Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Beyond Capitalism and Socialism


We are all infatuated with the splendor of space, with the grandeur of things of space. Thing is a category which lies heavy on our minds, tyrannizing all our thoughts. Our imagination tends to mold all concepts in its image. In our daily lives we attend primarily to that which the senses are spelling out for us: to what the eye perceives, the what the fingers touch. Reality to us is thinghood, consisting of substances that occupy space; even God is conceived by most of us as a thing.

The result of our thinginess is our blindness to all reality that fails to identify itself as a thing, as a matter of fact. This is obvious in our understanding of time, which, being thingless and insubstantial, appears to us as if it had no reality.

Indeed, we know what to do with space but do not know what to do about time, except to make it subservient to space. Most of us seem to labor for the sake of the things of space. As a result we suffer from a deeply rooted dread of time and stand aghast when compelled to look into its face.

Time to us is sarcasm, a slick treacherous monster with a jaw like a furnace incinerating every moment of our lives. Shrinking, therefore, from facing time, we escape for shelter to things of space. The intentions we are unable to carry out we deposit in space; possessions become the symbols of our repressions, jubilees of frustration. But things of space are not fireproof; they only add fuel to the flames. Is the joy of possession an antidote to terror of time which grows to be a dread of inevitable death? Things, when magnified, are forgeries of happiness, they are a threat to our very lives; we are more harassed than supported by the Frankenstein of spatial things.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath

Reflection – What Heschel is describing here is the inner spiritual dynamism of the capital sin of avarice, although he does not use that word. The avaricious soul labors under a terror of time, a haunting awareness of the passage of time and its inexorable movement forward.

The flight into immoveable space and the objects that fill it, the making of those objects into idols the possession of which is the whole goal and sum of life, is a flight from time and ultimately the fear of death. It is there, in the storing up of riches, that we seem to find a solid base on which to build our lives.

Of course this is deeply illusory. As Heschel so aptly puts it, the things of space are not fireproof. We can seem to subdue time to the service of space and the amassing of the goods of space (I almost typed ‘gods of space there’). But time wins – even if our goods are durable, we are not, and at any rate they don’t really make us happy anyway.

Or if they do make us happy, it is at too high a cost. The only way to be satisfied with material goods as a source of happiness is to ruthlessly eliminate from one’s inner being any kind of spiritual hunger, any longing for something that cannot be satisfied by a good meal, a shiny toy, physical comfort or sensual pleasure. The soul steeped in avarice without any check on it is reduced to an animalistic state of being, and the heights and depths of human striving and attaining is lost to it.

Heschel is of course treating all this en route to a completely different mode of reality, a whole other way of experiencing and knowing life. Time no longer the false slave of space, being spent in the pursuit of illusory and fleeting material happiness, while taking its pitiless revenge in the end.

The happy state of affairs is the precise reverse, of course. Space and the objects and goods of space being at the service of time. Time as the place of encounter, the mode of being given us in which to act and dispose of our personal being as gift, as communion, as generosity and kindliness, friendship and service.

Time is money, we say – time the slave of wealth. Time is not money; time is love, and ‘money’ (material goods) are the slave of love, or are meant to be so in this world. It is a radical shift of mind and heart—truly, a radical conversion—that is needed in our whole approach to economics and social organization, I believe. It is not about capitalism vs. socialism. It is about time vs. space, things vs. people, and the right ordering of not so much the financial systems and business models but the human heart.

There is no law on earth, no set of new regulations, no taxation system, no government policy or initiative, that can make us love one another. And it is love of neighbor alone that will heal the world—personal, generous, unstinting, sacrificial love. And it is all wrapped up in these deep questions of time and space, human happiness in a world of temporality and transience. How do we carve out a space in time where these deeper concerns of love and of the heart will thrive? That is the matter of the Sabbath, and the matter of Heschel’s book.

Updated to add: Welcome, Sheavians! (I for one welcome our new sheavian overlords). While you're here reading my random musings on economics, love, time, and space, check out my series of Lenten blogs on the home page. I am dedicating the blog from now to Easter to solid spiritual reflections on the season - check it out.