Last week Lady Gaga incensed animal rights activists by appearing in an Italian magazine wearing a Bikini made of raw meat. This was the latest effort a long line of media attention grabbing stunts in which various cultural, religious and sexual boundaries were crossed by her Gaganess. However the obsession with pushing boundaries and crossing lines in not restricted just to Lady Gaga, paradoxically it is tradition within modernity. In fact, Peter Gay subtitled his history of Modernist Art – The Lure of Heresy. Our contemporary culture mocks those who wish to maintain age old distinctions and boundaries.
However boundaries are essential to human life. Distinctions and separations are key not only to human life, but to the whole of creation. The piercing truth of this reality was brought home to me recently as I accidentally opened the unlocked door of a plane bathroom to be greeted by the shocked face of a woman – how shall I say? – not expecting to be disturbed. This moment of embarrassment reminded me that boundaries offer us dignity, they make us human.
In his brilliant study of the book of Genesis Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes that the account of creation begins with a set of separations and distinctions. Sea and sky, light and day, animals and humans, chaos and creation. The most profound distinctions are to be found between God and humans and between heaven and earth, and between the unique personalities of humans. Rabbi Sacks observes that this distinction in unique amongst religious world views, the pagan beliefs which surrounded Israel did not delineate between gods and humans, creation and chaos, heaven and earth.
Therefore the primary sins of humanity are attempts to cross these boundaries and merge these distinctions. Adam and Eve attempt to merge humans and God by eating of the fruit ‘so that they may be like gods’. Cain breaks the distinction between individuals and kills his brother Abel. The builders of Babel attempt to breech the boundary between heaven and earth with their structural monstrosity.
Rabbi Sacks points out that in many ways the story of Babel echoes many of the horrors of the 20th century perpetrated by totalitarian regimes. Friedrich Nietzsche declared God dead and challenged humans to take his place, and thus laid the groundwork for the horrors of the Third Reich who dehumised entire races.
In attempting to transcend their humanity and become the god like uber-mensch ironically the Nazis became less human. We see our culture constantly falling into the same traps, trying to construct our own worlds in godlike fashion, however we cannot but help falling into the trap of dehumanizing ourselves or others in the process. Rabbi Sacks writes
Only when God is God can man be man. That means keeping heaven and earth distinct, organizing the latter only under the conscious sovereignty of the former. Without this there is little to prevent human beings from sacrificing the many for the sake of the few, or the few for the sake of the many. Only a respect for the integrity of creation stops human beings destroy themselves…A world of tov, good, is a world of havdalah, boundaries and limits. Those who cross those boundaries and transgress these limits make a name for themselves, but the name they make is Babel, meaning chaos, confusion and the loss of that order which is a precondition of both nature – the world God creates – and culture the world we create.
Our culture with its craving for the crossing of boundaries and the ignoring of limits reveals itself as truly neo-pagan, not in the sense of a bunch of people with dreadlocks dancing to bad german techo out in the forest, but deeper more dangerous and insidious paganism. A paganism which threatens to dehumanize the whole of humanity, and to uncreate the whole of creation. And so we are back at Genesis one, we need again the spirit of God to hover over the formless, dark chaos of the world. We need God again to breath his life giving breath into us. And we need believers who understand and artfully respect the God given distinctions and limits in the world.