Monday, August 6, 2012

Agency and the backdrop: "You didn't build that" and Psalm 136

הודו ליי כי טוב, כי לעולם חסדו
הודו לאלוהי האלוהים, כי לעולם חסדו
תהילים קלו:א-ב

"Give thanks to G-d, for He is good, his mercy extends forever,
give thanks to the G-d of gods, for his mercy extends forever..."
Psalm 136:1-2

Psalm 136 is hands down one of the best parts of Psalms, nay, the entire Bible. Besides being (in the Hebrew) one of the most beautiful and resounding, it is maybe one of the most straightforwardly logical - yet brings one to appreciating G-d's wonderful complexity. There's good reason that it has an honored place in the Jewish tradition (we call it the Great Praise), and is a longtime favorite of many Christian denominations.

In another sense, it is very applicable to today, and specific events.

Psalm 136 outlines all the little things that G-d did in the course of the creation of the world and the Exodus - a long and complicated list. One does not need to be a literalist - I myself most certainly am not a literalist - to understand and appreciate some of the key messages of the Psalm: all of these things allow us our freedom, our normal life, and allowed the characters of the Scripture to proceed in the way they did. Little things that we take for granted.

In a sense, the Psalm is a reminder of our relative lack of agency - not just in comparison to G-d - wherein an obvious difference resides for believers - but also in our agency regarding forces surrounding us. We can't make the sun shine, or the Egyptian army not chase us, just by our own little selves. Sometimes, we leave it to forces beyond our play - the habits of gaseous substances at hot temperatures on a star 93 million miles away, a tactical decision, a temperamental sea.

And it makes us think of our own agency in regards to others.

Obama's comment to entrepreneurs - "you didn't build that" - was problematic, but touched on a key point: our agency cannot be isolated from its context. You can't build a successful plank factory without roads for the planks to travel on or a stable currency to pay your woodcutters in. Your agency in building that factory is admirable - but limited. That backdrop of many little things had to be there to allow your agency to have its full effect. Obama, perhaps, was too quick to criticize those who had done a great deal of building - but he is right in that all of that requires so much behind it.

Psalm 136 is perhaps a divine reminder of this very mundane concern: it's not just you, and it's not just like that most of the time. So many little things needed to occur for you to be at this point, and for many of the things you take for granted - be it running water or a 3am frozen yogurt - to actually get there. And as for one's own agency - it reminds one that other forces have so much power. For theists, that power is G-d. For non-theists, that power could possibly be found elsewhere.

If you believe in G-d as a force of balance, as I do, you'd also need His hands to be moving forces in such a way that your methods work. If you take a more traditional deterministic approach, then you obviously need His help to build. And thus, for the theist, I must wonder: if one is to take Obama's comments so badly, then does one deny the agency of G-d, be it a divorced agency, or a distant agency, or as many in the critiquing circles claim, a real and urgent agency? I'm led to wonder.

A lot of this post is very much coming from a religious perspective, but I believe that you don't need to believe in G-d per se to find value in Scripture. 

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