under the sun
March 17, 2013 2 Comments
I had recently read Thomas Cahill‘s The Gifts of the Jews when I first saw the remake of Battlestar Galactica, a show in which the recurring religious wisdom is “All of this has happened before and will happen again.” (See video clip.)
Because of Cahill, I both recognized the claim as concordant with ancient Greek thinking (which is the apparent basis of the high-tech human culture we encounter in the series) and also incompatible with any high-tech civilization, especially one that is meant to look so similar to 21st-century America.
As a family we are alternating our bible readings between Exodus and the end of the Gospels as we approach Passover and Easter. On those sundays when we read from Exodus, the grownups then follow up with the relevant Cahill chapters, which is why I’m thinking today about Battlestar Galactica and its theme of eternal return:
What was real for the Sumerians (and for all other peoples but the Jews) was the Eternal. What was to become gradually real for the Jews and remains real for us is the here and now and the there and then. The question that springs constantly to our lips — “Did that really happen?” — had little meaning in any ancient civilization. For the ancients, nothing new ever did happen, except for the occasional monstrosity.… One came to inner peace by coming to terms with the Wheel.…
In the two great narratives of the first two books of the Bible, Israel invents not only history but the New as a positive value. It may seem trivial to remark that we could not even have advertising campaigns for soap commercials without the Jews (since soap commercials are always flogging “new” and “revolutionary” improvements). But no “commercial” of the ancient world flogged the New. The beer of the Sumerians was good because of its associations with the eternal, with the archetypal goddess who took care of such things. If the brewer had announced his product as new — as singular and never-before-known — he would have been committing entrepreneurial suicide, for no one would have drunk it. The Israelites, by becoming the first people to live — psychologically — in real time, also became the first people to value the New and to welcome Surprise. In doing this, they radically subverted all other ancient worldviews.…
For the ancients, the future was always to be a replay of the past, as the past was simply an earthly replay of the drama of the heavens: “History repeats itself” — that is, false history, the history that is not history but myth. For the Jews, history will be no less replete with moral lessons. But the moral is not that history repeats itself but that it is always something new: a process unfolding through time, whose direction and end we cannot know, except insofar as God gives us some hint of what is to come. The future will not be what has happened before; indeed, the only reality that the future has is that it has not happened yet. It is unknowable; and what it will be cannot be discovered by auguries — by reading the stars or examining entrails. We do not control the future; in a profound sense, even God does not control the future because it is the collective responsibility of those who are bringing about the future by their actions in the present. For this reason, the concept of the future — for the first time — holds out promise, rather than just the same old thing. We are not doomed, not bound to some predetermined fate; we are free. If anything can happen, we are truly liberated — as liberated as were the Israelite slaves when they crossed the Sea of Reeds. (Thomas Cahill, The Gifts of the Jews)
Here’s a reminder that the Bible is a library of texts, rather than a single text. The author of Ecclesiastes is ever the contrarian within ancient Jewish thinking:
Ecclesiastes 1:9: The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.