Jacob's Ladder or Sarah's Circle
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, February 20, 2000
Straightness is an abstraction of Euclidean geometry. It is a human, intellectual construct, and not something that exists in nature. I'm not saying that it isn't a useful concept to have sometimes. It's very useful in putting up wallpaper, or hanging a picture, or laying fence posts . But while Euclidean ideas may be useful in building a house, for example, they are not, as a matter of fact, a reflection of the way the universe itself is "built". There are no straight lines in nature, and Buckminster Fuller reminds us that "Physics has found no straight lines [either]; it has found only waves." Fuller concludes: "I find human beings [always] talking about planes and straight lines and forth that just do not exist."
Waves, curves, undulations, circles: that's the stuff of nature; the stuff of "real life" at its most primary level. Even the universe itself is curved at its outermost reaches. The shape of a circle is intrinsically harmonious with the shape of the cosmos itself; it's a direct reflection of the roundness of the earth. St. Augustine once said that "to be curved is to be sinful," but that's what we'd expect from Augustine! We know today that to be curved is to be at one with the universe. To lead our lives along the paths of straight lines alone is to fail to become one with the flow of life all around us. To cling to the ideal of linear-rational straightness is to ignore the vision of an expanding universe. It is to continue living in an age which still says (in deed if not in word) that the Earth is flat.
Jacob tricks his older brother Esau out of his birthright. Esau is not too happy about it, and in a rage plans to kill Jacob. So Jacob's mother Rebekah tells him to flee to Haran and seek refuge with her brother Laban. On the way to Haran, Jacob stops to sleep for the night and has a dream: "And he dreamed there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! And behold, the Lord stood above it and said, 'I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land upon which you lie I will give you and your descendants; and your descendants shall be like the dust of the earth and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and by you and your descendants shall the families of the earth bless themselves...'"
The cultural images we share play an important role in determining our view of reality. And the image of Jacob's ladder may be one of the most important recurring archetypes of Western civilization. "There is no theme in all of male-dominated mystical teaching in Western Christianity that is more recurrent than climbing Jacob's ladder," Matthew Fox has written. Another scholar has said: "The theme of the ladder is constant, indeed capital, in the spiritual life and history of [Christian] spirituality."
It's very interesting to note that earlier Jewish commentators put the emphasis in the story of Jacob in a markedly different place than do their later Christian counterparts. To the Jews (to whom, of course, the story belonged in the first place), the importance of the story isn't the ladder, but the blessing-- not the angels climbing to and fro, but rather God's promise of land and progeny to a wandering, landless people. Even the ladder itself is seen through Jewish eyes as a means of connection between heaven and earth, the means by which the angels of divinity descend to make the earth a holy place: "Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, 'Surely the Lord is in this place; and I did not know it... This is none other than the house of God, and... the gate of heaven.'" Indeed, Jacob named the place where he slept "Beth-el"-- the "house of God".
But then, Christianity gets hold of the story of Jacob and the interpretations come out skewed a little differently. As it developed over time away from its roots in Judaism, the Christian church would come to have little use for God's promise to Jacob of land and descendants for Israel. Following the conversion of the Roman emperors to Christianity in the fourth century, the hieracrchial implications of Jacob's dream start to predominate. Yahweh at the top of the stairway to heaven presents a clear reflection of the emperor enthroned on top of the stairs, above his people. As the stairs divide the people from their monarch, so the ladder comes to divide God from His people. The movement toward God becomes a movement away from the earth. Reaching for God comes to mean fleeing the world. Jacob's ladder comes to be seen not as the two-way street between the natural creation and divinity that it was in the first place, but rather as a sort of one-way escalator in which the pit and dungeon-like earthly reality is left behind for the spiritual glories of an other-worldly heaven.
This "upward" orientation of Christian theology also is reinforced by the philosophical orientation of the Greeks, especially of Plato, of which St. Paul and many other Christian partriachs became increasingly fond. Plato saw reality itself as a hierarchy, with individual concrete things at the bottom, and though mounting ever-more abstractly, ever more mentally, ever more intellectually, ever toward the idea, the ideal prototype of all reality. The Greeks looked up for their ideal because they were a visually-oriented culture and their model for translating the ideal into reality was through architecture. You build buildings from the ground upward, right? To the Greeks, then, the realization of human perfection came through a movement upward as well.
In contrast, in the ancient Jewish mind, hearing was considered the most important sense and music was the paradigm of perfection. In the Jewish view, God was not spatially above us, in the sky, but in our midst. In the book of Exodus, Yahweh says to Moses (and this is a quote): "They will know that I am the Lord their God, who brought them forth out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell among them."
Seen this way then, amongness (and not "upness") is the essence of the spiritual search. Spirituality is not found by escaping the earth, but rather by feeling oneself down to earth, connected to the earth, grounded squarely in the earthiness of existence. It is when we can see this imperfect earthly existence being visited constantly by the most unlikely angels of the Holy Spirit that we feel both at home on the earth and also can celebrate the earth as none other than the house of God and the gate of heaven.
But instead of a God immanent in creation, Western ladder-like spirituality has given us, in the main, a view of God as transcendent over creation. This view has had consequences that have not always helped Western civilization grown toward justice and compassion. Instead of a religion of justice, Western religion has developed, largely, into a religion of judgment. God became the supreme judge, reigning and ruling from on high. More and more, as Christianity became wedded to power, those toward the top of the ladder became the one's defining exactly what "God's judgments" were to be.
Another consequence of the Jacob's Ladder view of reality has been a movement away from compassion and cooperation, and toward competition and aggression.
If ladder climbing is the overriding dynamic of our existence, then questions of who is on the rung above (and who is coming up from below) become very, very important. After all, only a certain number of people can be on the ladder at any one time; if too many crowd on, the entire thing will fall. This is especially true near the top; we don't want a ladder that's "top heavy", after all. So, once we've made it to the next step, we cling like crazy top that we've gained (lest we be replaced). Or, we keep clawing to move up... up... up... Such a mentality does not a compassionate culture make.
But, now, we live in a world where everything is changing. Such is for me, a statement of faith. I also believe it is a fact of history. Everything is changing, including the patterns which guide our lives and determine our view of reality. A new age demands a new way of thinking. As the poet Adrienne Rich advises:
Jacob's ladder may be giving way at last to a new archetype-- an archetype which also emerges from the ancient pages of scripture:
Sarah is an old woman, ninety years old in fact. Her husband, Abraham, is at least a hundred. And God visits them, and tells them that Sarah shall bear a son.
"Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it has ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, 'After I have grown old and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure? The Lord said to Abraham, 'Why did Sarah laugh?... Is anything too hard for the Lord? At the appointed time, I will return to you, in the spring, and Sarah shall have a son.'..."
And lo and behold--Sarah does have a son! And she names him Isaac, which means "God has smiled."
Instead of climbing Jacob's ladder, or chasing Plato's ghost, we can have a spirituality of dancing Sarah's Circle. A spirituality not of hierarchy and judgment, but of laughter and joy and wonder and surprise. Dancing Sarah's Circle is patterned on spontaneity and letting go and being oneself; on not having to control, and letting what will be, be. (Can you think of a human endeavor that is less spontaneous than climbing a ladder? You've got to be so very careful, and think about every step you take, and hold on with all your ego, so that you don't go tumbling to the ground).
Dancing Sarah's Circle means letting the divine possibilities for creativity overtake us, and take us where they will. It is knowing, deep within our beings, that the wisdom and creativity of God is infinitely more powerful than all human wisdom and creativity. Human reason looks at the situation and sees only a barren old woman. The eye of God is cast upon the same situation and there arise possibilities of new birth and the founding of a nation. To dance Sarah's Circle is to celebrate the reality that possibilities are infinite and life is eternal. That's the kind of empowerment and hope that our world needs today.
Maybe you remember the story of Sisyphus, who was condemned to roll a stone to the top of a hill, only to have it roll back down to the bottom each and every time. Well, climbing ladders for a living is a lot like that. We keep climbing and climbing and climbing and climbing and climbing, and never, never, never reach the top. There is always someone just above us on the next rung; there is always one more rung to climb; we never reach the top.
Dancing, on the other hand, is an end in and of itself. One dances in the present moment, and lets the dance lead where it will. One loses oneself in the whirl, the movement, the motion of the group. Yet one's personal sense of identity is strengthened, and not lost. When the dance is over, whether it was a long dance or a short one, one feels satisfied for having been a part of it.
Seeing life as a circular dance lets us enjoy the right now of life, without always worrying about what the next step will be, and who we need to be overpowering on the great ladder of being.
The restrictive character of the ladder makes for an automatic elitism. Those at the top are "good"; those at the bottom are "bad". Those with more years of schooling are "better" than those with fewer. Those with more money are "better" that those with less. Those who have more prestige or power or position are "better" than those who have less of these things.
A circular view of relationships, on the other hand, is free of such elitism. All have their places somewhere alone the circle. All have something to learn, and something to teach. There is no hierarchy, no pecking order, no listing of ranks. The different steps we each can take can bless those with whom we dance (even if we step on each other's toes every once in a while).
Deep in the whirl and shift of the dance, we feel the truth that "The first shall be last and last shall be first." Ever as the dance unfolds, our roles change, and our places shift, constantly. We know that so much of what often passes as success, power, wealth, and fame are but the phantoms of a moment that is already passing away. All that remains in the sway and the movement, the unfolding of the dance. There is no reason here for judgment or elitism or a sense of being "better than".
Ladder climbing is about independence; dancing in a circle is about interdependence. When you climb a ladder, your hands are occupied with your own particular survival. You can't extend a helping hand to another without running the gravest risk of falling off yourself-- and perhaps bringing everyone else on the ladder down with you. But reaching out and holding the hands of others is what dancing is all about! It's about making our own unique contributions to the ongoing dance, always in concert with the moves of our partners. Picture a world in which nations saw themselves as involved in a great planetary dance together, rather than in a mad scramble to get to the top of the heaps of money, resources, power, and influence. Each nation would still have the unique blessing of its own culture. It would have its own unique contribution to make; its own independence day. But every day would be Interdependence Day! What a different kind of world that would be...
So, which metaphor shall we choose to guide our reality: the Ladder or the Dance? I don't think that it's a secret that at the present time a ladder-based way of thinking dominates the entire industrialized world. Corporate pecking orders, tight and rigid organizational planning, domineering and aggressive models of leadership-- all are reflections of the ladder, the hierarchy, the idea that knowledge, wisdom, expertise, power come from some point beyond ourselves and is passed down to us by those who supposedly "know better".
But more and more of us are coming to know that this is not a way of thinking that works for us any more. We know, more and more, that our knowledge and wisdom come from within ourselves-- and from among ourselves. They are in that energy that dwells among people who are engaged in a common, mutually edifying endeavor.
Our power is inside of ourselves as well. And each of us has more power than we ever dreamed possible. Our power becomes manifest in the ways we remake our lives and remake the world. Each of our relationships, in every group of which we are part, the things we do, the words we speak, the manner in which we organize ourselves have consequences. They reverberate more than we imagine. We have to pay attention, then, as to whether we are ladder-like or circle like in our relationships. This is not easy work. Sawing the corners off all of those rectangular corporate board room conference tables to make them round is going to take a while. The only way to remake the world is to remake the world. And we do that one small circle at a time. One circle at a time.