Don’t Put Out That Sacred Fire!

I have long been fascinated by the interplay between technology and religion.  Little did I know, however, that I would find one of the most penetrating and relevant metaphors for the relationship in a book written before I was born.

In Who Needs God, Rabbi Harold Kushner develops the metaphor of a “sacred fire” to describe any mystery left in our lives that is spoken of in religious or mythic terms.  Many things were sacred fires that are no longer so — take our understanding of gravity or modern medicine.  However, the point that Rabbi Kushner makes, quite forcefully, is that in our day and age, we are presented with a choice about which sacred fires to maintain, and which to put out, on both the communal and individual levels.

This choice, today, largely comes down to how we use and relate to technology, as Rabbi Kushner writes:

“Technology is the enemy of reverence.  Deliberately or inadvertently, technology puts out sacred fires because technology is the celebration of what man can do.  In the Bible, idol-worship is not a matter of praying to stones and statues.  Idol-worship is the celebration of the man-made as the highest achievement in the world.  What is wrong with idol-worship, with worshipping human achievements as if they were the ultimate accomplishment, is not just that it is disloyal or offensive to God.  The sin of idol-worship is that it is futile.  Because it is really an indirect way of worshipping ourselves, it can never help us grow, as the worship of a God beyond ourselves can help us grow.  As a result, we find life flat and uninspiring, and don’t realize why.” (p. 54)

We all have a need, greater at some times than at others, to feel a part of something larger than ourselves.  Increasingly in the 21st century, that something does not need God at the center — people forming a community can offer that same sense, without any metaphysical baggage.  However, once we become adults, where do we find the people to make that community with outside of our work environments?  Even more so today than when Rabbi Kushner was writing, we live in a hyper-individualized society, each of us occupying our own tiny bubbles, barely noticing each other — and definitely not stopping to interact and learn from each other — as we barrel past each other on the street or subway.

Personally, I know that I need a community that will grapple with the everlasting questions with me, trying to understand why we are here on Earth and how best to live out our short time together.  I cannot keep myself motivated to continue learning and connecting to those around me simply by making communities out of sports team affiliations or awaiting the Next Big Thing.  Fortunately, I was raised with a global network of communities that I can tap into in whichever way I choose.  One of the advantages of those communities is exactly what Rabbi Kushner is talking about.  While humanity as a whole (or at least in the developed world) may have chosen the path of extinguishing all the sacred fires they could find, attaching oneself to a community that sets itself apart of society at large affords one the opportunity to choose differently.  The best example of keeping a sacred fire going today is the draw that many feel towards a Shabbat from their technology, whether that means attending synagogue or just intentionally spending more time with those they care about.  Differentiating time (and space) is at the heart of what makes anything sacred.

It is a delicate balance, but Rabbi Kushner points out that religion at its best stakes a firm moral stance (that changes over the course of generations) without veering off into being judgmental (e.g. p. 198).  It thus makes a claim on us to try to be better people, constantly striving to be better to ourselves and to others, which I know I want as an influence in my life, and many others who are drawn to religion in one form or another do as well.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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