Apathy and Redemption: Finding Meaning in the Expanse of Progress

Yoni A. Dahlen
August 15, 2013
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The age of the internet and the mobile phone has ushered in a time of technological and scientific achievement unprecedented in human history.  An infinite cosmos of digital information and entertainment has become more ubiquitous and meaningful in our daily lives than the tangible elements of our physical reality.  Now more than ever, we are truly connected, allowing the once unfathomable expanse of the world to fit quite literally into the palm of our hand.  Yet as the sun rises over a new future of progress and innovation we hesitate in our pushing forward, not because we are concerned with the danger of our power or the profundity of our responsibility, but because in the rich history of human existence, we have never been more frightened or depressed.

As a quick disclaimer, this is not a cliched critique of technological dependence or a rallying cry to destroy Facebook or Twitter.  Rather, the purpose of this essay is to encourage using the tools of our time in a creative and positive manner, to find diamonds of meaning in caverns of frivolity.  It is a plea to find holiness in relationships, in nature, in wisdom, and in protest – to come down from our high so that we may see our apathy as a detriment to ourselves and others.  Our technological advances are seeds of peace, ethics, and art; so why throw them to rocks while fertile soil surrounds us?

For thousands of years, humanity has wrestled with the nature of progress, and for thousands of years great advances in civilization have been both idolized and vilified.  The argument, with little exception, has been one of simplicity versus extravagance, of humility versus pomp.  In the religious lens, simplicity is equated with holiness and devotion, and progress with pride, greed, and arrogance.  Moving forward is sinful.  Staying put is pious.

Yet the message of salvation and redemption, at least in the three monotheistic faiths, is undeniably future oriented.  The eschatological motifs of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all point to progress as well as individual and communal improvement.  Many forms of Christianity see the acceptance of Jesus and his teachings as work towards his second coming.  Similarly, Islam speaks to the eschaton as a time of universal Muslim theology, where the world will understand the truth of Islam and the words of the prophet Mohammed.  Judaism, though not openly busying itself with proselytizing, also considers redemption as the product of ongoing individual and communal introspection and devotion.  A famous adage is told by the rabbis that if every Jew kept Shabbat just once, the Messiah would come and the world would be redeemed.

The demonization of technology and science from religious traditionalists speaks to a deeper understanding of the human condition in general, namely the fear and uncertainty of the unknown.  Text, tradition, and liturgy alone cannot provide clear and explicit understanding to a world that has yet to be.  The road to redemption involves walking into the unknown, hobbling through the darkness where no prophet or sage has yet trodden, and finding new sources of light and beauty in that seemingly impenetrable darkness.

It is this same insecurity that hobbles the legs of progress today.  The overwhelming vastness of possibility keeps us clinging to the wall of the familiar.  Our fear has given way to apathy and our apathy has crushed our morale.  Time and time again we forget those that tremble with us.  We numb ourselves with the pride of our past rather than reaching out our hands towards one another so that we may find life and love in the present.  The world is in our palm, and yet we stay in our bedrooms, our heads hidden under pillows and blankets.  Life will not wait. It will move on, shifting, moving, and growing with the will of those that welcome it.  We make our own choice as to how that life will grow, whether it be a life of freedom and adventure, of love and kindness or a life of withered branches crawling towards the ground with numbness and despair.

May we find the courage to live in uncertainty, to use our progress not for familiarity and comfort but for true innovation and charity.  May the advancements of our days foster love and excitement, knowledge and respect.  Let us allow our texts and traditions to inspire hope and faith, that we may walk in the throws of the unknown together with the light of redemption guiding our way.

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Yoni A. Dahlen is a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York City. He attended Brandeis University where he received a Masters of Arts in Jewish Philosophy. Pursuing a career in academia, his topics of interest include Jewish mysticism, political theology, and the religiosity of Labor Zionism. He currently lives in Jerusalem.

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