Wednesday, March 23, 2011


Lately I've been reading Holy Ground, a collection of essays by religious folk of all stripes about the importance of caring for the Creation and the responsibility of communities of faith to protect our environment.  It's edited by our awesome friend Lyndsay Moseley and you should definitely check it out.

This passage from a 1951 essay "Beyond Civilization" by the theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel caught my eye and I thought I would share:
The solution of mankind's most vexing problem will not be found in renouncing technical civilization but in attaining some degree of independence of it.

In regard to external gifts, to outward possessions, there is only one proper attitude--to have them and to be able to do without them.  On the Sabbath we live, as it were, independent of technical civilization: we abstain primarily from any activity that aims at remaking or reshaping the things of space.  Man's royal privilege to conquer nature is suspended on the seventh day.
And later:
The seventh day is the armistice in man's cruel struggle for existence, a truce in all conflicts, personal and social, peace between man and man, man and nature, peace within man; a day on which handling of money is considered a desecration, on which man avows his independence of that which is the world's chief idol.  The seventh day is the exodus from tension, the liberation of man from his own muddiness, the installation of man as a sovereign in the world of time.

In the tempestuous ocean of time and toil, there are islands of stillness where man may enter a harbor and reclaim his dignity.  The island is the seventh day, the Sabbath, a day of detachment from things, instruments, and practical affairs as well as of attachment to the spirit.
Too often I think we are caught in a false dichotomy when it comes to our crazy modern world -- both in a spiritual sense and an environmental one.  We feel that we are stuck with pollution and stress and commercialism as a kind of tax levied on the many good things we receive (antibiotics, modern dentistry, the ability to talk to my parents instantaneously across thousands of miles, stuff like that).  It's also a common retort to environmental concerns: if coal power is so bad, do you want us to live in caves, eating only locusts and honey?  Well, no.

But the idea of attaining independence from our cell phones, emails, cars, TVs and all the other toys that invade our lives, in order to clear out a bit of space to decide what is really important -- that struck a chord with me.  (And of course Heschel is writing about a specifically Jewish conception of how to celebrate the Sabbath, but his words have a universal heft to them.)  And similarly, gaining independence from the dictates of the free market, to have a little space to inject other values into our decision making, where would that get us?

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