By Sam Fleishacker
Newness is the most radical kind of possibility. It’s possible that there will be rain today, even if it in fact does not rain, and it’s possible for me to choose chocolate rather than vanilla ice cream, even if I, in fact, go for the vanilla. These are rather more banal kinds of possibility compared to the possibilities we wonder at, religiously, such as things we didn’t think possible before they happened: a radical personal or political transformation, a cure for a seemingly incurable disease, or an artwork or natural sight more beautiful or striking than we could have imagined. Unexpected events of this sort suggest that even what seems fixed can be changed: that there is (with all due respect for Ecclesiastes) something new under the sun.
Traditional Jews attribute to God, first thing every morning, the will to institute such newness, to remake creation in un-foreseeable ways. “You create all,” we say in the “Yotzer” blessing, which follows the “Barchu.”
The blessing continues: “Every day in your goodness you renew the Creation [ma’aseh bereishit: literally, ‘the work of the beginning’].” Creation seems, indeed, to be newness.
René Descartes, the 17th-century French philosopher, brings creation and newness together in his Meditations. “It does not follow from the fact that I existed a short while ago that I should exist now,” he says; I would not exist now unless some power “creates me, as it were, anew.” More generally, the difference between “conservation and creation” exists merely in how we think about things, he says, not in reality. Newness is creation, a bringing to be out of nothing.
Hermann Cohen, a 19th-century German Jewish philosopher, may be drawing on Descartes as he glosses on the Yotzer blessing that I have been discussing: “Creation is God’s primary attribute.” But Cohen does not see Creation as an act that happened only in the beginning of the universe: rather, it happens constantly. That is what our liturgy means by declaring that God “constantly renews in each day the work of the beginning.”
What is newness? It’s not the same as change. If you work for a boss who changes the office furniture around every day, your reaction on coming in will not be, “Oh, how new!” Rather, you will think, “Same old, same old; he’s moved the chairs again.” The arrangement you see today is different from yesterday’s arrangement, but not new. The new exists only in contrast to an “old” and expected pattern. And while the rising of the sun each morning is not really new in this sense, it tends to give us hope and thus serves as a useful metaphor for newness. Artists, composers, and novelists more clearly present us with paradigms of newness — the composer Arnold Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire” and James Joyce’s Ulysses, of course, but also the 16th-century painter Pieter Bruegel’s peasant scenes and Rembrandt’s self-portraits. Great religious teachers and political actors also envision stunningly new ideas or initiate new practices.
For something to be new, a pattern of events and expectations must exist against the background of which it is unexpected. But expectations are something that only humans fully have, something that requires articulation and institutionalization. We constitute the patterns that the new defies; we set up and hold fixed ways of understanding or living through the world that can be broken by the new. We set up patterns of understanding and practice because we are rational. But our rationality also tempts us to fit everything, no matter how unexpected, into a pattern we have already established — to rob everything of its newness. Many of us say, in the face of something apparently new, “I actually thought things would work out like this.”
So a paradox is built into the very idea of “new.” And it is that paradox to which religion is fundamentally addressed. For without newness, our lives would be monotonous and desperate. We would have no hope of being surprised — no hope, therefore, of experiencing spiritual joy. We would also have no hope that we could ever overcome our individual patterns of jealousy or laziness or self-centeredness, or our social patterns of classism and racism, or flagrant commercialism. For both moral and spiritual reasons, then, we need newness. But if newness is precisely the breaking of patterns that seem unalterable, then we have no naturalistic — scientific — reason to think we can encounter it. We can have only a faith in newness.
And that faith is what we declare at the opening of our morning prayers. Our God is a God of newness who can always make and remake the world (this is no less miraculous than making it in the first place). Newness, the space of radical possibility, is what marks the crucial difference between a God-infused universe and a purely naturalistic one. It is what makes possible our personal hopes for transcending our vices, our political hopes for transcending injustice, and our spiritual hopes for experiencing something truly wondrous, something that humbles and awes us. These radical possibilities are what we affirm first in our morning prayers — as they should be first in our religious hopes, first in our commitment to God.
Sam Fleischackeris a professor of philosophy at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is the author, most recently, of The Good and the Good Book (Oxford University Press, 2015), What Is Enlightenment?(Routledge, 2013), and Divine Teaching and the Way of the World (Oxford, 2011). He is also director of Jewish studies at UIC, and the founder of its Jewish-Muslim Initiative.