On a hot summer morning in July 1979, I was riding a local train from Geneva to Basel. Families, individuals, baskets of food, overflowing suitcases filled the rattling passenger car with litter, noise, and a bit of sweaty chaos. Hardly the image of a neat, proper and quaint Switzerland seen on tourist postcards. I sat there jouncing along in the heat, noise and confusion.
Across the aisle sat two middle‐aged Jewish men having an animated conversation. They had stripped off their black coats exposing white shirts and black suspenders. Their black hats were still in place over their yarmulkes. Their payots drooped and danced over their ears. Perspiration fell from their faces. Open copies of a book in Hebrew, likely the Talmud, were on their laps. They argued back and forth with great agitation and enthusiasm; sometimes pointing to text, sometimes at each other. Sometimes their gestures simply punctuated the humid air in the crowded train. I understood none of their words.
After some time observing what I did not understand, I realized that I had missed one of the most interesting features of the conversation. One of the men was speaking French; the other was speaking German!
What a metaphor I thought for the confusion we have in life. Here were two, obviously intelligent, educated, and passionate adults, arguing with one another in two different languages about the meaning of a third language. Here am I, limited to English. Where would anyone find the Truth in that scenario?
I have told this story many times to illustrate the difficulties we have in communicating effectively with each other. Each of us is locked into our own language, our own perspective and vision. I too often argue with another whose perspective is entirely foreign to mine. In my enthusiasm, Truth is lost to us both. I should be more Quakerly, I suppose. I should listen quietly and seek the Truth within. I should not argue my point of view as though it were closer to God’s will than the point of view of my companion.
As I have told this story of the hot sweaty train ride from Geneva to Basel, over the years a different understanding of the metaphor has dawned on me. I originally focused on the chaotic, combative behavior of the two men on the train and how little they understood of each other. Now I focus on myself and how little I understood of the scene itself. I brought my own sense of the way in which dialogue should take place. I focused on the lack of communication between the two men and how they would have better found the truth and better understood each other if they had listened more civilly. I assumed the “Truth” lay in their laps in the Bible: if they only had focused there, in a civilized manner! I assumed, like most Western thinkers, that the Truth was there to be discovered dispassionately, if I would only put aside my ego, my prejudice, my own point of view, and let the Truth come in upon me.
But these two passionate, arguing men had an entirely different perspective. They understood the “truth” to be in their passion, in the controversy.
Those of us raised with a Western cultural perspective think of Truth as fixed, eternal, unchanging. Differences, we tend to believe, come from a lack of understanding. Our job is to discover the Truth.
But what if Truth is a moving target? What if Truth is not fixed in time and space? What if God is not consistent? What if God is ethereal, elusive, ambiguous? What if God evolves just as we evolve? What kind of understanding is that? What does understanding itself mean—if anything?
Compare the opening verses of Genesis, an ancient Hebrew text, to the opening verses of the Gospel of John in the Christian Bible. In Genesis God creates the world by “saying,” speaking, with words, with breath. Life is given to the first human by breathing into the molded clay. We are blown‐through with life from the ancient God’s own breath. Life comes not from the form of the clay but by the living breath of God. In the Gospel of John, written a thousand years later, the “Word” is there from the beginning. It predates everything. In the beginning was the Word. It is constant, unchanging. The Word is intellectual; it is written down. It is a concept. It is just there, not spoken as an act of creation. With the Word there is no picture in our minds of God doing anything. It was all worked out ahead of time. God is static. Jesus’ role in history is predetermined. He is acting out a scenario prescribed from the beginning of time. It is a notion that Christ, as God’s son, simply acts out the truth that was there from the beginning.
Breath, on the other hand, is living. The ancient Jews thought that the source of life was found in breath, not the mind. It was seen in air, in the burning bush, in the column of smoke which led the Hebrew people out of Egypt. What a difference the notion of “Word” is from Yahweh who wrestles with Jacob in the night. What a difference this is from the God who changes his mind when Abraham pleads with him for mercy on a sinful people!
Over the centuries, Hebrew scholars wrote commentary on the Torah in the margins of the scrolls. Later, other Rabbis would comment on the commentary. This too was recorded in margins. The entire body of discussion and debate became a part of the text. Just like their counterparts on the train to Basel a thousand years later, sitting and arguing through the countryside of Switzerland, it did not bother these Jewish writers that the stories of the Hebrew Bible were often repetitious, often filled with contradiction, and often in direct conflict with one another. Truth was messy. It was a story of a nation. The ancient rabbis wrote it all down: wrote down what was redacted, rewritten, mistranslated, accurately transcribed, and repeated over and over again in ritual and teaching. It was primarily an oral document recited in Temple and later synagogue at a time when most people could not read. Its very recitation was a breathing out of the words with our breath, an act of creation itself.
Our present day arguments over the literal meaning of the Bible totally miss the point. It is a modern argument. Our Hebrew forebears did not see Truth as fixed. They saw it as living and that all the stories, all the traditions were essential parts of their national history; all were essential to their understanding. There was no separation between the spiritual, intellectual, and physical world. Since childhood I have heard Christians speak of the God of the Hebrew Bible as rigid, vengeful, and unforgiving, while the God of the Christian Bible is loving and forgiving. Frankly, I prefer Yahweh: the God of Isaiah, Amos, Jeremiah and of Jesus. Yahweh is the loving, suffering God who enters into the life, who evolves, and who joins with us in our pain and limps along with us.
The notion that humans are created in God’s image illustrates this same difference of perspective. To me as a child, that passage was always interpreted as spiritual or symbolic: We are all created in God’s image. We are all God’s children. There is that of God in all of us. The Inner Light is available to all people. Everyone is beloved of God.
But that is not the meaning in the text. If you read what is says and don’t translate it into modern idiom, it means that if you want to know what God looks like, look at human beings. A person has two legs, two eyes, a nose, ears, ten fingers, ten toes, and hair on the head. When God appears to Adam and Eve in the Garden, it is absolutely clear that God looks just like a person. Abraham does not recognize that he is being visited by God because God looks like just any other man. It is not a trick: Yahweh has not disguised himself. It is just what he looks like.
You may point out that this is the work of early, unsophisticated, even superstitious folk, who had no sense of the Divine as spirit and understanding of how the world actually works. You can point out that as the Hebrew Bible unfolds, Yahweh evolves from a local tribal deity into a universal God who calls all mankind to life of justice, love, and obedience. But in adopting this philosophical perspective, we may lose the earthiness, the tangible sense of God as living and interacting with humanity as a participant in our lives. God becomes an intellectual construct and our job is to discover the Truth as separate from ourselves.
I have come to believe that to understand God’s will for mankind and for myself we must struggle with God through the night as Jacob does. And at the end of the night, Jacob is not defeated. He is changed, but he is not overcome by Yahweh. He is only wounded.
The two men on the local train working its way along on the edge of Alps from Geneva to Basel, who were shouting at each over the hubbub of the steel wheels against the steel rails, through the noise and sweat of the crowded passengers, and across the barriers of language, were living out the truth through the conflict itself, through life itself, recreating the world of passion, of enthusiasm, and of delight with their own breath.