Thursday, February 09, 2006

The Theology of Samba

Time. Physicists after Einstein, tell us that time is relative to the great constant “c,” the velocity of light. We, however, still believe that clocks—in their relentless regularity—define time. Even my computer sets the digits of the hour and minute in the right corner of my screen. It reinforces this notion. My daughter buys a Barbie watch for $6, and it has a flawless digital readout of the hours, minutes, seconds, and month/day.

But that’s only one view. It’s what the ancient Greeks called "chronos," the march of hours and minutes and seconds. These crafty Greeks had another word for time, "kairos," the “opportunity” or “occasion.” That’s when time stands still. When the newlyweds,--settling into their comfortable honeymoon bed and breakfast—enjoy the ecstatic bliss of sexual union. When someone hears Handel’s “Messiah,” and the “Hallelujah” Chorus pierces her spirit. When a new acquaintance talks with you—over cappuccinos at your favorite café—and you realize you love the same painters, books, and music. It’s when the sun sets over an impossibly blue Pacific Ocean and your toes sink into the luscious white softness of Carmel Beach sand while you spy dolphins playing in the waves. (It truly happens—I’ve been there.) You savor the moment and realize it’s distinctive. You grasp the fullness of time. As the Jewish theologian, Abraham Heschel, framed it: “Every hour is unique and the only one given at the moment, exclusive and endlessly precious.” That’s kairos—when the undulating experience of life’s flow moves with depth and intensity.

In his playful and thoughtful novel, Einstein’s Dreams, the MIT physicist, Alan Lightman, imagines a variety of perceptions of time. He describes—in a similar mode to this distinction between kairos and chronos—a universe with “body time” and “clock time.” Lightman writes, "In this world, there are two times. There is mechanical time and there is body time. The first is rigid and metallic as a massive pendulum of iron that swings back and forth, back and forth. The second squirms and wriggles like a bluefish in a bay. The first is unyielding, predetermined. The second makes up its mind as it goes along."

At other times, I’ve described the world of kairos as “the theology of samba.” It’s the samba’s feel and sound that offer a musical analogy to the fullness of time. I had the opportunity to ask the world-class bassist, Abraham Laboriel about this mesmerizing rhythm. He beautifully illustrated the nature of a samba: “It has to sound like an egg rolling.” A samba is not a perfectly round ball with even rotations, or a John Philip Sousa march, which moves in mechanical order. It feels oblong, where it takes just a little more effort to get over the ends. The feel is tensive. Electronic drum machines have tried to mimic most music feels, but it has never achieved the egg-like samba because a samba needs a human touch. It needs a beating heart. When we become mechanized by the technologies around us—used by them and not using them—we lose the samba.

I sometimes summarize the search for a deep spiritual life as grooving with God’s rhythm in our rigid, chronos-oriented mechanistic world. How do we get into this groove? We first learn to be silent, to mute out the homogenizing rhythms of technology that conflict with God’s. Then we are free to immerse ourselves in a world filled with the pulls and sounds of other beats never losing our sense of God’s samba.

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