Tuesday, September 11, 2012
A Sabbatical Summer
Sabbaticals are partly a misnomer, since they are not for absolute rest, but merely for rest from the accustomed rounds. This past summer I enjoyed a 14-week sabbatical from my library work that allowed me to finish writing a book long in process, and to begin another that will also likely take a long time. In these days of the Instantaneous, increasingly an ideal even in what for so long has been the painstaking labor of research, long-term projects do seem to belong to another world—the world of the sabbatical or perhaps more simply of the Sabbath rest, however we are open to experience that. Long-term projects move only very slowly to their conclusions, so as to seem almost motionless, at rest. My inspiration for these projects is a rosary bead in the Cloisters museum of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is only a 15-minute walk from my home. A wooden bead on display there holds inside its tiny space a fully realized carving of the Crucifixion. It is not that motionless long-term projects are crucifying; it is that each sentence or footnote added to the project, if it is indeed a book, feels like the barely visible pinky finger on one of those tiny figures in the minute complexity of that rosary bead scene.
The finished book is entitled: Philosophical Spirituality: From Ecclesiastes to Simone Weil. It is a study of how some of the standard philosophers encountered in introductions to western philosophy classes, such as Descartes, Spinoza, Kant and Hegel can be read for guidance they provide to the spiritual life. But not all those included are really standard philosophers—certainly the two of the title are not, but hopefully they serve to skew expectations away from standard readings of all these thinkers, towards the sense of the sacred they may all have carried, but which is not often the focus of interpretations of them.
The other book, only just started, carries a tentative title: A Liminal Space: Between Judaism and Christianity. The aim of this book is to imagine what western religion would have been like if Judaism and Christianity had not separated in antiquity; for it is generally agreed that they did. What is increasingly argued, though, is that they need not have. It was less theological or spiritual pressures that caused what is sometimes called “the parting of the ways” than pressures of self-definition, of identity, that were only resolved by the parting. Suppose the identity had been allowed to languish or even suffer in tension, in suspension? Might it have never split? I like to think philosophical currents from the ancient world, especially Alexandria, might have worked in binding ways across what later became the two religions, whose names, after all (Judaism and Christianity) are in some ways quite artificial. If only wise old Adam could be invoked to name the religion that might have existed if Judaism and Christianity had not parted—he after all was really the master of nomenclature. Did he not name things into their full being, only begun by the divine?
If Ecclesiastes, that great philosopher, was right to imply that there are too many books, then perhaps it will be a grace for the first of these books not to be published and the second not ever to be finished. Time will tell.