Monday, August 17, 2009

A Portable Temple

Moshe Halbertal, People of the Book: Canon, Meaning, and Authority (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997) 8.

A third aspect of text-centeredness is that the text itself becomes a locus of religious experience. The text serves not only to report sacred events like the Exodus, in which God reveals himself in history, but the very reading of the text becomes a religious drama in and of itself. God is present in the sacred text and studying is thus tantamount to meeting God; it is a moment of great religious intimacy. The Torah becomes a portable Temple, the sacred territory of scholars. The earliest formulation of such an approach to the Torah appears in one of the late Psalms (119:19): "I am a stranger on the earth: do not hide thy commandments from me."

This quote stood out to me because of a story a fellow Christian once told me about his trip to Ireland. He was a DePauw student in a Bible study group that I attended, and he went to Ireland to study for a semester. The first night he was in Ireland, he told us, he was lonely, away from his friends and comforts, and a stranger in a strange land, so he started to cry. But then he looked at his backpack and saw his Bible lying next to it. He began to feel better after that point. That was because seeing his Bible established continuity with his pre-Ireland life, and it also reminded him that the same loving God he had always known was still with him, even in that lonely experience. There was a sense in which his Bible was a portable temple to him while he was "a stranger on the earth." And he began to make new friends and become integrated into his new situation as the semester went on.

I wish I could say that it's always worked for me like that. When I first came to Harvard, it was a very lonely experience for me. I had a hard time connecting with people, and I sought refuge in reading the Psalms. Most people actually get comfort from the Psalms, but that wasn't my experience at the time. I didn't know what to do with the Psalmist asking God to smite his enemies, since I didn't have enemies who were that bad. When the Psalms talked about justice for the poor, I wasn't entirely sure how that related to me. The lesson I got from all this was that it's not all about me and my comfort, for God has his own agenda of righteousness that goes beyond me, while hopefully also including me (though that wasn't on my radar at the time, since I didn't know how to promote social justice, and liberal activism was anathema in my eyes). Still, I wish I could have experienced a touch of God, some assurance of his presence and his love for me. I could have used it at that lonely time!

Before I came to Harvard, I was at DePauw, and I was lonely there too (though I knew more people and was perhaps respected there, on some level). The Bible was like a little temple at that time, a place to be refreshed by the presence and love of God. I'd go to the library on Friday nights, get a private room, and study the Bible as I prayed about what I read. Some Saturdays, I went to Cataract Falls and studied my Bible there. I broke down crying when I read about God's faithfulness to isolated, hurt, and bitter Jeremiah. I sat in awe as I read about God's holiness in Exodus and Leviticus. I felt alone in terms of my interaction with other people, but God still seemed to be with me.

Eventually, that somewhat subsided. After Harvard, I went to Jewish Theological Seminary, and I did my prayer time while walking to school. I asked a lot of valuable questions and learned profound things, but I didn't feel God as I did at DePauw.

Nowadays, I don't exactly "feel God," but I still think that I experience him, on some level. Or I find that the Bible helps me get through my alienation in day-to-day life. A few years ago, whenever I had a bad day at school and felt bitter, I came home and prayed and studied my Bible for at least two hours. I got into questions like "Did events happen as the prophets predicted?," and others that may not strike people as particularly inspiring and practical. I didn't profoundly feel the wind of the Holy Spirit blowing over me, but at least I got to talk about stuff and get my mind off myself.

I feel that I experience God in my weekly quiet times, as I listen to sermons and read commentaries: Jewish, Christian, and historical-critical. The Bible doesn't "touch" me as it did when I was at DePauw, but it intrigues me. I can go into a chapter I think I know and come away realizing that it's more complex than I initially imagined. So how I see the Bible is not as simple as it was when I was at DePauw. But I get practical insights on how to live.

Part of me wants to "feel God" as I once did. Part of me wonders if I was even "feeling God" back in my DePauw days, since I don't exactly hold to the views that excited me back then. "Where does God's voice begin and mine end?" is the question I have. And maybe God is still with me, whether I feel him or not.

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