Obama — “that spark of the divine that still stirs within each of our souls”

(Contributions to Discussion Invited)

President Barack Obama concluded his 2009 Nobel Lecture with the following words:

But we do not have to think that human nature is perfect for us to still believe that the human condition can be perfected. We do not have to live in an idealized world to still reach for those ideals that will make it a better place. The non-violence practiced by men like Gandhi and King may not have been practical or possible in every circumstance, but the love that they preached – their faith in human progress – must always be the North Star that guides us on our journey.

For if we lose that faith – if we dismiss it as silly or naïve; if we divorce it from the decisions that we make on issues of war and peace – then we lose what is best about humanity. We lose our sense of possibility. We lose our moral compass.

Like generations have before us, we must reject that future. As Dr. King said at this occasion so many years ago, “I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the ‘isness’ of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal ‘oughtness’ that forever confronts him.”

So let us reach for the world that ought to be – that spark of the divine that still stirs within each of our souls. Somewhere today, in the here and now, a soldier sees he’s outgunned but stands firm to keep the peace. Somewhere today, in this world, a young protestor awaits the brutality of her government, but has the courage to march on. Somewhere today, a mother facing punishing poverty still takes the time to teach her child, who believes that a cruel world still has a place for his dreams.

Let us live by their example. We can acknowledge that oppression will always be with us, and still strive for justice. We can admit the intractability of depravation, and still strive for dignity. We can understand that there will be war, and still strive for peace. We can do that – for that is the story of human progress; that is the hope of all the world; and at this moment of challenge, that must be our work here on Earth.

Indeed, one of the moral underpinnings of international human rights and international humanitarian law, including the prohibition against torture, is the belief that there is present in every human being a part of God, a piece of the divine, and that to violate that person’s right to life or or that human being’s right to the physical integrity of his person is somehow to commit violence against the divine itself, against God–however this concept may be understood. There are other, more secular formulations that express a similar view.

Requested Collaboration–Contributions from readers are solicited, with the goal of provoking an enlightening discussion.

What do the different religious traditions in the world have to say and teach us on this point? What do Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and other religious traditions, and secular philosophers and moral leaders, teach us regarding this central affirmation of the divine in each and every human being?

The Trenchant Observer

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E-mail: observer@trenchantobserver.com

Comments and debate are invited, in any language. If in a language other than English, please provide an English translation, if possible, in order to reach the broadest possible audience. Where this is not feasible, please submit your comment anyway; other readers are invited to offer accurate translations of any such comments.

4 Comments on "Obama — “that spark of the divine that still stirs within each of our souls”"

  1. OMG, do you see whats taking place in Syria? Regardless of a brutal government crackdown, the demonstrations continue

  2. […] Obama — “that spark of the divine that still stirs within each of our souls” « The Trenchant Observer […]

  3. Response to Requested Collaboration–
    What do the different religious traditions in the world have to say and teach us on this point? What do Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and other religious traditions, and secular philosophers and moral leaders, teach us regarding this central affirmation of the divine in each and every human being?

    Subject: Divine Spark in Man per Jewish Tradition
    Wed, 23 Dec 2009

    We learn in Genesis 1 that God made man in God’s image. The Hebrew verbs are in the plural. Our Sages teach that God consulted with the angels before creating man…hence the plural verbs indicate the consensus of God and God’s angelic creations (created before the creation of the universe and its corporeal denizen) in the decision to create man.

    Jewish tradition eschews the idea that this concept means that God has a physical image akin to man’s. Rather, that there is a metaphysical kinship between man and God, and this kinship is engendered in Man’s non-corporeal, spiritual, moral, and intellectual existence, as part of the Divine plan for man’s existence.

    When God blew the breath of life in to Adam, God also injected in to Adam’s physical being that metaphysical and non-corporeal thing, that divine spark, that we call “soul”. That spark, that breath of life, that soul, is passed down from Adam to all mankind and thus exists in all of us now.

    For reasons that are beyond human comprehension (at least for the foreseeable future), God also created in man the corporeal urges that must be harnessed and controlled and directed in order for man’s life to conform to the will of God and in order for man to advance God’s divine plan in the universe. Cruelty, selfishness, egocentrism, etc., and even evil itself, were all created by God in order to challenge us to rise, with the aid of that spark, to a higher level of moral and ethical behavior, and thus to move mankind forward in the direction that God wants.

    The divine spark, therefore, is that tiny piece of the non-corporeal, metaphysical, divine power that God planted in each of us, in us all, so that we can find the strength and muster the courage to transcend our physical limitations, become more than the sum of our physical parts, and bend our will to the will of the Divine, in order to do our share in advancing God’s will in the universe.

    The same spark exists in all living beings (plants, animals), but the other beings of God’s creation do not have the moral choice that God gave us. Their behavior patterns are determined by the cerebral programming that God put inside of their brains/nervous systems/whatever. They do not struggle with urges that direct them away from God’s will. Like the angels, they have no free will. But we as humans must respect and love those creations, even though they do not have our options for behavior and interaction, simply because they all have that divine spark, and they all play their part (however small or microscopically incremental) in advancing God’s plan.

    We cannot know what that plan is, long term, but if we follow the instruction book (Jewish Scriptures and their interpretation by our Sages) we can nurture that spark so that we have the strength to take the actions that advance God’s plan, and so that we can gain the wisdom and understanding by which we can know we are on the right path.

    Thus, for example, The Scriptures teach:

    –that God is merciful. So we should be merciful.

    –that God is loving. So we should be loving.

    –that God is patient. So we should be patient.

    –that God visits the sick. So we should visit the sick.

    –that God provides sustenance to the world. So we should structure our society so that we have means through which to provide sustenance to those in need (i.e., supporting charitable institutions).

    –that God cares for the orphan and the widow. So we should care for the widow and the orphan and those weak and vulnerable in the world (i.e., supporting charitable institutions and those organizations which protect the vulnerable).

    –that God’s plan for all creation is a long-term plan, so we must do our part in continuing that plan from generation to generation, by:

    a) procreating (God made sex fun for a reason, but knowing how powerful sex is, God also gave us the framework within which to ration sex so that our urges don’t get out of hand and become a force for destruction).

    b) raising our progeny to love God and man (in fact, in Jewish tradition the best way we show our love for God is by showing our love for our fellow man)

    c) educating our progeny in to the above ideology so that each generation both achieves its moral and metaphysical goals and educates the next generation to do the same

    Through “a” and “b” and “c” we, in Jewish tradition and Jewish society, concretize the behaviors that contribute to the continuity of those values that Scripture teaches us are the values that God wants promulgated in the world….and we achieve success with the help of that divine spark.

    (The general comments above … reflect ONLY MY understanding of the issues, and are NOT meant to be an official representation of Jewish traditions or teachings).


  4. For commentary by one religious leader on the Abu Ghraib revelations, see BEYOND TORMENT AND TORTURE, A Sermon by Dean Scotty McLennan, University Public Worship, Stanford Memorial Church, June 20, 2004.

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