My family did our Seder celebration via Zoom this year. We used the “Ten Minute Seder,” created by Rabbi Yonah Bookstein, but between the difficulties with technology, trying to sort out whether to put the charoset on the matzoh or how much wine to pour for Elijah, and our familial tendency to verbally embroider on anything we do, it used up the full forty minutes we had scheduled for our meeting. My parents Zoomed in from next door, my brother and his wife from New England, and my sister from London. Afterwards, I served matzoh balls to my husband and children, and missed my extended family.
I missed the past.
I am an introvert by nature, with no great need to be around people; on the contrary, I tend to require periods of extreme solitude, for mental tranquility. And we live in a remote area, as of yesterday one of the few counties in my state with no confirmed case of COVID-19. I have my gardens to work in, horses to feed. My children can play outside, and my husband catch up on home improvement or vehicle maintenance. So lockdown and self-quarantine are easier for us than for most of our fellow citizens. Reading about what others are going through, especially our heroic health care workers in hard-hit areas, is humbling and overwhelming.
As we turn more and more towards technology to connect with one another during this strange time, I have been thinking a lot about the importance of physical reality. For many, being deprived of physical touch adds to the burden of quarantine, because we are bodily and relational beings. Even those of us who enjoy solitude seek out the assurance that our friends and family are alive, physically safe. The fragility of our bodily existence has been made painfully clear to us in the midst of a crisis that is also showcasing the inhuman or even anti-human nature of our present social system that places profit above human flourishing.
People make grandiose statements about being willing to die for “the economy” as though “the economy” were some vast living organism that must be fed at all cost. But “the economy” is an abstraction, the moral value of which depends on how well it serves life – real life, living bodies, the breathing and the tangible, whether human or not.
The danger of rejecting immanence
The danger of rejecting the moral significance of earthly life, the here and now, in favor of some ethereal beyond, has also been made evident. Religious leaders and faith communities that have rejected scientific data and care for the common good now state their willingness to risk death rather than give up their “right” to congregate in worship. Catholics have been circulating petitions to allow Easter services, in spite of the danger not only to themselves but to others. This earthly body is not important, is the message they send. Only grace – only salvation – only the life of the spirit.
I am not impressed with the religious fortitude of these individuals, any more than I am impressed with the piety of suicide bombers. Intensity of faith is not in itself to be commended, when it leads to disdain for and rejection of the fundamental precepts of natural morality. Natural morality tells us that there are objective goods present in life, here and now, and that these goods are worthy of protection.
Yes, we can posit a supernatural morality as well as transcendent being from our contemplation of natural goods and immanent being. But – if we deny the fundamental value of the present, the tangible, the physical – even something as simple as physical pleasure – we risk nihilism. We risk obliterating all that we know of good, as beings immersed in eco-systems and physical communities, for the sake of a posited “out there.”
Does it sound beautiful to you, to dream of an unimagined and unimaginable world? Does it sound like deep faith and profound religion, to reject earth in favor of heaven?
I once thought it did. But the problem with these dreams is they too easily ferment in the rot of hatred of this world. They justify doing nothing about suffering or injustice in the here and now. While resisting present temptation can be morally valuable, and working for future barely-imagined justice morally necessary, this is different from the absolutist piety that rejects scientific evidence, denounces all physical pleasure, and insists on faith in something beyond sight or evidence.
I don’t know what the outcome of this pandemic will be, or when we will see a time-after. But one hope I have is that religious communities will be more oriented towards a life of faith that grounds itself in natural theology and personalist ethics, rather than authoritarianism and fideism. I hope that we will realize that without a sacramentality that values this living everyday flesh, and without a theology of liberation, our religion is simply another tiresome variation on nihilism.
(Philosophical footnote: While I agree with Karl Rahner about the Vorgriff auf das Sein, the pre-apprehension of being, or transcendental awareness that allows us to recognize the status of contingency at all – our awareness of the phenomenon of goodness happens in the given-ness of our actual encounters with the real and present. And while I agree with Derrida that a metaphysics of presence is insufficient (which is why I roll my eyes at people who say our social media interactions are “unreal) I think a rejection of presence, especially for the sake of a transcendence with no hinges left in immanence, is nihilism – the nihilism Nietzsche rightly identified in Christianity. Without a dialectic of transcendence and immanence we do profound moral and intellectual damage.)
image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/92463233@N05/12135835203