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Hebrews 8:1-5

06.23.2011

Philosophy is central to our author’s argument this week, specifically the distinction between noumena and phenomena.  Noumena are abstract ideals or essential concepts; phenomena are manifestations of the noumena that can be perceived with the senses. 

If you’ve ever heard of Plato’s cave, this essentially the central element to his illustration.  In the cave, people are strapped down to chairs and can only look forward onto a blank wall where shapes move around that are silhouettes of models and puppets that are being backlit by a fire in the rear of the audience.  (It’s very similar in design to a modern movie theater, really.)  Those models and puppets are of trees and people and animals and every real thing you’d find outside the cave in the real world.  But to the people strapped into the chairs in the cave, those shadows of models of real things are all the reality they will ever know.  They cannot perceive (or likely conceive) of anything more real than the dancing black blob on a blank wall in front of them.  The people-shaped shadows are people as far as they will ever understand.  The interactions of the shapes on the wall are the world as they know it.

Now, Plato was making a political point about philosopher kings and who should rule, but the concept became central to Platonic philosophy through the centuries.  The shadows are phenomena; they are the perceivable reality.  The real trees/people/animals/etc. that the puppets are based on are noumena; they are (to the cave-bound viewer) abstract forms which are unknowable except through the crude translation of the phenomena. 

The argument this week about the Tabernacle and the Heavenly throne room is that the Tabernacle is a phenomenal form of the noumenal Heavenly reality.  The only way we can understand and conceive of the throne room is through the process of translating it into an object perceivable by the senses.  Exodus does this by using acacia wood and precious stones and metals and precise measurements.  Revelation does this by using words that conjure visions of clouds and mirrors and jewels and hybrid creatures.  It’s no less a phenomenon because it’s a figurative vision; John saw these things, and that means that the vision was a translation of the reality. 

It follows that a noumenon such as God’s dwelling place would be superior in every way to any phenomenon that is a translation.  For something as pure as God and Heaven, any translation is going to imply a degree of corruption.  What our author is saying in Hebrews is that the Levitical priesthood and the rituals and sacrifices of the Old Covenant are corrupted phenomena that imperfectly represent the Heavenly reality of atonement and justification and communion with God. 

The one time noumenon and phenomenon have been united is in the person of Jesus Christ.  Jesus was not corrupted by the Incarnation, but He was perceivable to the human senses.  Jesus, and the Kingdom He inaugurates, is a meeting point between noumena and phenomena, between Heaven and Earth, between eternity and creation.  As such, He is far superior to the Old Covenant of which He is the culmination, the Old Covenant that points (however imperfectly and corruptly translated) to Him.

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