandon the covenant after the death of a single loved one, but others retain belief in God’s love for and commitment to themselves despite having lost their whole family in the Holocaust. One human being leaves Auschwitz an atheist and another as a person whose belief has grown stronger.
I suppose there are many cynical explanations for why a person who has suffered incredible horrors would retain a faith in God and even increase that faith in the shadow of Auschwitz, or a dying child, or a body shattered in war. Some more “enlightened” individuals accuse us of needing a “crutch” as if atheism is far more courageous and noble. But I don’t think it’s a matter of courage and nobility, and I can’t really say what it is that causes one person to deny God and another to seek him out, even sometimes at the cost of his own life.
The best I can see is that, like John Rhys-Davies’s version of Leonardo da Vinci, even when it seems to defy the person we think we are, we absolutely need to seek out a greater imagination than our own. We find ourselves seeking it and Him by kneeling in prayer.
It is only God who makes it possible for a human being to search for that which exists in a place no man can reach or touch or see. But that’s where we will find Him…and us.