The Rig Veda is the most ancient source from which to draw in an attempt to understand the state of the first conceptual representations of humanity by itself, more than four millennia ago. Religion and society, then, were in an infancy that did not exclude a profound wisdom, more original than what Greek and Roman antiquity were able to conceive later, and of which the Hebrew wisdom itself was a later heir.
The memory of the Veda, long unwritten and transmitted orally for thousands of years by pure thinkers and rigorous ascetics, bears witness to an intellectual and moral state of humanity in an age much earlier than the time of Abraham. When this prophet left Ur in Chaldea, around 1200 B.C., for his exile to the south, many centuries had already nourished the valleys of the Oxus and watered the Indus basin. Several millennia before him, time had sedimented layers of human memory, ever deeper. The Vedic priests celebrated the idea of a unique and universal deity long before the « monotheisms ». Melchisedec himself, the oldest prophetic figure in the Bible, is a newcomer, if we place him in the obscure sequence of times that preceded him.
This observation must be taken into account if we want to put an end to the drama of exceptions and the drifts of history, and understand what humanity as a whole carries within it, since the beginning.
Homo sapiens has always been possessed by multiple intuitions, immanent, of the Divine, and even, for some individuals of this species, by singular ‘transcendent’ visions that they have sometimes been able to share and transmit. We must try to grasp these intuitions and visions today, by questioning what remains of their memory, if we want to draw prospective lines towards the distant future that is looming in the dark shadow of the future.
The Hebrew Bible is a fairly recent document, and its price should not make us forget its relative youth. Its age goes back at most to a thousand years before our era. In contrast, the Veda is one or even two millennia older. This seniority, in fact rather short, should certainly not make us forget that it is itself based on much more remote memories, of which the Chauvet cave (~30 000 years) is only a simple marker, pointing out the mystery of the very origins of the Homo genus, as for the specific nature of its « consciousness ».
This is why it is important to consider what remains of the memory of the Veda, in order to try to draw more general lessons from it, and to try to understand the unity of the human adventure, in order to foresee its possible evolutions – so much so that the past is one of the forms in power of the future.
To illustrate this point, I would like to propose here a brief review of some of the symbols and paradigms of the Veda, to weigh and consider their potential universality.
Butter, oil and sacred anointings.
In those ancient times, melted butter (ghṛita) alone represented a kind of cosmic miracle. It embodied the cosmic alliance of the sun, nature and life: the sun, the source of all life in nature, makes the grass grow, which feeds the cow, which exudes its intimate juice, the milk, which becomes butter by the action of man (the churning), and finally comes to flow freely as sôma on the altar of the sacrifice to mingle with the sacred fire, and nourish the flame, engender light, and spread the odor capable of rising to the heavens, concluding the cycle. A simple and profound ceremony, originating in the mists of time, and already possessing the vision of the universal cohesion between the divine, the cosmos and the human.
« From the ocean, the wave of honey arose, with the sôma, it took on the form of ambrosia. This is the secret name of the Butter, language of the Gods, navel of the immortal. (…) Arranged in three parts, the Gods discovered in the cow the Butter that the Paṇi had hidden. Indra begat one of these parts, the Sun the second, the third was extracted from the sage, and prepared by rite. (…) They spring from the ocean of the Spirit, these flows of Butter a hundred times enclosed, invisible to the enemy. I consider them, the golden rod is in their midst (…) They leap before Agni, beautiful and smiling like young women at the rendezvous; the flows of Butter caress the flaming logs, the Fire welcomes them, satisfied. « i
If one finds in Butter connotations too domestic to be able to bear the presence of the sacred, let it be thought that the Priests, the Prophets and the Kings of Israel, for example, were not afraid to be anointed with a sacred oil, Shemen Hamish’hah, a « chrism », a maximum concentration of meaning, where the product of the Cosmos, the work of men, and the life-giving power of the God magically converge.
Hair and divine links
Hair is one of the oldest metaphors that the human brain has ever conceived. It is also a metonymy. The hair is on the head, on top of the man, above his very thoughts, links also with the divine sphere (this is why the Jews cover themselves with the yarmulke). But the hair also covers the lower abdomen, and announces the deep transformation of the body, for life, love and generation. Finally, the fertile earth itself is covered with a kind of hair when the harvest is coming. Here again, the ancient genius combines in a single image, the Divine, Man and Nature.
A hymn in the Veda combines these images in a single formula:
« Make the grass grow on these three surfaces, O Indra, the Father’s head, and the field there, and my belly! This Field over here, which is ours, and my body here, and the Father’s head, make it all hairy! »ii
But the hair has other connotations as well, which go further than mere metonymic circulation. The hair in the Veda also serves as an image to describe the action of God himself. It is one of the metaphors that allow to qualify him indirectly, as, much later, other monotheistic religions will do, choosing his power, his mercy, or his clemency.
« The Hairy One carries the Fire, the Hairy One carries the Soma, the Hairy One carries the worlds. The Hairy One carries all that is seen from heaven. The Hairy One is called Light. »iii
The Word, divinized.
More than five thousand years ago, the Word was already considered by the Veda as having a life of « her » own, of divine essence. The Word is a « Person, » says the Veda. The Word (vāc) is the very essence of the Veda.
« More than one who sees has not seen the Word. More than one who hears has not heard it. To this one She has opened Her body as to her husband a loving wife in rich attire. « iv
Is this not a foreshadowing, two thousand years earlier, of the Psalms of David which personify Wisdom as a figure, divine and « feminine », associated as a goddess with the unique God?
Thought, image of freedom
In the Veda, Thought (manas) is one of the most powerful metaphors that man has ever conceived for the essence of the Divine. Many other religions, millennia later, also celebrated the divine « Thought » and sought to define certain attributes of « her ». But, in the Veda, this original intuition, developed in all its emergent force, confirms Man in the idea that his own thought, his own faculty of thinking, has always been and remains in power the source of a radical astonishment, and the intimate certainty of a primary freedom.
« She in whom prayers, melodies and formulas rest, like the grapes at the hub of the chariot, she in whom all the reflection of creatures is woven, the Thought: may what She conceives be propitious to me! »v
The Infinite, so old and always young…
The idea of an « infinite », « hidden » God, on whom everything rests, was conceived by Man long before Abraham or Moses. The Veda attests that this idea was already celebrated millennia before these famous figures.
« Manifest, he is hidden. Ancient is his name. Vast is his concept. All this universe is based on him. On him rests all that moves and breathes (…) The Infinite is extended in many directions, the Infinite and the finite have common borders. The Guardian of the Vault of Heaven travels through them, separating them, he who knows what is past and what is to come. (…) Desireless, wise, immortal, self-born, satiated with vital sap, suffering no lack – he does not fear death who has recognized the wise Ātman, unaged, ever young. « vi
The Love of the Creator for the Created
The Bible, with the famous Shir ha-Chirim, the Song of Songs, has accustomed us to the idea that the celebration of love, with human words and crude images, could also be a metaphor for the love between the soul and God. This very idea is already found in the Veda, to describe the cry of love between the God and his creature, the human soul:
« As the creeper holds the tree embraced through and through, so embrace me, be my lover, and do not depart from me! As the eagle, in order to soar, strikes at the ground with its two wings, so I strike at your soul, be my lover and do not depart from me! As the sun one day surrounds the sky and the earth, so I surround your soul. Be my lover and do not depart from me! Desire my body, my feet, desire my thighs; let your eyes, your hair, lover, be consumed with passion for me! »vii
From this brief return to Vedic memory, and from these few allusions to much more ancient and immanent memories (going back to the origin of the Sapiens species), I conclude that a comparative anthropology of the culture of the depths and that a paleontology of the intuitions of the sacred is not only possible, but indispensable. They are necessary first of all to relativize at last the excessive claims of such or such late religious or philosophical traditions, unduly arrogating themselves specious privileges. Above all, they confirm the necessity and the fruitfulness of a research on the very essence of the human conscience, outside the current framework of thought, materialist, positivist, nominalist, and of which the crushed, wounded modernity suffers so much from the absence of recognition.
More than two millennia before the times of Melchisedechi and Abraham, other wandering and pious men were already singing the hymns of Ṛg Veda. Passing them on faithfully, generation after generation, they celebrated through hymns and prayers, the mysteries of a Supreme God, a Lord creator of worlds, of all creatures, of all lives.
Intelligence of the divine did just not begin in Ur in Chaldea, nor sacred wisdom in Salem.
Some sort of intelligence and wisdom probably reigned, more than five thousand years ago, among chosen, attentive, dedicated spirits. These men left as a legacy the hymns they sang, in precise and chiselled phrases, evoking the salient mysteries that already assailed them:
Of the Creator of all things, what can be said? What is His name?
What is the primary source of « Being »? How to name the primordial « Sun », from which the entire Cosmos emerged?
Who is really the Lord imposing His lordship on all beings, – and on the ‘Being’ itself ?
And what does this pronoun, Who, really mean in this context?
What is the role of Man, his true part in this mystery at play?
A Vedic hymn, famous among all, summarizes and condenses all these difficult questions into one single one, both limpid and obscure.
It is Hymn X, 121 of Ṛg Veda, often titled « To the Unknown God ».
In the English translation by Ralph T.H. Griffith, this Hymn is entitled « Ka ».iiKa, in Sanskrit, means «who ? »
This Hymn is dedicated to the God whom the Veda literally calls « Who? »
Griffith translates the exclamation recurring nine times throughout this ten-verses Hymn as follows :
« What God shall we adore with our oblation ? »
But from the point of view of Sanskrit grammar, it is perfectly possible to personify this interrogative pronoun, Ka (Who?) as the very name of the Unknown God.
Hence this possible translation :
To the God ‘Who?’
1. In the beginning appeared the Golden Germ.
As soon as he was born, he became the Lord of Being,
The support of Earth and this Heaven.
What God shall we adore with our oblation ?
2. He, who gives life force and endurance,
He, whose commandments are laws for the Gods,
He, whose shadow is Immortal Life, – and Death.
What God shall we adore with our oblation ?
3. ‘Who?‘ iii – in His greatness appeared, the only sovereign
Of everything that lives, breathes and sleeps,
He, the Lord of Man and all four-membered creatures.
What God shall we adore with our oblation ?
4. To Him belongs by right, by His own power,
The snow-covered mountains, the flows of the world and the sea.
His arms embrace the four quarters of the sky.
What God shall we adore with our oblation ?
5. ‘Who?’ holds the Mighty Heavens and the Earth in safety,
He formed the light, and above it the vast vault of Heaven.
‘Who?’ measured the ether of the intermediate worlds.
What God shall we adore with our oblation ?
6. Towards Him, trembling, forces crushed,
Subjected to his glory, raise their eyes.
Through Him, the sun of dawn projects its light.
What God shall we adore with our oblation ?
7. When came the mighty waters, carrying
The Universal Germ from which Fire springs,
The One Spirit of God was born to be.
What God shall we adore with our oblation ?
8. This Unit, which, in its power, watched over the Waters,
Pregnant with the life forces engendering the Sacrifice,
She is the God of Gods, and there is nothing on Her side.
What God shall we adore with our oblation ?
9. O Father of the Earth, ruling by immutable laws,
Give it to us, and may we become lords of oblation!
What is this divine Germ (Hiraṇyagarbha , or ‘Golden Germ’, in Sanskrit), mentioned in verses 1, 7 and 8?
One does not know, but one can sense it. The Divine is not the result of a creation, nor of an evolution, or of a becoming, as if it was not, – then was. The Veda here attempts a breakthrough in the understanding of the very nature of the divinity, through the image of the ‘germ’, the image of pure life.
The idea of a ‘God’ is only valid from the creature’s point of view. The idea of ‘God’ appears best through its relation to the idea of ‘creature’. For Himself, God is not ‘God’, – He must be, in His own eyes, something completely different, which has nothing to do with the pathos of creation and the creature.
One can make the same remark about « Being ». The « Being » appears only when the beings appear. God creates the beings and the Being at the same time. He Himself is beyond Being, since it is through Him that Being comes to « be ». And before the beings, before the Being itself, it seems that a divine, mysterious life obviously ‘lived’. Not that it ‘was’, since the Being was not yet, but it ‘lived’, hidden, and then ‘was born’. But from what womb? From what prior, primordial, primal uterus? We do not know. We only know that, in an abyssmal mystery (and not in time or space), an even deeper mystery, a sui generis mystery, grew, in this very depth, which was then to come to being, but without the Mystery itself being revealed by this growth and by this outcoming of being.
The place of origin of the mystery is not known, but the Veda calls it ‘Golden Germ’ (hiraṇyagarbha). This metaphor of a ‘Germ’ implies (logically?) some primal ovary and womb, and some desire, some life older than all life, and older than the Being itself.
Life came from this Living One, in Whom, by Whom and from Whom, it was given to the Being ; it was then given to be, and it was given thereby to beings, to all beings.
This mysterious process, which the word ‘Germ’ evokes, is also called ‘Sacrifice’, a word that appears in verse 8: Yajña (यज्ञ). Why « sacrifice » ? Because the divine Seed dies to Herself, She sacrifices Herself, so that out of Her own Life, life, all lives, may be born.
The Veda also says : May God be born to Himself, through His sacrifice…
What a strange thing to say!
By being born, God becomes ‘God’, He becomes the Lord of Being, for the Being, and the Lord of beings. Hymn 121 takes here its mystical flight, and celebrates a God who is the Father of creatures, and who is also always transcendent to the Being, to the world and to his own ‘divinity’ (inasmuch as this divinity allows itself to be seen in its Creation, and allows itself to be grasped in the Unity that it founds).
But who is this God who is so transcendent? Who is this God who hides, behind the appearance of the Origin, below or beyond the very Beginning?
There is no better noun, one might think, than this interrogative pronoun: ‘Who?’.
This pronoun in the form of a question, this ‘Who?’ , this Ka, does not call for an answer. Rather, it calls for another question, which Man addresses to himself: To whom? To whom must Man, seized by the unheard-of depth of the mystery, in turn offer his own sacrifice?
A haunting litany: « What God shall we adore with our oblation ? »
It is not that the name of this God is strictly speaking unknown. Verse 10 uses the expression Prajāpati , ‘Lord of creatures’. It is found in other texts, for example in this passage from Taittirīya Saṁhitā :
« Indra, the latest addition to Prajāpati, was named ‘Lord of the Gods’ by his Father, but they did not accept him. Indra asked her Father to give her the splendor that is in the sun, so that she could be ‘Lord of the Gods’. Prajāpati answered her:
But these two names, Prajāpati and Ka, refer only to something related to creatures, referring either to their Creator, or simply to their ignorance or perplexity.
These names say nothing about the essence of God. This essence is undoubtedly above all intelligibility, and above all essence.
Ka, ‘who?’, in the original Sanskrit text, is actually used in the singular dative form of the pronoun, kasmai (to whom?).
One cannot ask the question ‘who?’ with regard to ‘God’, but only to ‘whom’? One cannot seek to question His essence, but only to try to distinguish Him among all the other possible objects of worship.
God is mentally unknowable. Except perhaps in that we know that a part of His essence is ‘sacrifice’. But we still know nothing of the essence of His ‘sacrifice’. One may only ‘participate’ in it, more or less actively.
One may try to better understand the essence of one’s own sacrifice, one’s own ‘oblation’, if one is ready to pay the price it demands. Indeed, one is both subject and object of one’s oblation. In the same way, God is both subject and object of His sacrifice. One can then try to understand, by anagogy, the essence of His sacrifice through the essence of one’s own oblation.
This precisely is what Raimundo Panikkar describes as the essential ‘Vedic experience’. It is certainly not the personal experience of those Vedic priests and prophets who were chanting their hymns two thousand years before Abraham met Melchisedek, but it could be at least a certain experience of the sacred, of which we ‘modern’ or ‘post-modern’ could still feel the breath and the burning.
iמַלְכֵּי-צֶדֶק , (malkî-ṣedeq) : ‘King of Salem’ and ‘Priest of the Most High (El-Elyôn)’.
iiRalph T.H. Griffith. The Hymns of the Rig Veda. Motilal Banarsidass Publihers. Delhi, 2004, p.628
iiiIn the original Sanskit: क , Ka ? « To Whom ? »
iv Prajāpati : » Lord of creatures « . This expression, so often quoted in the later texts of the Atharva Veda and Brāhmaṇa, is never used in the Ṛg Veda, except in this one place (RV X,121,10). It may therefore have been interpolated later. Or, – more likely in my opinion, it represents here, effectively and spontaneously, the first historically recorded appearance (in the oldest religious tradition in the world that has formally come down to us), or the ‘birth’ of the concept of ‘Lord of Creation’, ‘Lord of creatures’, – Prajāpati .
vTB II, 2, 10, 1-2 quoted by Raimundo Panikkar, The Vedic Experience. Mantramañjarī. Darton, Longman & Todd, London, 1977, p.69
Taken together, the Self, the inner being, hidden in its abyss, under several veils, and the Ego, the outer being, filled with sensations, thoughts, feelings, vibrating with the life of circumstances and contingencies, offer the image of a radical duality. This constitutive, intrinsic duality is analogous, it seems to me, to that of the God who ‘hides’ Himself, but who nevertheless reveals Himself in some way, and sometimes lets Himself be seen (or understood). This is a very ancient (human) experience of the divine. Far from presenting Himself to man in all His glory, God certainly hides Himself, everywhere, all the time, and in many ways. There are indeed many ways for Him to let Himself be hidden. But how would we know that God exists, if He were always, irremediably, hidden? First of all, the Jewish Scriptures, and not the least, affirm that He is, and that He is hidden. Isaiah proclaims: Aken attah El misttatter. אָכֵן, אַתָּה אֵל מִסְתַּתֵּר .
Moreover, though admittedly a negative proof, it is easy to see how many never see Him, always deny Him, and ignore Him without remorse. But, although very well hidden, God is discovered, sometimes, it is said, to the pure, to the humble, and also to those who ‘really’ seek Him.
Anecdotes abound on this subject, and they must be taken for what they are worth. Rabindranath Tagore wrote: « There was a curious character who came to see me from time to time and used to ask all sorts of absurd questions. Once, for example, he asked me, ‘Have you ever seen God, Sir, with your own eyes?’ And when I had to answer him in the negative, he said that he had seen Him. ‘And what did you see?’ I asked. – ‘He was agitated, convulsing and pulsating before my eyes’, he answered.» ii
I liked this last sentence, at first reading, insofar as the divine seemed to appear here (an undeniable innovation), not as a noun, a substance, or any monolithic or monotheistic attribute, but in the form of three verbs, knotted together – ‘agitate’, ‘convulse’, ‘palpitate’.
Unfortunately, either in metaphysical irony or as a precaution against laughter, the great Tagore immediately nipped this embryonic, agitated, convulsive and palpitating image of divinity in the bud in the very next sentence, inflicting on the reader a brief and Jesuitical judgment: « You can imagine that we were not interested in engaging in deep discussions with such an individual. » iii
For my part, on the contrary, I could not imagine that. It is certain that, whatever it may be, the deep « nature », the « essence » of God, is hidden much more often than it shows itself or lets itself be found.
About God, therefore, the doubt lasts. But, from time to time, sparks fly. Fires blaze. Two hundred and fifty years before the short Bengali theophany just mentioned, Blaise Pascal dared a revolutionary and anachronistic (pre-Hegelian and non-materialist) dialectic, of the ‘and, and’ type. He affirmed that « men are at the same time unworthy of God and capable of God: unworthy by their corruption, capable by their first nature » iv.
Man: angel and beast.
The debate would be very long, and very undecided. Excellent dialectician, Pascal specified, very usefully: « Instead of complaining that God has hidden himself, you will give him thanks that he has discovered himself so much; and you will give him thanks again that he has not discovered himself to the superb wise men, unworthy of knowing a God so holy. » v Sharp as a diamond, the Pascalian sentence never makes acceptance of the conveniences and the clichés, of the views of the PolitBuro of all obediences, and of the religious little marquis. Zero tolerance for any arrogance, any smugness, in these transcendent subjects, in these high matters. On the other hand, what a balance, on the razor blade, between extremes and dualisms, not to blunt them, but to exacerbate them, to magnify them: « If there were no darkness man would not feel his corruption, if there were no light man would not hope for a remedy, so it is not only right, but useful for us that God be hidden in part and discovered in part since it is equally dangerous for man to know God without knowing his misery, and to know his misery without knowing God. » vi This is not all. God makes it clear that He is hiding. That seems to be His strategy. This is how He wants to present Himself, in His creation and with man, with His presence and with His absence… « That God wanted to hide himself. If there were only one religion, God would be very obvious. Likewise, if there were only martyrs in our religion.
God being thus hidden, any religion which does not say that God is hidden is not true, and any religion which does not give the reason for it is not instructive. Ours does all this. Vere tu es deus absconditus.vii«
Here, Pascal quotes Isaiah in Latin. « Truly, You are a hidden God. » Deus absconditus.
I prefer, for my part, the strength of Hebrew sound: El misttatter.
How would we have known that God was hidden if Scripture had not revealed Him? The Scripture certainly reveals Him, in a clear and ambiguous way. « It says in so many places that those who seek God will find him. It does not speak of this light as the day at noon. It is not said that those who seek the day at noon, or water in the sea, will find it; and so it is necessary that the evidence of God is not such in nature; also it tells us elsewhere: Vere tu es Deus absconditus. » viii Absconditus in Latin, misttatter in Hebrew, caché in French.
But, in the Greek translation of this verse of Isaiah by the seventy rabbis of Alexandria, we read:
σὺ γὰρ εἶ θεός, καὶ οὐκ ᾔδειμεν Su gar eï theos, kai ouk êdeimen.
Which litterally means: « Truly You are God, and we did not know it »… A whole different perspective appears, then. Languages inevitably bring their own veils. How do we interpret these variations? The fact that we do not know whether God is ‘really God’, or whether He is ‘really hidden’, does not necessarily imply that He might not really be God, or that He will always be hidden. Pascal states that if God has only appeared once, the chances are that He is always in a position to appear again, when He pleases. But did He appear only once? Who can say with absolute certainty? On the other hand, if He really never appeared to any man, then yes, we would be justified in making the perfectly reasonable observation that the divinity is indeed ‘absent’, and we would be led to make the no less likely hypothesis that it will remain so. But this would not prevent, on the other hand, that other interpretations of this absence could be made, such as that man is decidedly unworthy of the divine presence (hence his absence), or even that man is unworthy of the consciousness of this absence.
Now Pascal, for his part, really saw God, – he saw Him precisely on Monday, November 23, 1654, from half past ten in the evening to half past midnight. « Fire. God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not God of the philosophers and scholars. Certainty. Certainty. Feeling. Joy. Peace. God of Jesus Christ. » ix This point being acquired (why put in doubt this writing of Pascal, discovered after his death, and sewn in the lining of his pourpoint?), one can let oneself be carried along by the sequences, the deductions and the exercise of reason that Pascal himself proposes.
« If nothing of God had ever appeared, this eternal deprivation would be equivocal, and could just as well refer to the absence of any divinity as to the unworthiness of men to know it; but the fact that he appears sometimes, and not always, removes the equivocation. If he appears once, he is always; and thus one cannot conclude anything except that there is a God, and that men are unworthy of him» x. Pascal’s reasoning is tight, impeccable. How can one not follow it and approve its course? It must be admitted: either God has never appeared on earth or among men, or He may have appeared at least once or a few times. This alternative embodies the ‘tragic’ question, – a ‘theatrical’ question on the forefront of the world stage… One must choose. Either the total and eternal absence and disappearance of God on earth, since the beginning of time, or a few untimely divine appearances, a few rare theophanies, reserved for a few chosen ones…
In all cases, God seemed to have left the scene of the world since His last appearance, or to have decided never to appear again, thus putting in scene His deliberate absence. But, paradoxically, the significance of this absence had not yet been perceived, and even less understood, except by a tiny handful of out-of-touch thinkers, for whom, in the face of this absence of God, « no authentic human value has any more necessary foundation, and, on the other hand, all non-values remain possible and even probable. » xi A Marxist and consummate dialectician, Lucien Goldmann, devoted his thesis to the ‘hidden god’. He established a formal link between the theophany staged by Isaiah, and the ‘tragic vision’ incarnated by Racine, and Pascal. « The voice of God no longer speaks to man in an immediate way. Here is one of the fundamental points of the tragic thought. Vere tu es Deus absconditus‘, Pascal will write. » xii Pascal’s quotation of the verse from Isaiah will be taken up several times by Goldmann, like an antiphon, and even in the title of his book. « Deus absconditus. Hidden God. Fundamental idea for the tragic vision of God, and for Pascal’s work in particular (…): God is hidden from most men but he is visible to those he has chosen by granting them grace. » xiii
Goldmann interprets Pascal in his own strictly ‘dialectical’ way. He rejects any reading of Pascal according to binary oppositions ‘either…or…’. « This way of understanding the idea of the hidden God would be false and contrary to the whole of Pascalian thought which never says yes or no but always yes and no. The hidden God is for Pascal a God who is present and absent and not present sometimes and absent sometimes; but always present and always absent. » xiv The constant presence of opposites and the work of immanent contradiction demand it. And this presence of opposites is itself a very real metaphor for the absent presence (or present absence) of the hidden God. « The being of the hidden God is for Pascal, as for the tragic man in general, a permanent presence more important and more real than all empirical and sensible presences, the only essential presence. A God always absent and always present, that is the center of tragedy. » xv
But what does ‘always present and always absent‘ really mean? This is the ‘dialectical’ answer of a Marxist thinker tackling the (tragic) theophany of absence, – as seen by the prophet Isaiah, and by Pascal. In this difficult confrontation with such unmaterialist personalities, Goldmann felt the need to call to the rescue another Marxist, Georg von Lucàcs, to support his dialectical views on the absent (and present) God. « In 1910, without thinking of Pascal, Lucàcs began his essay: ‘Tragedy is a game, a game of man and his destiny, a game in which God is the spectator. But he is only a spectator, and neither his words nor his gestures are ever mixed with the words and gestures of the actors. Only his eyes rest on them’. xvi
To then pose the central problem of all tragic thought: ‘Can he still live, the man on whom God’s gaze has fallen?’ Is there not incompatibility between life and the divine presence? » xvii
It is piquant to see a confirmed Marxist make an implicit allusion to the famous passage in Exodus where the meeting of God and Moses on Mount Horeb is staged, and where the danger of death associated with the vision of the divine face is underlined. It is no less piquant to see Lucàcs seeming to confuse (is this intentional?) the ‘gaze of God’ falling on man with the fact that man ‘sees the face’ of God… It is also very significant that Lucàcs, a Marxist dialectician, combines, as early as 1910, an impeccable historical materialism with the storm of powerful inner tensions, of deep spiritual aspirations, going so far as to affirm the reality of the ‘miracle’ (for God alone)…
What is perhaps even more significant is that the thought of this Hungarian Jew, a materialist revolutionary, seems to be deeply mixed with a kind of despair as to the human condition, and a strong ontological pessimism, tempered with a putative openness towards the reality of the divine (miracle)… « Daily life is an anarchy of chiaroscuro; nothing is ever fully realized, nothing reaches its essence… everything flows, one into the other, without barriers in an impure mixture; everything is destroyed and broken, nothing ever reaches the authentic life. For men love in existence what it has of atmospheric, of uncertain… they love the great uncertainty like a monotonous and sleepy lullaby. They hate all that is univocal and are afraid of it (…) The man of the empirical life never knows where his rivers end, because where nothing is realized everything remains possible (…) But the miracle is realization (…) It is determined and determining; it penetrates in an unforeseeable way in the life and transforms it in a clear and univocal account. He removes from the soul all its deceptive veils woven of brilliant moments and vague feelings rich in meaning; drawn with hard and implacable strokes, the soul is thus in its most naked essence before his gaze. » And Lucàcs to conclude, in an eminently unexpected apex: « But before God the miracle alone is real. » xviii
Strange and provocative sentence, all the more mysterious that it wants to be materialist and dialectic…
Does Lucàcs invite man to consider history (or revolution) as a miracle that he has to realize, like God? Or does he consider historical materialism as the miraculous unfolding of something divine in man? Stranger still is Lucien Goldmann’s commentary on this sentence of Lucàcs: « We can now understand the meaning and importance for the tragic thinker and writer of the question: ‘Can the man on whom God’s gaze has fallen still live?’» xix
But, isn’t the classic question rather: ‘Can the man who looks up to God still live? Doesn’t Lucàcs’ new, revised question, taken up by Goldmann, imply a univocal answer ? Such as : – ‘For man to live, God must be hidden’ or even, more radically: ‘For man to live, God must die’. But this last formulation would undoubtedly sound far too ‘Christian’…
In the end, can God really ‘hide’ or a fortiori can He really ‘die’? Are these words, ‘hide’, ‘die’, really compatible with a transcendent God? Is Isaiah’s expression, ‘the hidden God’ (El misttatter), clear, univocal, or does it itself hide a universe of less apparent, more ambiguous meanings? A return to the text of Isaiah is no doubt necessary here. In theory, and to be complete, it would also be necessary to return to other religious traditions, even more ancient than the Jewish one, which have also dealt with the theme of the hidden god (or the unknown god), notably the Vedic tradition and that of ancient Egypt. The limits of this article do not allow it. Nevertheless, it must be said emphatically that the intuition of a ‘hidden god’ is probably as old as humanity itself. However, it must be recognized that Isaiah has, from the heart of Jewish tradition, strongly and solemnly verbalized the idea of the ‘hidden God’, while immediately associating it with that of the ‘saving God’. אָכֵן, אַתָּה אֵל מִסְתַּתֵּר–אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, מוֹשִׁיעַ. Aken attah, El misttatter – Elohai Israel, mochi’a. « Truly, You, hidden God – God of Israel, Savior. » xx A few centuries after Isaiah, the idea of the God of Israel, ‘hidden’ and ‘savior’, became part of the consciousness called, perhaps too roughly, ‘Judeo-Christian’. It is therefore impossible to understand the semantic value of the expression « hidden God » without associating it with « God the savior », in the context of the rich and sensitive inspiration of the prophet Isaiah. Perhaps, moreover, other metaphorical, anagogical or mystical meanings are still buried in Isaiah’s verses, so obviously full of a sensitive and gripping mystery?
Shortly before directly addressing the ‘hidden God’ and ‘savior’, Isaiah had reported the words of the God of Israel addressing the Persian Cyrus, – a key figure in the history of Israel, at once Persian emperor, savior of the Jewish people, figure of the Messiah, and even, according to Christians, a prefiguration of Christ. This last claim was not totally unfounded, at least on the linguistic level, for Cyrus is clearly designated by Isaiah as the « Anointed » (mochi’a)xxi of the Lord. Now the Hebrew word mochi’a is translated precisely as christos, ‘anointed’ in Greek, and ‘messiah‘ in English.
According to Isaiah, this is what God said to His ‘messiah’, Cyrus: « I will give you treasures (otserot) in darkness (ḥochekh), and hidden (misttarim) riches (matmunei) , that you may know that I am YHVH, calling you by your name (chem), – the God of Israel (Elohai Israel). » xxii
Let us note incidentally that the word matmunei, ‘riches’, comes from the verb טָמַן, taman, ‘to hide, to bury’, as the verse says: « all darkness (ḥochekh) bury (tamun) his treasures » xxiii. We thus learn that the ‘treasures’ that Isaiah mentions in verse 45:3, are triply concealed: they are in ‘darkness’, they are ‘buried’ and they are ‘hidden’…
The accumulation of these veils and multiple hiding places invites us to think that such well hidden treasures are only ever a means, a pretext. They hide in their turn, in reality, the reason, even more profound, for which they are hidden…
These treasures are perhaps hidden in the darkness and they are carefully buried, so that Cyrus sees there motivation to discover finally, he the Anointed One, what it is really necessary for him to know. And what he really needs to know are three names (chem), revealed to him, by God… First the unspeakable name, ‘YHVH’, then the name by which YHVH will henceforth call Cyrus, (a name which is not given by Isaiah), and finally the name Elohéï Israel (‘God of Israel’).
As for us, what we are given to know is that the ‘hidden God’ (El misttatter) is also the God who gives Cyrus ‘hidden riches’ (matmunei misttarim). The verbal root of misttatter and misttarim is סָתַר, satar. In the Hithpael mode, this verb takes on the meaning of ‘to hide’, as in Is 45:15, « You, God, hide yourself », or ‘to become darkened’, as in Is 29:14, « And the mind will be darkened ».
In the Hiphil mode, the verb satar, used with the word panim, ‘face’, takes on the meaning of ‘covering the face’, or ‘turning away the face’, opening up other moral, mystical or anagogical meanings. We find satar and panim associated in the verses: « Moses covered his face » (Ex 3:6), « God turned away his face » (Ps 10:11), « Turn away your face from my sins » (Ps 51:11), « Do not turn away your face from me » (Ps 27:9), « Your sins make him turn his face away from you » (Is 59:2).
Note that, in the same verbal mode, satar can also take on the meaning of « to protect, to shelter », as in: « Shelter me under the shadow of your wings » (Ps 17:8). In biblical Hebrew, there are at least a dozen verbal roots meaning « to hide » xxiv , several of which are associated with meanings evoking material hiding places (such as « to bury », « to preserve », « to make a shelter »). Others, rarer, refer to immaterial hiding places or shelters and meanings such as ‘keep’, ‘protect’. Among this abundance of roots, the verbal root satar offers precisely the particularityxxv of associating the idea of « hiding place » and « secret » with that of « protection », carried for example by the word sétèr: « You are my protection (sétèr) » (Ps 32:7); « He who dwells under the protection (sétèr) of the Most High, in the shadow (tsèl) of the Almighty » (Ps 91:1).xxvi
Isaiah 45:15, « Truly, You, the hidden God, » uses the verbal root satar for the word « hidden » (misttatter). Satar thus evokes not only the idea of a God « who hides » but also connotes a God « who protects, shelters » and « saves » (from the enemy or from affliction). Thus we learn that the God « who hides » is also the God « who reveals ». And, what He reveals of His Self does « save ».
iiRabindranath Tagore. Souvenirs. 1924. Gallimard. Knowledge of the Orient, p. 185
iiiRabindranath Tagore. Souvenirs. 1924. Gallimard. Knowledge of the Orient, p. 185
ivPascal. Thoughts. Fragment 557. Edition by Léon Brunschvicg. Paris, 1904
vPascal. Thoughts. Fragment 288. Edition by Léon Brunschvicg. Paris, 1904
viPascal. Thoughts. Fragment 586. Edition by Léon Brunschvicg. Paris, 1906
viiPascal. Thoughts. Fragment 585. Edition by Léon Brunschvicg. Paris, 1904
viiiPascal. Thoughts. Fragment 242. Edition by Léon Brunschvicg. Paris, 1904
ixPascal. Memorial. In Pensées, Edition by Léon Brunschvicg. Paris, 1904, p.4
xPascal. Thoughts. Fragment 559. Edition by Léon Brunschvicg. Paris, 1904
xiLucien Goldmann. The Hidden God. Study on the tragic vision in Pascal’s Pensées and in Racine’s theater. Gallimard. 1955, p. 44. Expressions in italics are by the author.
xiiLucien Goldmann. The Hidden God. Study on the tragic vision in Pascal’s Pensées and in Racine’s theater. Gallimard. 1955, p. 45
xiiiLucien Goldmann. The Hidden God. Study on the tragic vision in Pascal’s Pensées and in Racine’s theater. Gallimard. 1955, p. 46
xivLucien Goldmann. The Hidden God. Study on the tragic vision in Pascal’s Pensées and in Racine’s theater. Gallimard. 1955, p. 46. Expressions in italics are by the author.
xvLucien Goldmann. The Hidden God. Study on the tragic vision in Pascal’s Pensées and in Racine’s theater. Gallimard. 1955, p. 46-47. Expressions in italics are by the author.
xviLucien Goldmann. The Hidden God. Study on the tragic vision in Pascal’s Pensées and in Racine’s theater. Gallimard. 1955, p. 46-47. Expressions in italics are by the author.
xviiLucien Goldmann. The Hidden God. Study on the tragic vision in Pascal’s Pensées and in Racine’s theater. Gallimard. 1955, p. 47
xviiiGeorg von Lucàcs. Die Seele und dir Formen. p. 328-330, quoted in Lucien Goldmann. The Hidden God. Study on the tragic vision in Pascal’s Pensées and in Racine’s theater. Gallimard. 1955, p. 48-49
xixLucien Goldmann. The Hidden God. Study on the tragic vision in Pascal’s Pensées and in Racine’s theater. Gallimard. 1955, p. 49
xxivIt would be out of place to make an exhaustive analysis of this in this article, but we will return to it later. The roots in question are as follows: חבא, חבה, טמן ,כּחד,כּסה, נצר, כּפר, סכךְ, סתם, סתר, עמם, עלם. They cover a wide semantic spectrum: ‘to hide, to hide, to bury, to cover, to cover, to keep, to guard, to protect, to preserve, to make a shelter, to close, to keep secret, to obscure, to be obscure’.
xxvAs well as the verbal roots צפן and סכךְ, although these have slightly different nuances.
xxviIt would be indispensable to enter into the depths of the Hebrew language in order to grasp all the subtlety of the semantic intentions and the breadth of the metaphorical and intertextual evocations that are at stake. Only then is it possible to understand the ambivalence of the language, which is all the more amplified in the context of divine presence and action. The same verbal root (tsur) indeed evokes both ‘enemy’ and ‘protection’, ‘fight’ and ‘shelter’, but also subliminally evokes the famous ‘rock’ (tsur) in the cleft of which God placed Moses to ‘protect’ him when He appeared to him in His glory on Mount Horeb. « I will place you in the cleft of the rock (tsur) and I will shelter you (or hide you, – verb שָׂכַךֽ sakhakh) from my ‘hand’ (kaf, literally, from my ‘hollow’) until I have passed over. « (Ex 33:22) For example, puns and alliterations proliferate in verse 7 of Psalm 32. Just after the first hemisphere ‘You are my protection (attah seter li)’, we read: מִצַּר תִּצְּרֵנִי , mi-tsar ti-tsre-ni (« from the enemy, or from affliction, you save me »). There is here a double alliteration playing on the phonetic proximity of the STR root of the word sétèr (‘protection’), of the TSR root of the word tsar, denoting the enemy or affliction, and of the tsar verb ‘to protect, guard, save’. This is not just an alliteration, but a deliberate play on words, all derived from the verbal root צוּר , tsour, ‘to besiege, fight, afflict; to bind, enclose’: – the word צַר, tsar, ‘adversary, enemy; distress, affliction; stone’; – the word צוּר , tsur, ‘rock, stone’; – the verb צָרַר, tsar, ‘to bind, envelop, guard; oppress, fight; be cramped, be afflicted, be in anguish’.
Caph, כ , the eleventh letter of the Hebrew alphabet, has the shape of an inverted C, and presents, graphically and symbolically, the figure of a ‘hollow’. This idea of the hollow is also found in the Hebrew word כָּף caph, which can also be transcribed kaf. This word refers to several parts of the human body, the hollow or palm of the hand, the sole of the foot, the concavity of the hip (more technically, the ischium of the iliac bone), all having in common a ‘hollow’ shape. The notion of ‘hollow’ attached to this word etymologically derives from the verbal root כָּפַף , kafaf, ‘to fold, bend’, and in the passive ‘to be folded, bent; to be hollow’.
Curiously enough, the word kaf is directly associated with what must be called the ‘body’ of God, or at least with its bodily metaphors, in two particularly significant episodes in the Hebrew Bible, – Jacob’s nightly battle with Godi, and the passage of the Glory of God before Mosesii. In both of these key moments, the idea of the « hollow » carried by the kaf plays a crucial role.
In the first episode, a ‘man’ (i.e. God himself, or one of his envoys) strikes Jacob in the ‘hollow’ (kaf) of the hip, causing its dislocation, hastening the end of the battle. Since that day, the children of Israel, in memory of this blow to the kaf, respect a dietary prohibition prescribing the removal of the sciatic nerve, supposed to symbolize the part of Jacob’s body bruised by the blow.
In the second episode, God addresses Moses, saying: « I will place you in the cleft of the rock and cover you with my kaf, [literally – with my ‘hollow’, or the ‘palm’ of my hand, – if one may so express oneself in speaking anthropomorphically of the Lord…], until I have passediii. »
In the first episode, God ‘touches’ or ‘strikes’ Jacob’s kaf. The verb used to describe the action is נָגַע, nâga‘, ‘to touch, to smite’. Whether He touches or strikes Jacob, God must undoubtedly use His ‘hand’, i.e., His kaf, to wound Jacob’s kaf. Admittedly the kaf of God is only implied here in the Genesis text. But it is implicitly made necessary by the use of the verb nâga‘, which implies a physical contact effective enough to dislocate Jacob’s hip. God’s kaf (or the ‘hollow’ of the hand) ‘touched’ or ‘struck’ Jacob’s kaf (the ‘hollow’ of the hip). Hollow against hollow.
In the second episode, God uses two levels of protection, two types of cover, to shield Moses from the deadly brilliance of His Glory. On the one hand, He places him in the ‘cleft of the rock’ (niqrat ha-tsur), and on the other, He covers Moses with His kaf. Hollow on hollow.
Two questions then arise: -Why are two layers of protection (the ‘cleft of the rock’ and then God’s kaf) necessary here? -What exactly is the kaf of God, – if we give up translating this word by an expression that is far too anthropomorphic, and therefore unacceptable, like ‘palm of the hand’?
To the first question, we can answer that God probably wants to protect Moses’body by hiding him in the cleft of the rock, but that he also wants to protect Moses’ spirit or soul by covering Moses with His kaf. The second question invites us to return to the etymology of the word kaf to try to understand its meaning in the context of this theophany. God says that He will ‘cover’ Moses with His kaf. The verb used for ‘cover’ is שָׂכַךְ, sâkhakh, very close to the verb סָכַךְ, sâkhakh, ‘to make a shelter’, from which is derived the word soukhot (designating the booths of the Feast of Booths).
Now there is another Hebrew verb meaning ‘to cover’, which is also very close phonetically and etymologically to kaf, it is the verb כָּפַר kafar, ‘to cover, to forgive; to atone, to purify’. This puts us on a promising track. When God ‘covers’ Moses with the divine kaf, there is expressed here an idea of protection and shelter, but perhaps also, more subliminally, the idea of ‘covering’ (kafar) Moses’ weaknesses, or sins, in order to cleanse him of them so that he is allowed to see God, if only ‘from behind’.
The following verse indeed tells us what happens after God’s passage. « Then I will remove my kaf, and you will see me from behind, but my face cannot be seen.iv
The shifts in meaning between kaf, kafaf, kafar, reveal a certain kinship between ‘hollow’, ‘palm’, ‘covering’ and, in an allegorical sense, ‘covering’ [faults], ‘forgiving’ and ‘purifying’v. This is indeed a second level of protection that God agrees to give to the spirit of Moses after having placed his body in the « cleft of the rock ».
These shifts take on an additional symbolic dimension when we consider the word כֵּף kef, which is perfectly similar to kaf, except for the vocalization, and has the same etymological provenance as kaf.
Now kef means ‘rock’, which implies a symbolic proximity between the idea of ‘hollow’ and that of ‘rock’. Note that the ‘rock’ into whose cleft God places Moses (in Ex 33:22) is not designated as a kef, but as a tsur, which is another word for rock. However, the simple fact that the words kaf (‘hollow’) and kef (‘rock’) have the same verbal root kafaf, ‘to be curved, to be hollow’, draws our attention to the fact that some rocks can all the better offer refuge or protection because they are ‘hollow’, such as caverns or caves, whereas other types of rocks possess only crevices or slits, such as the rock called צוּר , tsur.
Note also that the word tsur, ‘rock’, comes from the verbal root צור , tsour, which means ‘to bind, wrap, confine, compress, enclose’. According to Ernest Klein’s Etymological Dictionary, this verbal root, tsour, itself derives from the Akkadian words uṣurutu and eṣēru (‘to draw, to form, to shape’).
The Hebrew words kef and tsur thus both mean ‘rock’, but both words come from two verbal roots that connote, respectively, the ideas of folding, curving, hollowing, and the ideas of enveloping, confining, enclosing, but also of shaping, molding.
One will be sensitive to the proximity and the shifts of these universes of meaning, within the framework of the two exceptional scenes that we evoked, the night fight of Jacob and the vision of Moses on Sinai.
Through the metaphors and metonymies with they encourage, these words draw a wider landscape of meaning, which includes ‘hollow’ and ‘rock’, ‘protection’ and ‘forgiveness’, ‘envelopment’ and ‘enclosure’, ‘form’, ‘shaping’, and the ‘model’ that imposes its ‘shape’ on the image.
From the kaf, of ‘hollow’ form, כ, both open on one side and closed on the other three sides, spring multiple ‘images’: the dislocated hollow of Jacob’s hip, the protective hollow of the divine kaf, or the slit on the closed form of the tsur.
Faced with these insights into Hebrew semantic universe, the goyim could easily feel little concerned by these purely internal considerations proper to the Hebrew language.
Yet, through another twist, I think they may be incited to open up to the mystery that kaf, kef and tsur do cover, hide and conceal.
It so happens that the word kef, ‘rock, stone’, is precisely the word that serves as the root of the name Kephas, the new name that Jesus gave to his disciple Simon: « You are Simon, son of Jonah; you shall be called Kephas, which means Peter (stone) »vi reports the Gospel of John. Kephas (i.e. Simon-Peter) was from then on, by the play of displacements that the word kef authorizes and encourages, the ‘foundation stone’ on which Jesus built his Church, thus taking up in his own way the example given by the prophet Isaiah: « I have set deep in Zion a stone, a tried and tested stone, a cornerstone « .vii
But Kephas, it should be noted, was also the very same name of the high priest Caiaphas who was to condemn Jesus to death. The etymology thus linked in an indissoluble and perhaps symbolic way the patronymic of the first of the popes of the Church with the patronymic of one of the last high priests of the Temple of Jerusalem…
What a metaphysical irony that Jesus chose to name his apostle Simon Kephas (that is, Caiaphas)… What a metaphysical irony that the high priest Caiaphas (i.e., Kephas or ‘Peter’), was also the name of the one who plotted shortly after Jesus’ death…
Let us conclude.
The divine kaf, the ‘hollow’ that strikes, dislocates, protects or forgives, is close in many ways to the kef, the ‘rock’, that establishes, and founds.
The name Kephas, which gave rise to the non-Hebrew names Petrus, Boutros, Peter, Pierre, is also the name of one of the last high priests of Jerusalem, Caiaphas.
The Temple and the Church seem here to be linked through a single root, kef, which binds together the twilight of the former and the dawn of the latter. Today the Temple of Jerusalem is no more, and the destiny of its high priests seems to have ended. The Church, on the other hand, is still there, – as is of course the Synagogue.
It is the Temple that seems to have no more any kef to be built upon.
Some words, which are supposed to ‘express’ something, in fact hide what they do not openly say, what they indeed cover. And the One who speaks these words also hides ‘behind’ them, – in the emptiness of their ‘hollow’…
vI would like to thank Professor M. Buydens (Université Libre de Bruxelles and Université de Louvain) for suggesting that I exploit the similarity between the Hebrew words kaf, kafar and the Arabic word kafir, ‘infidel’. I found in Kazimirski’s Arabic-French dictionary that the word kafir comes from the verbal root kafara, ‘to cover; to hide, to conceal’ and, in a derived way, ‘to forget, to deny the benefits received’, hence ‘to be ungrateful; to be unfaithful, to be incredulous, not to believe in one God’. It can be inferred from this that, according to the respective genius of the languages, the Hebrew word kafar connotes the idea of ‘covering [evil]’, and therefore ‘forgiving’. The Arabic word kafara connotes the idea of ‘covering [the good]’, and therefore ‘denying, denying, being unfaithful’…
viiIs 28,16. Let us note that Isaiah uses here another word for ‘stone’, the word אֶבֶן, even, whose etymology is the same as that of the word ben, ‘son’, and which connotes the fact of founding, the fact of building… The word even is very ancient, and is found in Phoenician, Aramaic, Ethiopian and even in Egyptian (ôbn), according to Ernest Klein’s Etymological Dictionary.
During a strange and famous night, Jacob struggled for a long time with a ‘man’, hand to hand, thigh to thigh. Neither winner nor loser. Finally, the ‘man’ struck Jacob in the hollow (kaf) of the hip (yarakh). The hip dislocated.i
In Hebrew, the word kaf has several meanings: « the hollow, the palm of the hand; the sole of the foot; or the concavity of the hip (the ischium, one of the three bones that make up the hipbone) ». These meanings all derive from the verbal root kafaf meaning ‘that which is curved, that which is hollow’. In another vocalization (kef), this word also means ‘rock, cave’.
Jacob’s battle did not end until his adversary, the man, wanted to leave at dawn. But Jacob would not let him go. He said to him: « I will not leave you until you have blessed me »ii .
This was a strange request, addressed to a determined adversary who had been able to hit him in the weakest point, in the hollow of the thigh, dislocating it. A strange, disjointed dialogue followed. The man asked Jacob: “What is your name?” He answered: “Jacob”. The man replied, « Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have fought with God and with men, and have prevailed »iii. Was it against God himself that Jacob had been fighting all night? And had Jacob fought not only against God, but also ‘with men’? And had he decisively defeated all them, divine and human, only at the price of a dislocated hip?
However his apparent success was not complete… His name had indeed been changed for eternity, and he had received eloquent praise, but Jacob was still not blessed, despite his urgent request. Changing his tactics, he questioned the ‘man’: « Let me, I pray thee, know thy name. He answered : – Why do you ask my name? And he blessed him there »iv.
‘He blessed him, there’. In Hebrew: Va yebarekh cham. The word cham means ‘there’; but in a very close vocalization, the word chem means ‘name’. Jacob asked the man for his ‘name’ (chem), and in response the man blessed him, ‘there’ (cham).
This is literally a ‘metaphor’, – that is to say, a ‘displacement’ of the ‘name’ (chem) to a place, ‘there’ (cham). And this ‘there’, this ‘place’, was soon to receive a new name (Peni-El), given by Jacob-Israel.
The divine transcendence, which does not reveal its name (chem) here, suggests that Jacob is faced with an absolute non-knowledge, a radical impossibility of hearing the (ineffable) name. This non-knowledge and this transcendent non-saying can nevertheless be grasped, through a metaphor of immanence, through the displacement towards the ‘there’ (cham), but also through a metaphor inscribed in the body, in the hollow (kaf) of the hip and in the ‘displacement’ (the dislocation) that this hollow makes possible.
What a curious encounter, then, that of Jacob with the divine!
Jacob had fought without winning, nor being defeated, but the hollow of his hip was struck, and of this dislocated hip, the children of Israel still keep the memory by a food taboo… Jacob had asked to be blessed by his adversary, but the latter had only changed his name (chem), – without however blessing him. Jacob then asked the man for his own name (chem), and the man, as his only answer, finally blessed him, ‘there’ (cham), but still without giving him his name (chem). Since he did not know this name, which was kept secret, Jacob gave this place, this ‘there’ (cham), the name (chem) of ‘Peni-El‘. « For, he said, I have seen God face to face, and my life (nefech) has been saved. »v Since he could not hear the proper name of God, Jacob gave a name to this place, using the generic word El, which means ‘god’. Peni-El, word for word, ‘face of God’.
This was an a posteriori affirmation that the ‘man’ against whom Jacob had fought was in fact God, or at least some living being who had presented him with a ‘face’ of God… Now, it had long been accepted in the ancient religion of the Hebrews that one cannot see the face of God without dying. Jacob had struggled ‘against God’ and had seen His face, yet he had not died. His own name had been changed, and he had been blessed, – but the name (of God) had not been revealed to him. This revelation would be made much later to Moses, but then Moses would not see the ‘face of God’, since he had to take refuge in the ‘hollow’ of another rock, and see only the back of God…
To Jacob and Moses were revealed the Name or the Face, – not the Name and the Face.
Let us add that all this scene took place at night. Then the sun came. « The sun was beginning to shine on him when he left Peni-El »vi.
This direct reference to the sun (and to the light of day) seems to give the solar star the role of a negator of the night, and of revelation. It is probably not unrelated either, from the Hebrew point of view, to the ancient Egyptian culture, which is known to have seen in the ‘sun’, as in ‘night’, one of the symbols of the divine.
To understand this implicit reference in its relation to the story of Jacob’s struggle against ‘man’ or against ‘God’, it may be useful to cite a singular episode in the story of Ra, – this solar God who also, strikingly enough, refused to reveal his ineffable name to a tireless questioner, Isis.
The famous Egyptologist, Gaston Maspéro, has described this story in detail, taking as his source the ‘hieratic’ papyri of Turin, dating back to the Ramesside period of the nineteenth and twentieth dynasties, from the end of the fourteenth century to the twelfth century B.C., and thus some two or three centuries before the period corresponding to the generations of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
« Nothing shows this better than the story of Ra. His universe was the outline of ours, for Shu did not yet exist, Nouît continued to rest in the arms of Sibou, and the sky was one with the earth. « vii
By dint of his generosity towards men, the God Ra had kept only one of his powers, his own Name, which his father and mother had given him, which they had revealed to him alone and which he kept hidden in the depths of his chest, for fear that a magician or a sorcerer would seize it.viii But Ra was getting old, his body was bending, « his mouth was shivering, his drool was running to the ground, and his saliva was dripping on the ground »ix. It so happened that « Isis, until then a simple woman in the service of Pharaoh, conceived the project of robbing him of his secret ‘in order to possess the world and to make herself a goddess by the name of the august godx. Violence would not have succeeded: weakened as he was by years, no one had enough strength to fight against him successfully. But Isis ‘was a woman who knew more in her malice than millions of men, who was skillful among millions of gods, who was equal to millions of spirits, and who knew everything in heaven or on earth, as much as Ra did’xi. She devised a most ingenious stratagem. If a man or a god was ill, the only way to cure him was to know his true name and to call upon the evil being who was tormenting himxii. Isis resolved to launch a terrible evil against Ra, the cause of which she would conceal from him, and then to offer to heal him and to wrest from him through suffering the mysterious word indispensable to the success of the exorcism. She collected the mud impregnated with the divine slime, and kneaded a sacred snake of it which she buried in the dust of the road. The god, bitten unexpectedly as he left for his daily rounds, uttered a howl: ‘his voice went up to heaven and his Novena, « What is it, what is it? », and his gods, « What is it, what is it? », but he did not find what to answer them, so much his lips were chattering, so much his limbs were trembling, so much the venom was taking on his flesh, as the Nile takes on the ground which it invades. »xiii He came back to himself however and managed to express what he felt (…): ‘Here, let them bring me the children of the gods with the beneficent words, who know the power of their mouth and whose knowledge reaches the sky! They came, the children of the gods, each of them with their grimoires. She came, Isis, with her sorcery, her mouth full of life-giving breaths, her recipe for destroying pain, her words that pour life into breathless throats, and she said: ‘What is this, what is this, O father-gods? Is it not that a serpent produces pain in you, that one of your children raises his head against you? Surely he will be overthrown by beneficent incantations and I will force him to retreat at the sight of your rays.’xiv The Sun, learning the cause of his torments, is frightened (…). Isis offers him her remedy and discreetly asks him for the ineffable name, but he guesses the ruse and tries to get out of it by enumerating his titles. He takes the universe as witness that he is called ‘Khopri in the morning, Ra at noon, Toumou in the evening’. The venom did not flow back, but it still worked and the great god was not relieved. Then Isis said to Ra: ‘Your name is not stated in what you have recited to me! Tell me and the venom will come out, for the individual lives, let him be charmed in his own name.’ The venom was like fire, it was strong like the burning of the flame, so the Majesty of Ra said: ‘I grant that you search me, O mother Isis, and that my name pass from my breast into your breast.’xv The almighty name was really hidden in the body of the god, and it could only be extracted by a surgical operation, similar to that which corpses undergo at the beginning of mummification. Isis undertook it, succeeded, drove out the poison, and became a goddess by virtue of the Name. The skill of a simple woman had stripped Ra of his last talisman. »xvi
Let us put in parallel the two stories, that of the fight of Jacob in Genesis and that of the extortion of the ineffable name of Ra by Isis, in the Turin papyrus. Jacob is a man, intelligent, rich, head of a large family and of a numerous domesticity. Isis is a simple woman, a servant of the Pharaoh, but very cunning and determined at all costs to reach a divine status. Jacob fights against a man who is in reality God (or an envoy of God, possessing his ‘face’). He asks him for his blessing and his name, but only obtains the blessing, the change of his own name, without the ineffable name of God (only known under the generic name ‘El’) being revealed to him. Isis deceives the God (publicly known as Ra, Khopri, or Tumu) by her cunning. This great god shows himself weak and suffering, and he is easily fooled by this woman, Isis. She uses the God’s creative powers without his knowledge, and forms, from a mud impregnated with the divine saliva, a snake that bites the God and inoculates him with a deadly venom. The Sun God is now so weak that he cannot even bear, although he is the Sun of the universe, the ‘fire’ of the venom, ‘burning’ like a ‘flame’… Jacob « fights » hand to hand with the God-man, who strikes him in the « hollow » of the hip, without ever revealing his Name. Isis, for her part, « searches » the breast of the God Ra, with his (somewhat forced) agreement, in order to finally extract his (unmentioned) Name, and incorporate it directly into her own breast, which has become divine.
An idea somewhat similar to this search in the ‘breast’, though to some extent reversed, is found in the account of Moses’ encounter with God on Horeb. « The Lord said to him again, ‘Put your hand in your breast’. He put his hand in his breast and took it out, and it was leprous, white as snow. He said again, ‘Put your hand back into your breast’. And he put his hand in his breast again, and then he took it out, and behold, it had regained its color. « xvii The similarity is in the search of the ‘breast’. The difference is that Moses searches his own breast, whereas Isis searched the breast of Ra…
Note that in the case of Jacob as in that of Isis, the ineffable name is still not revealed. Jacob only knows the generic name El. As for Isis, she is given to see the Name transported from the bosom of Ra into her own bosom, divinizing her in the process, but without her publicly revealing the Name itself.
However, it is undeniable that Isis succeeded where Jacob failed. She got to know the Name, in her heart.
There is yet another difference between Isis and Jacob.
Jacob, by his new name, embodied the birth of ‘Israel’. As for Isis, she became a goddess, and the faithful companion, in life and in death, of the god Osiris. She transcended, when the time came, his dismemberment, and prepared the conditions of his resurrection. She participated in the metaphysical adventure of this murdered, dismembered and resurrected God, whose divided body, cut into pieces, was distributed through the nomes of Egypt, to transmit to them life, strength and eternity.
Today, Isis seems to have no more reality than that which is given to ancient dreams. And yet, the metaphor of the murdered God (Osiris), whose body was cut up and distributed throughout Egypt and the rest of the world, offers some analogy with the Christian idea of the messianic God, murdered and shared in communion.
Man’s play with metaphors continues to this day… Who will win, in the end, the transcendence of the ‘name’ (chem), – or the immanence of the ‘there’ (cham)? The ‘hollowness’ of Jacob’s hip, or the ‘fullness’ of Isis’ breast?
Or should we expect something else, as ineffable as the Name? Something that would unite together the full and the hollow, the chem and the cham?
viiG. Maspéro. Ancient history of the peoples of the Classical East. Hachette Bookstore. Paris, 1895, p. 160
viiiG. Maspéro indicates in a note that the legend of the Sun stripped of its heart by Isis was published in three fragments by Pleyte and Rossi (Les Papyrus hiératiques de Turin, pl. XXXI, LXXVII, CXXXI-CXXXVIII), without them suspecting its value, which was recognized by Lefébure (Un chapitre de la Chronique solaire, in the Zeitschrift, 1883, p.27-33). In op.cit. p. 162, note 2.
ixPleyte-Rossi, Les Papyrus hiératiques de Turin, pl. CXXXII, I, 2-3, in op.cit. p. 162, note 3.
xPleyte-Rossi, Les Papyrus hiératiques de Turin, pl. CXXXII, I, 1-2, in op.cit. p. 162, note 4.
xiPleyte-Rossi, Les Papyrus hiératiques de Turin, pl. CXXXI, I, 14 – pl. CXXXII, I,1, in op.cit. p. 162, note 5.
xiiOn the power of divine names and the value of knowing their exact names, see G. Maspero, Etudes de mythologie et d’Archéologie Égyptiennes, vol. II, pp. 208 ff.
xiiiPleyte-Rossi, Les Papyrus hiératiques de Turin, pl. CXXXII, I, 6-8, in op.cit. p. 163, note 1.
xivPleyte-Rossi, The Hieratic Papyrus of Turin, pl. CXXXII, I, 9- pl… CCXXXIII, I,3, in op.cit. p. 163, note 2.
xvPleyte-Rossi, Les Papyrus hiératiques de Turin, pl. CXXXII, I, 10-12, in op.cit. p. 164, note 1.
xviG. Maspéro. Ancient history of the peoples of the Classical East. Hachette Bookstore. Paris, 1895, p. 161-164.
The Taittirya Brāhamaṇa thus describes what happened before the beginning of the universe :
« In the beginning, in truth, this universe was nothingness; there was no heaven, no earth, and no atmosphere. The non-being that alone was then made spirit, saying: I want to be! (…) From the non-being the spirit was emitted, the spirit emitted Prajāpati, Prajāpati emitted the beings. » i
The translation of the idea of creation by the word ’emit’ does not take into account the original meanings of the verbal root sṛj सृज्, which is much more colourful: « to let go, to spread, to let flow, to ejaculate; to create, to procreate, to engender, to give birth; to emit, to throw. » ii
In another account of the origins, the spermatic image is even more precise:
« In the beginning, in truth, there was only the Brahman; as the juice of his vigor overflowed, he became Brahma. Brahma meditated silently with the mind; his mind became Prajāpati. » iii
In both cases, the fundamental idea is that creation is the result of a kind of ‘sacrifice’ made by the Supreme Being – that is, a gift emanating from his very essence, from his inner juice. Prajāpati is the divine figure who embodies this original sacrifice, because he is the « Lord (pati) of creatures (prajā) », and has an intermediate nature, partly mortal, partly immortal.
« Prajāpati created the living beings. By his inspirations he created the gods, and by his expirations he created the mortal beings. Above the beings he created Death, to consume them. Now, from Prajāpati, one half was mortal, one half was immortal. With his mortal part he was afraid of death, and being afraid, he became double, clay and water (…) Five parts of his body were mortal, hair, skin, flesh, bones, marrow; and five immortal parts: spirit, speech, breath, sight, hearing. » iv
Prajāpati is the Lord of creatures, the primordial being, both mortal and immortal. He created the universe by his own Sacrifice, sharing his essence with Fire, Breath or the Word.
« That, Prajāpati wanted. Through Agni, He mated with the earth. An egg hatched. He touched it: ‘Let it grow! Let it grow and multiply,’ He said. And the embryo that was inside was created as Vāyu (the Wind) (…) By Vāyu, He mated with the air. An egg hatched. He touched it and said, ‘May you be glorified!’ By this Āditya (the Sun) was created (…) By Āditya he mated with Heaven (…) Having created these worlds, He desired, ‘May I create my own creatures in these worlds!’
By His Spirit (manas) he mated with the Word (vāc). He became pregnant with eight drops. They gave birth to the eight Vasus, which He placed on the earth.
By His Spirit, He mated with the Word. He became pregnant with eleven drops. They gave birth to the eleven Rudras, which He placed in the air.
By His Spirit, He mated with the Word. He became pregnant with twelve drops, which gave birth to the twelve Ādityas, which He placed in the sky.
By His Spirit He mated with the Word. He became pregnant. He created All the Gods and placed them in the place. » v
The Word (vāc) is the companion of Prajāpati. As the Satapatha-Brahamaṇa tells us, He mates with her four times. Another text, Kāṭhaka, presents things in a similar way: « Prajāpati was the universe. Vāc was His companion; He mated with Her. She conceived, separated from Him. She engendered the creatures, and then She returned to Prajāpati »vi.
Vāc is here the Word, which creates and generates. But elsewhere, she is not the divine and indefinite Word, which is the agent of creation, but short and precise words of one or two syllables: « After a year, Prajāpati wanted to speak: He said bhūḥ and the earth was; he said bhuvaḥ and space was, he said svaḥ and heaven was. » vii
These three worlds, earth, space, heaven, correspond to the three categories of sounds : vowels, consonants and spirals.
The process of creation by word then continues in all its logic, division and syllabary pulverization:
« Prajāpati was the entire universe. Vāc wasHis, Vāc was His companion. He considered: This Vāc, I want to emit her, she will be infinitely transformed into everything. He emitted Vāc, shewasgoing to be transformed into everything. She who was at the very top, she grew as the drop of water grows. Prajāpati cut off a third of her, ā, it was the earth (…) He cut off a third of her, ka, and it was the atmosphere (…) He threw up a third of her, ha, andit was heaven (…) He divided Vāc, which was one syllable, into three. » viii
Words, speeches, syllables are the matrix (and matter) from which the universe and all creatures are generated.
But all this has a price, – the Sacrifice of the Creator.
After having « emitted » all the worlds and all the beings, Prajāpati lost his intrinsic unity, it broke up. « When Prajāpati emitted the creatures, his members broke off. Now Prajāpati, certainly, is the year. His limbs are the two transitions of day and night [i.e. dawn and dusk], the full moon and the new moon, and the beginning of the seasons. ixHe had cast out the creatures, he fell in pieces.x Being nothing more than a heart, he lay there. He cried out: Ah, my life! The waters heard Him; with the agnihotra [the sacrifice of milk] they came to His aid, they brought Him the throne. » xi
Fortunately the gods are there, watching over Him. Agni, Vāyu, Āditya, Candramas recover his scattered limbs, and the pasus bring back the hair, skin, bones, marrow. « Prajāpati, when He had emitted the beings lay exhausted. The gods gathered the juice and vigor of the beings and used it to heal him. » xii
The supreme Creator, Prajāpati, the primordial God sacrificed himself entirely so that the universe, as well as all living creatures, could come to be. His sacrifice empties Prajāpati of all his substance. « When He had created all existing things, Prajāpati felt emptied; he was afraid of death. » xiii
This unique moment in the history of the theogonic representations, however, offers the opportunity to draw a parallel with other religious traditions, and specifically with the Passion of Christ, feeling « sadness and anguish » xiv(« My soul is sad to death »xv), and fear of death. He repeatedly asked God to spare him from his torment, but in the end he had to endure mockery, flogging, torture and crucifixion, right up to the final cry of abandonment by the Father (« My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? »xvi).
The term used by Christian theology to describe this ‘revelation’ of the divine was originally coined by St. Paul. It is ‘kenosis’, from the Greek kenosis, a word that comes from the verb κενόω, ‘to empty’. Another form of emptying of the divine was also conceptualized by Judaism, though later, with the concept of tsimtsum, ‘contraction’ [of the Divine], an idea forged by the Jewish cabal in the Middle Ages.
Although these analogies are worth strongly emphasizing, and would deserve to be the object of a comparative anthropological study, the idea of the Primordial Sacrifice, granted by the One and Supreme Creator, retains all its anteriority, strength and originality.
Prajāpati is not Christ, although it is a disturbing prefiguration of his metaphysical destiny. He is the God Creator of all worlds and all beings. His Sacrifice made possible the creation of the universe, and it continues in the continuation of time, and it is metaphorized in each of the existing beings throughout the world. In every moment of Time, the Supreme God continues to divide himself so that the World continues to be.
Prajāpati thought: « ‘How can I bring all these beings back into my body? How can I again become the body of all these beings? He divided his body into two parts. There were three hundred and sixty bricks on one side and as many on the other. He failed. « xvii
Then he divided it into three parts of two hundred and forty bricks. Another failure. Then into four parts of one hundred and eighty bricks. Fail again. Then into five parts of one hundred and forty-four bricks. Fail again. Then in six parts of one hundred and twenty bricks. Failure.
He did not attempt to divide it into seven. But he divided it into eight parts of ninety bricks. Failure. Then into nine parts of eighty bricks. It failed. Then into ten parts of seventy-two bricks. Failure. He made no attempt to divide it into eleven.
He divided it into twelve parts of sixty bricks. Failure. He did not attempt to divide it into thirteen or fourteen parts. He divided it into fifteen parts of forty-eight bricks. Failure. He divided it into sixteen parts of forty-five bricks. Failure.
He made no attempt to divide it into seventeen parts. He divided it into eighteen parts of forty bricks. Failure. He made no attempt to divide it into nineteen parts. It was divided into twenty parts of thirty-six bricks. Failure.
He did not attempt to be divided into twenty-one, twenty-two, or twenty-three parts. It was divided into twenty-four parts of thirty bricks.
There He stopped at the fifteenth part. And that is why there are fifteen forms of ascending moons and fifteen forms of descending moons. And it is also because He divided Himself into twenty-four parts that there are twenty-four half months.
Nevertheless, with these twenty-four parts of thirty bricks, it had not yet divided sufficiently. So he divided ṚgVeda into twelve thousand verses and he divided the other two Vedas in the same way, respectively eight thousand for the Yajur Veda and four thousand for the Sāma Veda. He further divided the three Weda into ninety times ten thousand eight hundred and eighty syllables.
Then He continued to divide Himself until He became the body of all things and beings, which are composed of meters, vital breaths or deities.
What we will remember is that the initial and continuous Sacrifice of the Supreme Creator reaches the height of primordial reality, and that it is palpable in Time and Space. The Sacrifice is before all beings. The Sacrifice is both theCreator and the Creation. All the phenomena of the universe owe its existence to it, and are the image of it indefinitely repeated. The Sacrifice is infinite, eternal, and it is Man’s task to accomplish it in order to resurrect it and make it live without end.
« The eternity of the Sacrifice is divided into infinitely numerous periods; whoever offers it kills him, and every death raises him up. The supreme Male, the Man par excellence (Puruṣa) dies and is reborn again and again. » xviii
This is why it is also up to man, who is in the image of the primordial Man (Puruṣa), to carry out for his part the « sacrifice » which is in the image of the primordial sacrifice of Prajāpati.
Some two millennia after those ideas were conceptualized in the Veda, Jesus of Galilea incarnated them on Golgotha.
iTaittirya Brāhamaṇa. 2,2,9,10: » asato ‘dhi mano’ sṛjyata, manaḥ Prajāpatim asṛjyata. Prajāpatiḥ prajā asṛjyata. « Quoted by Sylvain Lévi. The doctrine of sacrifice in the Brāhamaṇas. Ed. Ernest Leroux, Paris, 1898, p. 14.
ii The root sṛj is also the etymological origin of the word ‘source’.
After the Fall, Adam and Eve, deprived of their ‘garment of glory’, discovered that they were naked.
Before that, they were clothed with the light of divine glory.
Double light, double splendor, that of being in glory, and that of glory clothing oneself.
That is why, later on, Job and Justice (or Righteousness) could be said to « clothe » each other:
“I clothed myself with Justice and she clothed herself with me”i.
Isaiah speaks of a ‘garment’ that saves and delivers: « For He has clothed me with a garment of salvation and wrapped me in a cloak of deliverance.»ii
The Jewish cabal of the Middle Ages associated the idea of ‘clothing’ with the Shekinah and the Torah.
« The Torah of Creation (torah da beria) is the garment of the Presence (chekinah). And if man had not been created, the Presence would have been left unclothed, like a poor man. Therefore, whoever commits a fault, it is as if he stripped the Presence of her adornment, and this is what Adam’s punishment consisted of. »iii
The Torah herself unfolds like a veil, she is covered with black darkness, and she is clothed with white light.
« See: darkness is the blackness of the Torah [the written lines] and light is the white of the Torah [what is between the lines].”iv
It is by the splendor of her light, by what can be read between the lines, that she is dressed, more than by what she hides.
The Torah can be read, whether in darkness or in light, but the Presence does not reveal or unveil herself. If naked, she would be the figure of exile itself.
« For that is what exile (galout) is, it is the unveiling of the nakedness of the Presence, which is expressed in the verse, ‘Because of your outbursts, your mother has been repudiated’. (Is 50:1) Because of the unveiling of the nakedness Israel has been exiled and the Presence has also been exiled: the Presence is naked.»v
Christianity, too, has considered the metaphor of a garment of salvation and glory.
Reciprocally, Christ put on humanity like a garment (« induere hominem »), as wrote St. Augustinevii. Christ was clothed in the divine form (forma dei), and he annihilated himself « taking the form of the servant (forma servi)viii » in order to « clothe man ». « Have you forgotten that it was written about Christ Jesus that before he was clothed with humanity (‘hominem fuisset indutus‘) he was in forma deiix?
Death is a second nudity, after the nudity resulting from the Adamic fall. But baptism is a new garment, which announces and prepares « the garment of immortality ». « Baptism has erased death from the flesh; that which is mortal has dissipated into the garment of immortality ».x
From all this, seems to emerge the idea that Human nature is fundamentally « naked ».
And this very nudity is stripped off, like a used clothe, at the time of death.
For the Greeks whom nudity hardly frightened, and whose beauty they much valued, the body is ‘the clothing of the soul’.
Contrary to Jewish and Christian thinkers, Greek philosophers « impatiently await the moment when the soul puts off this garment to show herself in her nakedness »xi.
But for Paul, nudity symbolizes death. « When death robs us, we become naked in righteousness; in this robbery by death the laying off of the garment, which began at baptism, is finally accomplished. »xii
However, death is the occasion to put on a new « garment », a new « tent », a « heavenly dwelling »xiii.
It is this new garment that represents true ‘life’, a life beyond ‘death’. What is this new garment? It is the spirit.
Paul does not seek death, he wants life. He does not wish just a soul, bound to a mortal body. He wishes to possess something higher than the soul – and for him what is higher than the soul is the spirit, the pneuma.
In this sense, the garment is for Paul an overcoming of the primitive dualism between body and soul, between being clothed and being naked.
The metaphor of the garment thus becomes an expression of the supernatural, of the revelation of a divine reality that transcends the experiences of man’s life.
The water of baptism was already a kind of garment.
Yet we have to put on a second garment, – of glory, more radiant than the one worn by Adam and Eve in paradise.
It will « make the mortal element disappear in the garment of immortality.»xv
This ‘garment’ does not hide and cover, but reveals, illuminates, shines. It is made of glory, light, splendor.
In the beginning, when the Presence appeared, dressed in her splendor, then Word, Thought and Creation came on the great stage of the world. « He wrapped Himself in splendor – the supreme Right of Thought – to create the heavens. In that splendor, the beginning of all light, He created the heavens.» xvi
A passage from the Midrach Rabba evokes this moment of creative splendor, ‘the beginning of all light’, and of all thought:
« Tell me where was the light created? He replied, ‘The Holy One, blessed be He, wrapped himself in it as in a garment, and illuminated the whole world from one end to the other with all its glory. Then he added with a sigh: ‘There is a verse that says it explicitly: ‘You are clothed in splendor and majesty. You are clothed in light’xvii.» xviii
In the first chapter of Genesis, which recounts the first moments of creation, the word ‘light’, אוֹר, ‘or’, is mentioned five times in three of the opening verses (Gen 1:3-5).
These five quotations symbolically evoke the five books of the Torah according to the interpretation of the Midrach Rabbahxix. « God said, ‘Let there be light’xx » corresponds to Genesis. « And the light was » xxi refers to Exodus. « God saw that the light was good »xxii represents the Leviticus. « And God separated the light from the darkness » xxiii points to the Numbers. « God called the light day » xxiv refers to Deuteronomy.
Curiously, in the first chapter of his own Gospel, St. John mimics this repetition, with fifteen evocations of the ‘light’.
He uses seven times the word ‘light’, phôs (ϕῶς), in the first verses.
« Life was the light of men. » (Jn 1:4)
« The light shines in the darkness. » (Jn 1:5)
« He came to serve as a witness, to bear witness to the light. » (Jn 1:7)
« He was not the light, but he appeared to bear witness to the light. » (Jn 1:8)
« This light was the true light, which, when it comes into the world, enlightens every man. » (Jn 1:9)
Then, John evokes ‘light’ again eight more times, in a pronominal, personal or possessive form (in Greek αύτόν), or as the implicit subject of active verbs.
« She was (ἦν) in the world, and the world was made by her (αύτοῦ), and the world did not know her (αύτόν). » (Jn 1:10)
« She came to her family’s house, and her family did not receive her (αύτόν). » (Jn 1:11)
« But to all who have received her (αύτόν), to those who believe in her (αύτοῦ) name, she has given the power to become children of God. » (Jn 1:12)
What does such an accumulation of repetitions mean?
The light is one, but her shimmers, her glitters, her sparkles, her scintillation are legion.
Light, Or, is unique, but her true meaning is always in potency.
A passage from the Zohar sheds some light (if I may say) on this question, just by replacing the word ‘light’ with another question:
« When the abyssal light unfolded, her clarity gave hold to questioning, although it was still beyond the reach of all that is below. That is why she was called in an interrogative way, she was called Who. » xxv
We also read in Isaiah:
« Lift up your eyes to the heights, and see Who created this. » xxvi
Mi bara’ ellèh.
‘Who’ and ‘that’, these words are in a way ‘naked’, begging for a meaning.
« The words were elusive, for it was impossible to question the ultimate. Wisdom was composed of nothingness, she was so closed and so deep that she could not resist questioning, but no one could grasp anything of her.”xxvii
Henri Meschonnici was a formidable polemicist, and even, in this respect, a « serial killer », according to Michel Deguy. Meschonnic proposed « that we leave the word ‘Shoah’ in the dustbin of history. »ii This word was, according to him, « intolerable », it would represent « a pollution of the mind » and would aggravate a « generalized misunderstanding ». For this Hebrew word, which appears thirteen times in the Bible, refers only to thunderstorm, « a natural phenomenon, simply ». « The scandal is first of all to use a word that designates a natural phenomenon to refer to a barbarity that is all human. » Another scandal would be that Claude Lanzmann appropriated the highly publicized use of the word ‘shoah’, while diverting its meaningiii: « The author of the Shoah is Hitler, Lanzmann is the author of Shoah. »iv
Henri Meschonnic also attacked the « idolatry » of the Kabbalah: « Language is no longer anywhere in the Kabbalah. It is only an illusion, a utopia. It is replaced by the letters of the script taken for hieroglyphics of the world. A cosmism. And a theism. Then, paradoxically, one must recognize the sacred, more than the divine. A form of idolatry. »v
In a similar way, he attacked Leon Askenazi (the famous Rabbi ‘Manitou’), for his word games in the Torah, – this « idolatry that passes for thought »vi.
Idolatry. Idolettrism. Quite a sharp point. But, on the other hand, he tempers a little, hinting that this « idolatry » is also a « utopia »: « Kabbalah is a utopia of language. A utopia of the Jew. Since its indefinite and self-referential allegorisation is supposed to have the following effect: ‘A particular link is thus established between the letter yod, the 10th letter of the Hebrew alphabet, which represents the ten Sefirot, and the Jewish people, the Yehudim‘vii.» viii
What is this « utopia of the Jew »? A fuse formula summarizes it: Hebrew is the « holy language » par excellence (lechon ha-qodech).
We are here in heavy, very heavy stuff. Meschonnic quotes in support the famous medieval cabalist, Aboulafia, and one of his current thurifer, Elliot Wolfson:
« The cabal will be the exclusive property of the Jewish people, (…) the only nation to have real access to the sacred language of creation, revelation and redemption.»ix
For the comparatist, this type of formula (« the only nation to… », the « sacred language of »,…) seems to be an old cliché, to be found in all latitudes, at all times, in most cultures, so much so that exceptionalism seems really not that exceptional…
More than a thousand years before Abraham, and long before the Torah had even begun to be written down, the Vedic tradition already considered Sanskrit as a « perfect » language. Sanskrit holds its name from the word ‘samskṛta‘ , which means « perfect » in Sanskrit). Moreover, the Vedic tradition considered the entire Vedic corpus as pure, divine revelation.
More recently, for hundreds of millions of believers, the Quran, too, is considered « descended » directly from the Divinity into the Arabic language, which is considered by its locutors a « clear » and « perfect » language.
There is, therefore, obviously on this planet, a certain abundance of « perfect languages » and « divine revelations », seemingly indifferent to their putative concurrents.
What should we conclude from this rush? That these revelations, and these languages, contradict and exclude each other? That only one of them is the true one, the only one « chosen »? Or, should we adopt a more diplomatic formulation, that they all contain some truth? Or, to be more pessimistic, should we suppose that they all somehow lack their intended purpose, whose transcendence escapes them?
What strikes one, in these immense religious and intellectual adventures, which often display, in theory and in practice, ambitions of universal scope, is the paradoxically provincial, navel-gazing, somewhat narrow-minded side of their later commentators. There is no shortage of late voices, coming, a few millennia after the founders, to set themselves up as self-proclaimed defenders, arrogating to themselves the monopoly of exception and election.
In the Babel of languages, Hebrew certainly does not escape the shocking statements about its absolute specificity and its intrinsic superiority over all other languages.
« Divine consonants, human vowels, is the high revelation of Hebrew. »x
The « sanctity » of the Hebrew language is contagious. It extends to the people who speak it.
Hence a sharp alternative:
« The truth that Hebrew is the holy language of a holy people, and the untruth that it is the spoken language of a people like all peoples, seem irreconcilable. » xi
Franz Rosenzweig asked a binary question. There is no way out.
On one side a « holy language » and a « holy people », and on the other side « all peoples » and all other languages, immersed in the no-man’s-land of « untruth » (and un-holiness). Faced with this alternative, what is the answer?
The issue deserves attention.
Franz Rosenzweig seems very sure of his fact: he provides some elements of idiosyncratic argumentation, the scathing lesson of which could perhaps also be of interest to speakers of English, German or Latin – and why not, for good measure, Greek, Arabic or Sanskrit?
« To read Hebrew means: to be ready to gather the entire heritage of the language; to read German, English or Latin, one reaps only the harvest given by the furrows of the language of one season: of one generation. »xii
Franz Rosenzweig does not seem to suspect that the few ‘languages of a season’ he quotes are only the most recent, among a large and immemorial ‘harvest’ of other Indo-European languages, much more original, and some of them with sophisticated grammars, and incidentally with a vocabulary twenty times richer than the biblicalxiii lexicon. Among these languages, Avestic and Sanskrit go back to several millennia before our era, and have both served to compose « sacred » texts (respectively the Avesta and the Veda), which testify to very ancient « revelations », certainly older than the revelation « mosaic ».
It may be argued that Avestic and Sanskrit are nowadays only « dead languages », and that the Avesta or Veda no longer irrigate living times, but only celebrate forgotten Gods…
In contrast, it should also be noted, biblical Hebrew has « risen » again with modern Hebrew, while the Torah continues to live on through the people who bear it and the religions that draw inspiration from it.
These are indeed crucial points.
One could however answer that the Veda religion has not completely disappeared from the world consciousness… or from the depths of the collective unconscious. The history of the Spirit has only just begun. The Vedanta, the Upanishads, Baghavad Gîta, – forever under a bushel? The future, the distant future, will tell.
On the other hand, it can also be argued that the « spirit » of Sanskrit is not really dead, but that it is still very much alive today, and that it is constantly regenerating itself in the vast body of Indo-European languages that are spoken throughout the world, and through their own genius.
The « spirit » of Sanskrit. The « spirit » of Indo-European languages…
Is there a « spirit » of languages? And what does it mean?
Franz Rosenzweig asked this question in a lecture on « the spirit of the Hebrew language ».
« What is the spirit of the German language? Does a language have a ‘spirit’? The answer is: only the language has a spirit. As many languages we know, as many times we are a man. Can you ‘know’ more than one language? Our ‘knowledge’ is just as flat as French ‘savoir‘ (knowledge). We live in one language.» xiv
The word ‘knowledge’, – a ‘flat’ word?
To live is to react…
The French word ‘savoir’ comes from the Latin sapio, sapere, « to have flavor », and figuratively « to have taste, sense, reason ». This Latin word gave in French the words ‘sapience’, ‘saveur’, ‘sève’, ‘sapide’ (and its antonym ‘insipide’). Its etymological origin goes back to the Sanskrit सबर् sabar, « nectar, sap, milk », from which the words Saft in German, sap inEnglish, sapor in Latin also derive.
There is an irony here, a sort of ‘meta-linguistic’ irony, to note that the words ‘flavor’, ‘taste’, are translated ta’am inHebrew, in the plural te’amim.
Now it just so happens that Henri Meschonnic advocated a close attention to the presence in the biblical language of the signs of cantillation, the טְעָמִים, te’amim, supposed to enlighten the deep meaning of the verses by giving them their true rhythm, their melody. « The word, already used by Rabbi Akiva, of te’amim, (…) is the plural of ta’am, which means the taste, in the gustatory sense, the taste of what one has in the mouth.xv In medieval Hebrew, the word also referred to the ratio. It is of capital importance that this word, which designates the junctions-disjunctions, groupings and ungroupings of discourse, with for each ‘accent’ a melodic line, be a word of the body and the mouth. The mouth is what speaks. »xvi
The irony, then, is that the French word ‘savoir’ (which Rosenzweig found ‘flat’) and the Hebrew word te’amim share the same connotations, associating ‘taste’, ‘flavor’ and ‘ratio’...
We quickly return to provincialism and navel-gazing, as we see. One must resolve to understand, once and for all, that outside of Hebrew, there is no salvation. Literally. The Hebrew language holds the divine in it…
Rosenzweig puts it this way:
« The spirit of the Hebrew language is ‘the spirit of God’. (Es ist Geist Gottes). » xvii
Difficult to make more synthetic and more exclusive.
In search of this ‘spirit’ (of the Hebrew language), and interested in the interpretative power attributed to the te’amim, I looked for some possible examples of reference in Meschonnic’s writings.
He particularly emphasizes a verse from Isaiah, usually translated, for centuries, in the Gospels:
« A voice cries out in the desert: prepare a way for the Lord. « (Is. 40:3)
Meschonnic says of this translation: « It is the ‘Christian way’, as James Kugel says. The identification with John the Baptist in Matthew (3:3), Mark (1:3) and John (1:23) depended on it. »
It is true that there is a discrepancy of interpretation between the passages of the Gospels quoted and what we read in the Jerusalem Bible, which gives the following translation:
« A voice cries out, ‘In the desert, make way for the LORD’. »
So? What is the rigjht reading?
» A voice cries out in the desert »?
Or: « A voice cries out: ‘in the desert etc.' »?
Meschonnic notes that in the Hebrew original, there is a major disjunctive accent (zaqef qatan) after « a screaming voice » (qol qoré):
« So ‘in the desert’ is related to ‘make way’, not about the preceding verb. I translate: ‘A voice cries out in the desert make way for Adonaï’. This text is liked to the exile in Babylon, and calls for a return to Jerusalem. Its meaning is geographical and historical, according to its rhythm in Hebrew. But when cut after ‘desert’, it becomes the Christian and eschatological call. Quite another theology. It is the rhythm that makes, or undoes, the meaning.»xviii
Meschonnic concludes his development with a shock formula :
« Rhythm is not only the Jew of the sign, it is also the Jew of the Jew, and it shares the utopia of the poem by being the utopia of meaning. »xix
The rhythm, the ta’am, is the « Jew of the Jew ». Difficult to find a formulation less goy, and more irrefutable…
However, the rhythm is not enough.
If we place the same verse (Is 40:3) in the immediate context of the first ten verses of the « second » Isaiah (Is 40:1-10), we suddenly see a rich density of possible meanings, proliferating, allusive, elusive, carried by voices, words, utterances, cries, repetitions, variations, ellipses, obscurities and openings.
A textual criticism, aimed at semantics, syntax, allegories and anagogy, would encourage a multiplication of questions – far beyond what the ta’am ta’am is.
Why is God twice named « our God » (אלֹהֵינוּ Elohei-nou) xxin Is 40:3 and Is 40:8, and twice named « your God » (אֱלֹהֵיכֶם Elohei-khem)xxi in Is 40:1 and Is 40:9?
Is « ours » also « yours », or is it not?
Why is God named ‘YHVH’ five times in Isaiah 40:2, Isaiah 40:3, Isaiah 40:5 (twice), and Isaiah 40:7, but only once ‘YHVH Adonai’ in Isaiah 40:10xxii? In other words, why is God here named six times ‘YHVH’, and once ‘Adonai’?
In what way do the expression « all flesh » כָל-בָּשָׂר khol-bachar, in Is 40:5, and the expression « all flesh » כָּל-הַבָּשָׂר kol-ha-bachar, in Is 40:6, differ? xxiii
Why is the article defined in one case and not in the other?
Could it be that the expression « all flesh will see it » וְרָאוּ כָל-בָּשָׂר vé-raou khol-bachar, implies a universality (total, inclusive) of the vision of the glory of YHVH, – « all flesh » then meaning « all creatures made of flesh »?
Whereas the expression « all flesh, – grass », כָּל-הַבָּשָׂר חָצִיר kol-ha-bachar ḥatsir, only implies that « everything » in the flesh is like « grass »?
Why do two voices, undefined, come from unnamed mouths (Is 40:3 and Is 40:6), – when the spoken word is from « the mouth of YHVH », כִּי פִּי יְהוָה דִּבֵּר, ki pi YHVH dibber (Is 40:5), and « the word of our God »,וּדְבַר-אֱלֹהֵינוּ devar Elohenou, (Is 40:8), are they duly and by name attributed to God?
Why does the first of these two (undefined) voices shout :
« A voice cries out: ‘In the desert, make way for YHVH; in the wilderness, make a straight road for our God’. »(Isaiah 40:3)
Why does the second, undefined voice first say: ‘Cry out’, – before saying what to cry out?
« A voice said, ‘Cry out’, and I said, ‘What shall I cry out?’ – ‘All flesh is grass and all its grace is like the flower of the field. « (Isaiah 40:6)
To whom does « your God » address himself when Isaiah says :
iv Claude Lanzmann writes: « I fought to impose ‘Shoah’ without knowing that I was thus proceeding to a radical act of nomination, since almost immediately the title of the film became, in many languages, the very name of the event in its absolute singularity. The film was immediately eponymous, people everywhere began to say « the Shoah ». The identification between the film and what it represents goes so far that daring people speak of me as « the author of the Shoah, » to which I can only reply: « No, I’m « Shoah », the Shoah is Hitler. » Le Monde, February 26, 2005
vHenri Meschonnic. The Utopia of the Jew. Desclée de Brouwer. Paris, 2001, p.127
viHenri Meschonnic. The Utopia of the Jew. Desclée de Brouwer. Paris, 2001, p.132
viiH. Meschonnic quotes here Elliot R. Wolfson. Abraham Aboulafia cabalist and prophet. Hermeneutics, theosophy and theurgy. Trad. J.F. Sené. Ed. de l’Eclat, 1999, p.123.
viiiHenri Meschonnic. The Utopia of the Jew. Desclée de Brouwer. Paris, 2001, p.128
ixElliot R. Wolfson. Abraham Aboulafia cabalist and prophet. Hermeneutics, Theosophy and Theurgy. Trad. J.F. Sené. Ed. de l’Eclat, 1999, p. 57, quoted by H. Meschonnic, op. cit. p. 128.
xRaymond Abelio. In a soul and a body. Gallimard, 1973, p.259. Quoted by Henri Meschonnic. The Utopia of the Jew. Desclée de Brouwer. Paris, 2001, p.137
xiFranz Rosenzweig. New Hebrew ? On the occasion of the translation of Spinoza’s Ethics. Collected Writings III p. 725. Cité par Henri Meschonnic. L’utopie du Juif. Desclée de Brouwer. Paris, 2001, p.138
xiiFranz Rosenzweig. « Neo-Hebrew » in L’écriture, le verbe et autres essais. p.28. Quoted by Henri Meschonnic. The Utopia of the Jew. Desclée de Brouwer. Paris, 2001, p.138
xiiiTo get an idea of this, just compare the Sanskrit-English dictionary by Monier Monier-Williams and the Hebrew-English dictionary by Brown-Driver-Briggs, both considered as references in the study of Sanskrit and Biblical Hebrew.
xivFranz Rosenzweig. « On the Spirit of the Hebrew Language. – es a language have a ‘spirit’ ? The answer is: only the language has spirit. As many languages as one can, so much one can be human. Can one ‘know’ more than one language ? Our ‘can’ is as shallow as the French ‘savoir’. One lives in a language. « Collected Writings III p. 719. Cité par Henri Meschonnic. L’utopie du Juif. Desclée de Brouwer. Paris, 2001, p.139-140
xvMeschonnic notes that in Arabic, mat’am means « resaturant ».
xviHenri Meschonnic. The Utopia of the Jew. Desclée de Brouwer. Paris, 2001, p.147-148
xviiFranz Rosenzweig. « Vom Geist der hebräische Sprache. « Gesammelte Schriften III p. 721. Quoted by Henri Meschonnic. The Utopia of the Jew. Desclée de Brouwer. Paris, 2001, p. 140
xviiiHenri Meschonnic. The Utopia of the Jew. Desclée de Brouwer. Paris, 2001, p. 165
xixHenri Meschonnic. The Utopia of the Jew. Desclée de Brouwer. Paris, 2001, p. 171
xx« A way cries out: ‘In the desert, make way for YHVH; in the steppe, smooth a road for our God. « קוֹל קוֹרֵא–בַבַּמִּדְבָּר, פַּנּוּ דֶּרֶךְ יְהוָה; יַשְּׁרוּ, בָּעֲרָבָה, מְסִלָּה, לֵאלֹהֵינוּ (Is 40,3)
« The grass withers, the flower withers, but the word of our God endures forever. « יָבֵשׁ חָצִיר, נָבֵל צִיץ; וּדְבַר-אֱלֹהֵינוּ, יָקוּם לְעוֹלָם (Is 40,8)
xxi« Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. נַחֲמוּ נַחֲמוּ, עַמִּי–יֹאמַר, אֱלֹהֵיכֶם (Is 40,1)
« Lift up your voice, fear not, say to the cities of Judah, ‘Behold your God!' » הָרִימִי, אַל-תִּירָאִי, אִמְרִי לְעָרֵי יְהוּדָה, הִנֵּה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם (Is 40,9)
« A voice said, ‘Cry out’, and I said, ‘What shall I cry out?’ – ‘All flesh is grass and all its grace is like the flower of the field. « קוֹל אֹמֵר קְרָא, וְאָמַר מָה אֶקְרָא; כָּל-הַבָּשָׂר חָצִיר, וְכָל-חַסְדּוֹ כְּצִיץ הַשָּׂדֶה (Is 40,6)
xxiv« The grass withers, the flower withers, when the breath of YHVH passes over them; yes, the people are grass. »
One day, according to the Bhagavadgītā (भगवद्गीता), the Supreme Lord came down to reveal to a man named Arjuna, the « most secret wisdom », the « secret of secrets », the « purest knowledge », a « knowledge, queen among all sciences ».
In a few decisive words, human reason was then stripped of everything and reduced to begging. Human nature was compared to « dust », but, more inexplicably, it was also promised to a very high destiny, a putative glory, though still infinitely distant, embryonic, potential. Faced with these impassable mysteries, she was invited to scrutinize endlessly her own background, and her own end.
« This entire universe is penetrated by Me, in My unmanifested form. All beings are in Me, but I am not in them. At the same time, nothing that is created is in Me. See My supernatural power! I sustain all beings, I am everywhere present, and yet, I remain the very source of all creation.»i
We also learn from Bhagavadgītā that the supreme God may descend in person into this world, taking on human form. « Fools denigrate Me when I come down to this world in human form. They know nothing of My spiritual and absolute nature, nor of My total supremacy.»ii
It is not without interest to recall here that the Hebrew Bible, for its part, repeatedly expressed a strangely similar idea. Thus, three « men », posing as « envoys » of the Lord, came to meet Abraham under the oak tree of Mamre. One of them, called YHVH in the Genesis text, spoke to Abraham face to face.
In the Veda, the supreme God is infinitely high, transcendent, absolute, but He is also tolerant. He recognizes that multiple modes of belief can coexist. There are men for whom God is the supreme, original Person. There are those who prostrate themselves before God with love and devotion. There are those who worship Him as the One, and others who worship Him in Immanence, in His presence among the infinite diversity of beings and things, and there are still others who see Him in the Universal. iii
In the Veda, the supreme God is at once unique, absolute, transcendent, immanent, universal; He is All in all.
« But I am the rite and the sacrifice, the oblation to the ancestors, the grass and the mantra. I am the butter, and the fire, and the offering. Of this universe, I am the father, the mother, the support and the grandfather, I am the object of knowledge, the purifier and the syllable OM. I am also the Ṛg, the Sāma and the Yajur. I am the goal, the support, the teacher, the witness, the abode, the refuge and the dearest friend, I am the creation and the annihilation, the basis of all things, the place of rest and the eternal seed (…) I am immortality, and death personified. Being and non-being, both are in Me, O Arjuna ». iv
In his third lecturev on Vedanta given in London in 1894, Max Müller recalled that the Supreme Spirit, the bráhman, ( ब्रह्मन्, a name of the neutral gender, with the tonic accent on the verbal root BRAH-, taken to the full degree – ‘guṇa’) said: « Even those who worship idols worship Me », as reported by Bhagavadgītā.
And Müller added that, within the framework of Vedanta philosophy, the bráhman, this supreme principle, must be distinguished from the brahmán (with the tonic accent on the second syllable), who represents amale agent name meaning « Creator ». According to the Vedanta philosophy, the bráhman could even state of himself: « Even those who worship a personal God in the image of an active creator, or a King of kings, worship Me or, at least, think of Me ».
In this view, the brahmán (the Creator) would be, in reality, only a manifestation of the bráhman (the Supreme Principle). The bráhman also seems to hint here, not without a certain irony, that one could perfectly well support the opposite position, and that would not bother Him…
Here again, with the famous opening of the first verse of Genesis: Bereshit bara Elohim (Gen 1:1), Judaism professed an intuition strangely comparable.
This verse could be read, according to some commentators of the Bereshit Rabbah: » ‘Be-rechit’ created the Elohim« (i.e. » ‘In the principle‘ created the Gods »).
Other commentators even proposed to understand: « With the Most Precious, *** created the Gods ».
I note here by means of the three asterisks the ineffability of the Name of the Supreme Principle (unnamed but implied).
Combining these interpretations, one could understand the first verse of Genesis (berechit bara elohim) in this way:
« The Principle, ‘with‘ the ‘Most Precious’, created the Elohim. »
The Principle is not named but implied.
The particle be- in the expression be-rechit can mean ‘with’.
One of the possible meanings of the word rechit can be ‘primal fruit’ or ‘most precious’.
For the comparatist, these possibilities (however slight) of convergence between traditions as different as Vedic and Hebrew, are sources of endless meditation and tonic inspiration…
One of the greatest commentator on Vedic heritage, Ādi Śaṅkara (आदि शङ्कर ) explained: « When bráhman is defined in the Upanishads only in negative terms, excluding all differences in name and form due to non-science, it is the superior [bráhman]. But when it is defined in terms such as: « the intelligence whose body is spirit and light, distinguished by a special name and form, solely for the purpose of worship » (Chand., III, 14, 2), it is the other, the lower brahmán. » vi
If this is so, Max Müller commented, the text that says that bráhman has no second (Chand., VI, 2, 1) seems to be contradicted.
But, « No, answers Śaṅkara, because all this is only the illusion of name and form caused by non-science. In reality the two brahman are one and the same brahman, oneconceivable, the other inconceivable, one phenomenal, the other absolutely real ». vii
The distinction made by Śaṅkara is clear. But in the Upanishads, the line of demarcation between the bráhman (supreme) and the brahmán (creator) is not always so clear.
When Śaṅkara interprets the many passages of the Upanishads that describe the return of the human soul after death to ‘brahman‘ (without the tonic accent being distinguished), Sankara always interprets it as the inferior brahmán.
Müller explained: « This soul, as Śaṅkara strongly says, ‘becomes Brahman by being Brahman’viii, that is, by knowing him, by knowing what he is and has always been. Put aside the non-science and light bursts forth, and in that light the human self and the divine self shine in their eternal unity. From this point of view of the highest reality, there is no difference between the Supreme Brahman and the individual self or Ātman (Ved. Sutras, I, 4, p. 339). The body, with all the conditions, or upadhis,towhich it is subordinated, may continue for some time, even after the light of knowledge has appeared, but death will come and bring immediate freedom and absolute bliss; while those who, through their good works, are admitted to the heavenly paradise, must wait there until they obtain supreme enlightenment, and are only then restored to their true nature, their true freedom, that is, their true unity with Brahman. » ix
Of the true Brahman, the Upanishads still say of Him: « Verily, friend, this imperishable Being is neither coarse nor fine, neither short nor long, neither red (like fire) nor fluid (like water). He is without shadow, without darkness, without air, without ether, without bonds, without eyes, without eyes, without ears, without speech, without spirit, without light, without breath, without mouth, without measure, He has neither inside nor outside ».
And this series of negations, or rather abstractions, continues until all the petals are stripped off, and only the chalice, the pollen, the inconceivable Brahman, the Self of the world, remains.
« He sees, but is not seen; He hears, but is not heard; He perceives, but is not perceived; moreover, there is in the world only Brahman who sees, hears, perceives, or knows. » x
Since He is the only one to ‘see’, the metaphysical term that would best suit this Being would be ‘light’.
But this does not mean that Brahman is, in itself, « light », but only that the whole light, in all its manifestations, is in Brahman.
This light is notably the Conscious Light, which is another name for knowledge, or consciousness. Müller evokes the Mundaka Upanishad: « ‘It is the light of lights; when it shines, the sun does not shine, nor the moon nor the stars, nor lightning, much less fire. When Brahman shines, everything shines with Him: His light illuminates the world. Conscious light represents, as best as possible, Brahman’s knowledge, and it is known that Thomas Aquinas also called God the intelligent sun (Sol intelligibilis). For, although all purely human attributes are taken away from Brahman, knowledge, though a knowledge without external objects, is left to Him.»xi
The ‘light’ of ‘knowledge’ or ‘wisdom’ seems to be the only anthropomorphic metaphor that almost all religions dare to apply to the Supreme Being as the least inadequate.
In doing so, these religions, such as Vedic, Hebrew, Buddhist or Christian, often forget what the narrow limits of human knowledge or wisdom are, even at their highest level of perfection, and how unworthy of Divinity these metaphors are in reality.
There is indeed in all knowledge as in all human wisdom an essentially passive element.
This ‘passivity’ is perfectly incompatible with the Divinity… At least, in principle.
One cannot help but notice in several religions the idea of a sort of (active) passivity of the supreme Divinity, who takes the initiative to withdraw from being and the world, for the sake of His creature.
Several examples are worth mentioning here, by order of their appearance on world stage.
-The Supreme Creator, Prajāpati, प्रजापति, literally « Father and Lord of creatures », felt « emptied » right after creating all worlds and beings.
-Similarly, the Son of the only God felt his « emptiness » (kenosis, from the Greek kenos, empty, opposing pleos, full) and his « abandonment » by God just before his death.
-In the Jewish Kabbalah, God also consented to His own « contraction » (tsimtsum) in order to leave a little bit of being to His creation.
In this implicit, hidden, subterranean analogy between the passivity of human wisdom and the divine recess, there may be room for a form of tragic, sublime and overwhelming irony.
The paradox is that this analogy and irony, then, would also allow the infinitesimal human ‘wisdom’ to approach in small steps one of the deepest aspects of the mystery.
viiF. Max Müller, op. cit. 3rd conference, p.39-40
viiiIt should probably be specified here, thanks to the tonic accents: « The soul becomes Brahman by being Brahman. « But one could also write, it seems to me, by analogy with the ‘procession’ of the divine persons that Christian theology has formalized: « The spirit becomes Brahman by beingBrahman. »
The anthropology of the ‘beginning’ is quite rich. A brief review of three traditions, Vedic, Jewish and Christian, here cited in the order of their historical arrival on the world stage, may help to compare their respective myths of ‘beginning’ and understand their implications.
1. The Gospel of John introduced the Greek idea of logos, ‘in the beginning’.
« In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God ». (Jn 1:1)
It is certainly worth digging a little deeper into the meaning of the two words ἀρχῇ (arkhè) and λόγος (logos), given their importance here.
Ἐν ἀρχῇ. En arkhè.
What is the real (deep) meaning of this expression?
Should one translate by « In the beginning »? Or « In the Principle »? Or something else?
The original meaning of the verb arkho, arkhein, commonly used since Homer, is ‘to take the initiative, to begin’. In the active sense, the word means ‘to command’.i With the preverb en-, the verb en-arkhomai means ‘to begin the sacrifice’, and later ‘to exercise magistracy’. The notion of sacrifice is very present in the cloud of meanings associated with this word. Kat-arkho : ‘to begin a sacrifice’. Pros-arkho, ‘to offer a gift’. Ex-arkho means ‘to begin, to sing (a song)’. Hup-arkho, ‘to begin, to be in the beginning’, hence ‘to be fundamental, to exist’, and finally ‘to be’.
Many compounds use as first term the word arkhè, meaning either ‘who starts’ or ‘who commands’. The oldest meaning is ‘who takes the initiative of’. There is the Homeric meaning of arkhé-kakos, ‘who is at the origin of evils’. The derived word arkhosgave rise to the formation of a very large number of compounds (more than 150 have been recordedii), of which Chantraine notes that they all refer to the notion of leading, of command, — and not to the notion of beginning.
The feminine noun arkhe, which is the word used in the Gospel of John, can mean ‘beginning’, but philosophers use it to designate ‘principles’, ‘first elements’ (Anaximander is the first to use it in this sense), or to mean ‘power, sovereignty’.
Chantraine concludes that the meanings of arkhè whicharerelated to the notions of ‘taking the initiative’, of ‘starting’, are the oldest, but that meanings that express the idea of ‘command’ also are very old, since they already appear in Homer. In all the derivations and subsequent compositions, it is the notion of ‘commanding’ that dominates, including in a religious sense: ‘to make the first gesture, to take the initiative (of sacrifice)’.
One may conjecture from all this, that the Johannine expression ‘en arkhè‘does not contain the deep idea of an ‘absolute beginning’. Rather, it may refer to the idea of a (divine) sacrificial initiative or inauguration (of the divine ‘sacrifice’), which presupposes not an absolute, temporal beginning, but rather an intemporal, divine decision, – and the pre-existence of a whole background necessary for the conception and execution of this divine, inaugural and atemporal ‘sacrifice’.
Now, what about λόγος, logos ? How to translate this word with the right nuance? Does logos mean here ‘verb’ ? ‘Word’ ? ‘Reason’ ? ‘Speech’ ?
The word logos comes from the Greek verb lego, legein, whose original meaning is ‘to gather, to choose’, at least in the ways Homer uses this word in the Iliad. This value is preserved with the verbal compounds using the preverbs dia– or ek– (dia-legeinor ek-legein,‘to sort, to choose’), epi-legein ‘to choose, to pay attention to’, sul-legein ‘togather’. Legeinsometimes means ‘to enumerate’ in the Odyssey, and ‘to utter insults’, or ‘to chat, to discourse’ in the Iliad. This is how the use of lego, legein in the sense of ‘to tell, to say’ appeared, a use that competes with other Greek verbs that also have the meaning of ‘to say’: agoreuo, phèmi.
The noun logos is very ancient and can be found in the Iliad and Odyssey with the meaning of ‘speech, word’, and in Ionic and Attic dialects with meanings such as ‘narrative, account, consideration, explanation, reasoning, reason’, – as opposed to ‘reality’ (ergon). Then, much later, logos has come to mean ‘immanent reason’, and in Christian theology, it started to mean the second person of the Trinity, or even God.iii
Usually Jn 1:1 is translated, as we know : ‘In the beginning was the Word’. But if one wants to remain faithful to the most original meaning of these words, en arkhè and logos, one may choose to translate this verse in quite a different way.
I propose (not as a provocation, but for a brain-storming purpose) to tranlate :
« At the principle there was a choice. »
Read: « At the principle » — [of the divine sacrifice] — « there was a [divine] choice ».
Explanation: The divine Entity which proceeded, ‘in the beginning’, did not Itself begin to be at the time of this ‘beginning’. It was necessarily already there,before any being andbefore any beginning, in order toinitiate and make the ‘beginning’ and the ‘being’ possible. The ‘beginning’ is thus only relative, since the divine Entity was and is always before and any beginning and any time, out of time and any beginning.
Also, let’s argue that the expression ‘en arkhe‘ in Jn 1:1 rather refers to the idea and initiative of a ‘primordial sacrifice‘ or a primal ‘initiation’, — of which the Greek language keeps a deep memory in the verb arkhein, whencompounded with the preverb en-: en-arkhomai, ‘to initiate the sacrifice’, a composition very close to the Johannine formula enarkhe.
As for the choice of the word ‘choice‘ to translate logos, it is justified by the long memory of the meanings of the word logos. The word logos only meant ‘word’ at a very late period, and when it finally meant that, this was in competition with other Greek words with the same meaning of ‘to say’, or ‘to speak’, such as phèmi, or agoreuo. as already said.
In reality, the original meaning of the verb lego, legein,is not ‘to speak’ or ‘to say’, but revolves around the ideas of ‘gathering’ and ‘choosing’, which are mental operations prior to any speech. The idea of ‘speaking’ is basically only second, it only comes after the ‘choice’ made by the mind to ‘gather’ [its ideas] and ‘distinguish’ or ‘elect’ them [in order to ‘express’ them].
2. About a thousand years before the Gospel of John, the Hebrew tradition tells yet another story of ‘beginning’, not that of the beginning of a ‘Word’ or a ‘Verb’, but that of a unity coupled with a multiplicity in order to initiate ‘creation’.
« In the beginning God created heaven and earth ».
The word אֱלֹהִים , elohim, is translated by ‘God’. However, elohim is grammatically a plural (and could be, — grammatically speaking –, translated as »the Gods »), as the other plural in this verse, ha-chamayim, should be translated by ‘the heavens’. The fact that the verb bara (created) is in the singular is not a difficulty from this point of view. In the grammar of ancient Semitic languages (to which the grammar of classical Arabic still bears witness today, for it has preserved, more than Hebrew, these ancient grammatical rules) the plurals of non-human animated beings that are subjects of verbs, put these in the 3rd person singular. Elohim is a plural of non-human animated beings, because they are divine.
Another grammatical rule states that when the verb is at the beginning of the sentence, and is followed by the subject, the verb should always be in the singular form, even when the subject is plural.
From these two different grammatical rules, therefore, the verb of which elohim is the subject must be put in the singular (bara).
In other words, the fact that the verb bara is a 3rd person singular does not imply that the subject elohim should grammatically be also a singular.
As for the initial particle, בְּ be, in the expression be-rechit, it has many meanings, including ‘with’, ‘by’, ‘by means of’.
In accordance with several midrachic interpretations found in the Bereshit Rabbah, I propose not to translate be-rechit by ‘in the beginning’, but to suggest quite another translation.
By giving the particle בְּ be- the meaning of ‘with‘ or ‘by‘, be-rechit may be translatedby: « with [the ‘rechit‘] ».
Again in accordance with several midrachic interpretations, I also suggest giving back to ‘rechit‘ its original meaning of ‘first-fruits‘ (of a harvest), and even giving it in this context not a temporal meaning but a qualitative and superlative one: ‘the most precious‘.
It should be noted, by the way, that these meanings meet well with the idea of ‘sacrifice’ that the Greek word arkhé in theJohannine Gospel contains, as we have just seen.
Hence the proposed translation of Gn 1.1 :
« By [or with] the Most Precious, the Gods [or God] created etc… »
Let us note finally that in this first verse of the Hebrew Bible, there is no mention of ‘speaking’, or ‘saying’ any ‘Verb’ or ‘Word’.
It is only in the 3rd verse of Genesis that God (Elohim) ‘says’ (yomer) something…
וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים, יְהִי אוֹר; וַיְהִי-אוֹר
Va-yomer Elohim yéhi ‘or vé yéhi ‘or.
Literally: « Elohim says ‘let there be light’, and the light is [and will be]. »
Then in the 5th verse, God (Elohim) ‘calls’ (yqra), i.e. God ‘gives names’.
וַיִּקְרָא אֱלֹהִים לָאוֹר יוֹם
Va-yqra’ Elohim la-‘or yom
« And Elohim called the light ‘day’. »
The actual « word » of God will come only much later. The verb דָּבַר davar ‘to speak’ or the noun דָּבָר davar ‘word’ (as applied to YHVH) only appeared long after the ‘beginning’ had begun:
« All that YHVH has said » (Ex 24:7).
« YHVH has fulfilled his word » (1 Kings 8:20).
« For YHVH has spoken » (Is 1:2).
3. Let us now turn to the Vedic tradition, which dates (in its orally transmitted form) to one or two millennia before the Hebrew tradition.
In the Veda, in contrast to Genesis or the Gospel of John, there is not ‘one’ beginning, but several beginnings, operating at different levels, and featuring various actors …
Here are a few examples:
« O Lord of the Word (‘Bṛhaspati’)! This was the beginning of the Word. » (RV X, 71,1)
« In the beginning, this universe was neither Being nor Non-Being. In the beginning, indeed, this universe existed and did not exist: only the Spirit was there.
The Spirit was, so to speak, neither existing nor non-existent.
The Spirit, once created, desired to manifest itself.
This Spirit then created the Word. « (SB X 5, 3, 1-2)
« Nothing existed here on earth in the beginning; it was covered by death (mṛtyu), by hunger, because hunger is death. She became mental [she became ‘thinking’]: ‘May I have a soul (ātman)‘. »(BU 1,2,1).
Perhaps most strikingly, more than two or three millennia before the Gospel of John, the Veda already employed formulas or metaphors such as: the ‘Lord of the Word’ or ‘the beginning of the Word’.
In Sanskrit, the ‘word’ is वाच् Vāc. In the Veda it is metaphorically called ‘the Great’ (bṛhatī), but it also receives many other metaphors or divine names.
The Word of the Veda, Vāc, ‘was’ before any creation, it pre-existed before any being came to be.
The Word is begotten by and in the Absolute – it is not ‘created’.
The Absolute for its part has no name, because He is before the word. Or, because He is the Word. He is the Word itself, or ‘all the Word’.
How then could He be called by any name? A name is never but a single word: it cannot speak the‘whole Word’, – all that has been, is and will be Word.
The Absolute is not named. But one can name the Supreme Creator, the Lord of all creatures, which is one of its manifestations, – like the Word, moreover.
The Ṛg Veda gives it the name प्रजापति Prajāpati,: ‘Lord (pati) of Creation (prajā)‘. It also gives itthe name ब्र्हस्पति Bṛhaspati, which means ‘Lord of the Word‘iv,‘Lord (pati) of the Great (bṛhatī )’.
For Vāc is the ‘greatness’ of Prajāpati: « Then Agni turned to Him with open mouth; and He (Prajāpati) was afraid, and his own greatness separated from Him. Now His very greatness is His Word, and this greatness has separated from Him. »v
The Sanskrit word bṛhat, बृहत् means ‘great, high; vast, abundant; strong, powerful; principal’. Its root ब्र्ह bṛha means‘to increase, to grow; to become strong; to spread’.
The Bṛhadāraṇyaka-upaniṣad comments: « It is also Bṛhaspati: Bṛhatī [‘the great one’] is indeed the Word, and he is its Lord (pati). « vi
The Word is therefore also at the « beginning » in the Veda, but it precedes it, and makes it possible, because the Word is intimately linked to the (divine) Sacrifice.
The Ṛg Veda explains the link between the supreme Creator, the Word, the Spirit, and the Sacrifice, a link that is unraveled and loosened ‘in the beginning’:
« O Lord of the Word! This was the beginning of the Word,
– when the seers began to name everything.
Excellence, the purest, the profoundly hidden
in their hearts, they revealed it through their love.
The Seers shaped the Word by the Spirit,
passing it through a sieve, like wheat being sifted.
Friends recognized the friendship they had for each other,
and a sign of good omen sealed their word.
Through sacrifice, they followed the way of the Word,
and this Word which they found in them, among them,
– they proclaimed it and communicated it to the multitude.
In the Śatapatha brāhmaṇa which is a later scholarly commentary, the Word is presented as the divine entity that created the « Breath of Life »:
« The Word, when he was created, desired to manifest himself, and to become more explicit, more incarnated. He desired a Self. He concentrated fervently. He acquired substance. These were the 36,000 fires of his own Self, made of the Word, and emerging from the Word. (…) With the Word they sang and with the Word they recited. Whatever rite is practiced in the Sacrifice, the sacrificial rite exists by the Word alone, as the utterance of voices, as fires composed of the Word, generated by the Word (…) The Word created the Breath of Life. »viii
In the Bṛhadāraṇyaka-upaniṣad, one of the oldest upaniṣad, the Vedic Word is staged as born of death, or rather of the soul (ātman)of death.
This Word is the prayer or hymn (ṛc), or ritual recitation (arc, — of the same root as ṛc). Through the play of assonances, homophonies and metaphors, it is associated with arca, the‘fire’ and ka, the‘water’ (both essential elements of the sacrifice), and also with ka, the ‘joy’ it brings.
« Nothing existed here on earth in the beginning; it was covered by death (mṛtyu), by hunger, for hunger is deathix. She made herself mental [thinking]: ‘May I have a soul (ātman)‘. She engaged in a ritual recitation [bow, a prayer]. While she was in the ritual recitation the water was bornx. She thought] ‘Truly, while engaged in this ritual recitation (arc), the water [or joy] (ka) came’. This is the name and being (arkatva) of the ritual recitation [or fire] (arka). Water [or joy] (ka) really happens to the one who knows the name and being of the virtual recitation [or fire]. »xi
From these quotations, one sees clearly that, in the Vedic tradition, the Word is not « in the beginning », but he is « the beginning ». The beginning of what? — The beginning of Sacrifice.
The Word ‘begins’ to reveal, he ‘initiates’, but he also hides all that he does not reveal.
What is it that he does not reveal? – He does not reveal all the depth, the abyss of the (divine) Sacrifice.
The Word is a ‘place’ where is made possible an encounter between clarity, light, brilliance (joy) and Man. But the Word also makes heard, through his silence, all the immensity of the abyss, the depth of the darkness, the in-finite before any beginnings.
iCf. The Greek Etymological Dictionary of Chantraine
vi Cf. BU,1,3,30. This Upaniṣad further explains that the Word is embodied in the Vedas in the Vedic hymn (Ṛc), in theformula of sacrifice (yajus) and in the sacred melody (sāman). Bṛhatī is also the name given to the Vedic verse (ṛc) and the name of the Brahman (in the neutral) is given to the sacrificial formula (yajus). As for the melody (sāman) it is ‘Breath-Speech’: « That is why it is also Bṛhaspati (Ṛc). It is also Bhrahmaṇaspati. The Brahman is indeed the Word and he is the lord (pati) of the [Word]. That is why he is also Bhrahmaṇaspati (= Yajus). He is also the melody (sāman). The melody is truly the Word: ‘He is she, Sā (the Word) and he is Ama (the breath). This is for the name and nature of the melody (sāman). Or because he is equal (sama) to a gnat, equal to a mosquito, equal to an elephant, equal to the three worlds, equal to this all, for this reason he is sāman, melody. It obtains the union with the sāman , theresidence in the same world, the one that knows the sāman. »(BU 1,3,20-22)
ix A. Degrâces thus comments this sentence: « The question of cause is raised here. If nothing is perceived, nothing exists. Śaṅkara is based on the concepts of covering and being covered: ‘What is covered by the cause is the effect, and both exist before creation… But the cause, by destroying the preceding effect, does not destroy itself. And the fact that one effect occurs by destroying another is not in opposition to the fact that the cause exists before the effect that is produced….Manifestation means reaching the realm of perception… Not being perceived does not mean not existing… There are two forms of covering or occultation in relation to the effect… What is destroyed, produced, existing and non-existing depends on the relation to the manifestation or occultation… The effort consists in removing what covers… Death is the golden embryo in the condition of intelligence, hunger is the attribute of what intelligence is… ». (BAUB 1.2) Alyette Degrâces. The Upaniṣad. Fayard, 2014, p.222, note n° 974.
x Water plays an essential role in the Vedic sacrifice.
xiBU 1,2,1 (My adaptation in English from a French translation by Alyette Degrâces. The upaniṣad. Fayard, 2014, p.222)
« Wisdom is separate from everything »i said Heraclitus in his concise style.
For a start, I adopt here the translation of G.S. Kirkii. But the quote in the original Greekiii ,’Sophon esti pantôn kekhorismenon’, preserved in Stobaeus’ Anthology, allows several very significant variations, depending on how one understands the word sophon, – which is, grammatically, an adjective, with the neutral meaning: ‘wise’.
Here are two representative examples of quite alternative translations:
« What is wise is separate from all things. »
« To be wise is to be separated from all things. »
Both these interpretations lose the abstract idea of ‘wisdom’, and personalize the word sophon, in a more concrete way, by attributing it to an entity (‘what is wise’), seen as ‘separated from everything’, and therefore outside this world. Another way to personalize is to attribute it to a (wise) ‘being’, which could possibly belong to this world, therefore not separated, – but whose ‘being wise’ would separate it, somehow virtually.
Clémence Ramnoux, for her part, proposes: « Wise things are separated from everything. »
The spectrum of the meanings of sophon is thus very broad:
Wisdom. That which is wise. The Wise Being. The Wise Thing.
The word sophon has no definite article in this fragment, but it has it in other Heraclite fragments. Then, if one adds the definite article to the adjective sophon, it acquires an abstract meaning, and leads to other interpretations, including the idea of ‘Transcendence’, and even the idea of the ‘One’:
« Let us put the article in front of something wise, by identifying it with the One-Thing-Wise, then the formula touches the goal of knowing… a Transcendence! Let it be heard only in the sense of human wisdom, then the formula says that: for men, the way to be wise consists in keeping oneself separate from all or everything. It would be wise to live away from the crowds and their madness. It would be wise to live apart from the vain science of many things. The two are surely not incompatible. Put together, they would reform the ideal meaning of a vita contemplativa: retreat and meditation of the One. « iv
To justify these interpretations, Clémence Ramnoux studies the other occurrences of the word sophon, in fragments 32, 50 and 41 of Heraclitus.
From these comparisons, she draws the assurance that with sophon, Heraclitus wanted to « designate the divine with the words of fragment 32 », and « if not the divine, even better, Something in dignity to refuse thisvery name. »v
Fragment 32 uses the expression to sophon (‘the Wise One’, or ‘the Wise Being’, which C. Ramnoux renders as ‘the Wise Thing’):
« The Wise Thing (to sophon) alone is one: it wants and does not want to be said with the name of Zeus. »vi
In Greek, one reads : ἓν τὸ σοφὸν μοῦνον λέγεσθαι οὐκ ἐθέλει καὶ ἐθέλει ὄνομα.
Hen to sophon mounon legesthai ouk ethelei kai ethelei Zènos onoma.
By translating word for word: « One, the Wise One, alone, be said: He does not want, and He wants the name of Zeus ».
Ouk émou, alla tou logou akousantas homologein sophon estin hen panta einai.
Word for word: « Not me, but the Logos, listening, saying the same, wise is one, all, being. »
Five words follow each other here: sophon estin hen panta einai. Wise, is, one, all, being. There are many ways to link them.
The most direct way of translating would be, using capital letters for emphasis:
« Wise is One, All, Being ».
The German edition by W. Kranz and the English edition by G.S. Kirk translate :
« Listening, not to me, but to the Logos, it is wise (sophon estin) to agree (homologein)vii: everything is One (hen panta eïnaï). »
In another interpretation, that of H. Gomperz :
« Listening not to me, but to the Logos, it is fair to agree that The One-The Wise One knows everything. »
Clémence Ramnoux suggests yet another interpretation:
« Listening not to me, but to the Logos, agreeing to confess the same lesson (everything is one?) is the Wise Thing. « viii
However, she adds a question mark to the expression ‘everything is one’, which shows indeed that a certain doubt is at work here.
In spite of the significant differences of interpretation that we have just seen, what stands out is the idea that to sophon undeniably possesses a magnified status, and that it can be qualified as ‘unique’ and even, implicitly, ‘divine’.
Fragment 41 reinforces the hypothesis of associating the idea of unity with to sophon:
« The wise thing is one thing (hen to sophon): topossess the meaning (epistasthai gnômèn), by virtue of which everything is led through everything. »
By linking the semantic fields of the four fragments, 32, 41, 50, 108, Ramnoux draws two possible interpretations of the essential message that Heraclitus is supposed to transmit: « A simple meaning would be: Wise Thing is One, and she alone. Another meaning would be: Wise Thingisseparate from everything. « ix
These fragments, put together, carry a vision, aiming to grasp the ‘Wise Thing’, from different angles.
« That one gathers the fragments thus, and one will believe to reconstitute a recitative on the topic of the Wise Thing. Here is what should be recited all together while learning the same lesson! »x
The real difficulty is to avoid reading Heraclitus with much later, anachronistic representations of the world, starting with those of Plato and Aristotle.
In spite of the pitfalls, it is necessary to try to reconstruct the spirit of the philosophical community in the pre-Socratic era, the nature of its research :
« It is permissible to conjecturalize the way of being: it would consist in separating and reuniting. To separate from whom? Probably: the crowd and its bad masters. To reunite with whom? Probably: the best and the master of the best lesson. Separate from what? The vain science of many things. To find what again? The right way of saying things. It’s a two-way street! The Heracletian ethos does not alienate man from the present thing: on the contrary, it makes him better present, and as in conversation or cohabitation with the thing. (…) A master of discourse puts into words the meaning of things (…) But the authentically archaic way of thinking was probably still different. For a good master, (…) it is appropriate that discourse shows itself with an ambiguous face, hidden meanings, and two-way effects. »xi
According to Ramnoux, Heraclitus’ fundamental intention is to teach man « to stand far and near at the same time: close enough to men and things so as not to alienate himself in the present, far enough so as not to be rolled and tossed around in traffic. With the word as a weapon to defend oneself against the fascination of things, and things as a reference to better feel the full of words. Like a being between two, aiming through the crack at something untraceable, whose quest guarantees, without his knowledge, his freedom! « xii
Ambiguity? Darkness ? Double meaning ? Hidden sense ?
No doubt, but for my part I would like to put the spotlight on the only unambiguous word in fragment 108: kekhorismenon, ‘separate’, applying to a mysterious entity, named « Wise », whose attributes are unity, being and totality.
How can one be ‘separated’ if one has ‘unity’, and ‘totality’?
What does the idea of ‘separation’ really imply in a thought that claims to be thinking about the ‘origins’?
It is with these questions in mind that I set out to search for occurrences of the word ‘separate’ in a very different corpus, that of the biblical text.
The idea of ‘being separate’ is rendered in Biblical Hebrew by three verbs with very different connotations: בָּדַל badal, חָלַק ḥalaq, and פָּרַד pharad.
בָּדַל badal is used in two verbal forms, niphal and hiphil.
The niphal form is used with a passive or reflexive nuance:
1° ‘to separate, to move away’: « Separate yourselves from the peoples of the land » (Esdr 10,11).
2° ‘to be separated, distinguished, chosen’: « Aaron was chosen » (1 Chr. 23:13); ‘to be excluded’: « He shall be excluded from the congregation of those who returned from captivity » ( Esdr. 10:8 ).
The hiphil form has a causative, active nuance:
1° ‘To separate, tear off’: « The veil will separate you » (Ex 26:33); « Let it serve as a separation between the waters and the waters » (Gen 1:6).
2° ‘To know, to distinguish, to discern’: « To be able to distinguish between what is impure and what is pure » (Lev 11:47).
3° ‘To separate, choose; exclude’: « I have separated you from the other peoples » (Lev 20:26); « The Lord has chosen the tribe of Levi. « (Deut 10:8); « The Lord has excluded me from his people » (Is 56:3).
In this sense, ‘to separate’ means ‘to choose’, ‘to distinguish’, ‘to discern’, ‘to elect’ (or ‘to exclude’).
חָלַק ḥalaq brings another range of meanings, around the notions of ‘sharing’ and ‘division’:
1° ‘To share, to give, to give’: « They divided the land » (Jos 14:5); ‘To be divided’: « Their hearts are divided, or have separated from God » (Hosea 10:2).
2° ‘To divide and distribute’: « And at even he divided the prey » (Gen 49:27); « And he distributed to all the people » (2 Sam 6:19); ‘To scatter’: « I will divide them in Jacob » (Gen 49:7), « The face of YHVH has scattered them » (Lam 4:16).
As for the verb פָּרַד pharad, it is used in an intensive or reflexive sense.
1° (Niphal) ‘To separate’: « Separate yourself, I pray you, from me » (Gen 13:9), « He who separates himself (from God) seeks his desires » (Prov 18:1).
2° ‘To spread, to be scattered’: « These spread throughout the islands » (Gen 10:5).
3° ‘To separate’ with intensive or causative nuances (piel): « They separated from their wives » (Hosea 4:14), « A people that remains separated among the nations » (East 3:8); (hiphil) « Jacob separated the lambs » (Gen 30:40); and (hithpael): « all my bones were separated » (Ps 22:15).
To sum up, the biblical meanings attached to the verbs whose sense is ‘to separate’ include the following nuances: ‘to distance, choose, exclude’ but also ‘to know, distinguish, discern’, or ‘to share, distribute’, and ‘to be scattered’ or ‘to spread’.
One can quite easily apply all these nuances to an entity that would be (divine) Wisdom.
Wisdom, in fact, distinguishes, discerns, knows; she can be shared, spread, distributed;
she can distance herself, elect or exclude.
But yet, what is the truly original meaning that applies to Wisdom?
In an attempt to answer, I have consulted all the Bible verses that contain the word ‘wisdom’ (ḥokhma). There are several hundred of them.
I have selected those that are most ‘open’ – containing an implicit invitation to further research – and grouped them into four categories:
Wisdom as ‘mystery’ and ‘secret’;
Wisdom as ‘companion of the Creator’;
Wisdom as ‘person to dialogue with’;
and Wisdom as ‘faculty of the mind’.
For example, here are some verses assimilating wisdom (or Wisdom, with a capital letter) to mystery or secrecy:
« If he would reveal to you the secrets of Wisdom » (Job 11:6).
« But Wisdom, where does she come from? « (Job 28,12)
Do not say, « We have found wisdom » (Job 32:13).
« Be silent and I will teach you wisdom » (Job 33:33).
« In secret you teach me wisdom » (Ps 51:8).
« Then I began to reflect on wisdom » (Qo 2:12).
There are also verses in which Wisdom seems to accompany the Creator in his task:
« He made the heavens with wisdom » (Ps 136:6).
« Spirit of wisdom and understanding » (Is 11:2)
« Establish the world by his wisdom » (Jer 10:12).
« It is that you abandoned the Source of Wisdom! « (Bar 3,12)
« YHVH by wisdom founded the earth » (Pr 3:19).
There are also verses where Wisdom is presented as a person, capable of interacting with men:
« Tell wisdom: you are my sister! « (Pr 7,4)
« Wisdom cries out through the streets » (Pr 1,20)
« Doesn’t Wisdom call? « (Pr 8,1)
Finally, there are the verses where wisdom is considered a faculty of the mind:
« Give me now wisdom and knowledge » (2 Chr 1:10).
« Who gives wisdom to the wise » (Dan 2:21).
« Intelligence and wisdom like the wisdom of the gods » (Dan 5:11).
For good measure I add here some verses from biblical texts, which are not recognized by the Masoretes as part of the Canon of the Scriptures of Judaism, but which belong to the texts recognized by Catholicism – in this case the Book of Wisdom and the text of Sirach (Ben Sirach):
« Wisdom is a spirit friendly to men » (Wis 1:6) [Person].
« What Wisdom is and how he was born, I will reveal it; I will not hide the mysteries from you, but I will follow his footsteps from the beginning of his origin, I will bring his knowledge to light, without departing from the truth. « (Wis 6:22) [Mystery, Secret].
« For more than any movement, wisdom is mobile » (Wis 7:24) [Mystery, Secret].
« With you is Wisdom who knows your works » (Wis 9:9) [Companion of the Creator].
« But first of all wisdom was created » (Sir 1:4) [Companion of the Creator].
« The root of wisdom to whom was it revealed? « (Sir 1:6) [Mystery, Secret].
« Wisdom brings up her children » (Sir 4:11) [Person].
And finally, here are some excerpts from the New Testament, – especially from Paul’s texts:
« And Wisdom was justified by all his children » (Luke 7:35) [Companion of the Creator].
« It is of a wisdom of God, mysterious, hidden » (1 Cor 2:7) [Mystery, Secret].
« To give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation » (Eph 1:17) [Faculty of the Spirit].
« All the treasures of wisdom and knowledge » (Col 2:3) [Faculty of Spirit].
« Filled with the Spirit and with wisdom » (Act 6:3) [Faculty of the Spirit].
If we return to the intuition of « separate wisdom » as imagined by Heraclitus, we see that it is perfectly compatible with the representations of Wisdom as belonging to the Mystery, as a Companion of the Creator and as a Person]
But where Judaism plays with the idea of a kind of doubling of the divine between the function of the Creator and the role of Wisdom (which is, let us recall, one of the Sefiroth of theJewish Kabbalah), the metaphysical mysticism of Heraclitus sees only divine Unity and Totality.
It is not the least result of this research, to find in one of the most eminent Greek pre-Socratic thinkers, such an extreme intuition of the transcendence of Wisdom, and of its Unity with the Divine.
Wisdom is par excellence ‘separate’, and is also that which is most ‘one’.…
In matters of religion, one of the common errors is to want to choose with whom one can talk, and to exclude from one’s field of vision extreme ideologues, stubborn minds, closed mentalities. This is human.
It is incomparably easier to begin detailed debates or circumstantial glosses if there is already an a priori agreement on the substance. This avoids infinite misunderstandings and deadlocked dead ends. Who thinks it possible, indeed, to ever agree, on any point whatsoever, with such and such an ultra tendency of such and such a monotheistic religion?
It’s human, and it’s easier, but, on the other hand, the ultras of all acabits, irreconcilably ‘other’, absolutely ‘foreign’ to any dialectic, remain in the landscape. They continue, and for a long time, to be part of the problem to be solved, even if they don’t seem to be part of the solution. Precisely because they have nothing in common with the proponents of the very idea of ‘dialogue’, they can be interesting to observe, and must be, in every respect, if one considers the long-term destiny of a small Humankind, standing on its dewclaws, on the surface of a drop of mud, lost in the cosmic night.
Nevertheless, it is infinitely easier to speak to ‘open’ minds when trying to cross cultural, traditional or religious barriers.
« The conditions of the Christian-Islamic dialogue change completely if the interlocutor is not legal Islam but spiritual Islam, whether it is Sufism or Shî’ite Gnosis. » i
Henry Corbin was an exceptional personality. But he admitted that he did not want to waste his time with the ‘legitarians’. This is understandable. And yet, they are basically the key lock. If world peace and universal understanding are to be achieved, ‘spiritualists’ and ‘legitarians’ must find, whatever the difficulties to be overcome, a common ground…
Dialogue with the ‘other’ begins with mastering the other’s language.
In theory, we should be able to understand all of them, or at least decipher them, particularly these chosen languages, chosen for conveying this or that sacred message.
Sanskrit, for example, should be part of the minimal baggage of any researcher interested in a comparative anthropology of the religious fact through time. It is the oldest and most complex language, which still testifies to the wonders of the human spirit, trying to approach mysteries that are seemingly beyond its reach.
I hasten to add (biblical) Hebrew, which is much simpler, grammatically speaking, but full of a subtle delicacy that can be seen in the play on words, the etymological shifts, the radical drifts, the subliminal evocations, and the breadth of the semantic fields, allowing for the most daring and creative interpretations.
Koranic Arabic is also a necessary acquisition. The Koran is a book with a very ‘literary’ and sophisticated writing that no translation can really render, as it requires immersion in the musicality of classical Arabic, now a dead language. Puns and alliterations abound, as in Hebrew, another Semitic language.
The famous Louis Massignon sought in good faith « how to bring back to a common base the textual study of the two cultures, Arabic and Greco-Latin »ii.
For our part, we would also like to be able to bring the study of Vedic, Egyptian, Sumerian, Assyrian, Zoroastrian and Avestic cultures, at least in theory if not in practice, to a « common base ».
And, still in theory, one should particularly have solid notions of Ancient Egyptian (very useful if one wants to understand the distant foundations of the ancient ‘mosaic’ religion), and Avesta (indispensable to get an idea of the progressive, ‘harmonic’, transitioniii in ancient Iran from Zoroastrianism and Mazdeism to Muslim Shî’ism).
In the absence of these indispensable add-ons, one can minimally rely on a few genius smugglers. Henry Corbin is an incomparable pedagogue of Shî’ite Islam. Who else but him could have allowed the discovery of a concept like the one of Ḥûrqalyâ?
Ḥûrqalyâ is the land of visions, the place where mind and body become one, explains Henry Corbin. « Each one of us, volens nolens, is the author of events in ‘Ḥûrqalyâ‘, whether they abort or bear fruit in its paradise or its hell. We believe we are contemplating the past and the unchanging, as we consume our own future. » iv
His explanation of Ḥûrqalyâ is rather short and somewhat obscure. We would like to know more.
Looking in the famous Kazimirsky dictionaryv, I discovered the meaning of the verbal root حرق (ḥaraqa): « To be burned, to burn. To set on fire, to ignite; to burn with great fire. To burn each other (or to sleep with a woman). To reduce to ashes. »
It is also the word used to designate migrants who ‘burn’ their identity papers.
With different vocalizations of the same verbal root, the semantic spectrum of the resulting nouns widens considerably:
ḥirq « the tallest branch of the male palm tree, which fertilizes the flowers of a female palm tree »;
ḥourq « avarice »;
ḥaraq « fire, flame, burn »;
ḥariq « which loses its hair; which produces violent lightning (cloud); « fire;
ḥourqa « burning heat in the intestines »;
al- ḥâriq « the tooth (of a ferocious beast) »;
ḥâriqa « burning (said to be a very sensual woman in the carnal trade) »;
ḥâroûqa « very sensual woman », or in the plural: »who cuts (swords) »;
ḥirâq « whodestroys, who consumes »; « who burns the path, who runs very fast (horse) »;
ḥourrâq « burning firebrand »;
ḥârraqa « vessel to be set on fire ».
You get the idea…
But in the context that interests us here, it is the noun حَرْقً (ḥarq), used by mystics, that we must highlight. It means « the state of burning », that is, an intermediate state between برق (barq), which is only the « lightning of the manifestations of God », and الطمس فى الذات, al-tams fi-l-dhat, « annihilation in the ‘that’, in the divine essence »vi.
The etymology of the word ḥûrqalyâ, shows that it means a state that lies between the lightning flash and the ash or annihilation .
Let us return to the glossary proposed by Corbin.
« A whole region of Hûrqalyâ is populated, post mortem, byour imperatives and our vows, that is to say, by what makes the very meaning of our acts of understanding as well as our behaviors. As well as all the underlying metaphysics is that of an incessant recurrence of Creation (tajaddod), it is not a metaphysics of the Ens or the Esse, but of the Estovii, of ‘be !’ in the imperative. But the event is put to the imperative only because it is itself the iterative form of the being for which it is promoted to the reality of event. » viii
We learn here that Creation is a continuous act, a continuous iteration, an imperative to be, a ‘be!’ infinitely repeated, implying a ‘become!’ no less perpetual.
Esto! Or the unceasing burning of the moment, that is to say of the presence (to oneself, or in oneself ?).
Perhaps we can read in these ever-changing, ever-challenging moments « the mystery of the primordial Theophany, of the revelation of the divine Being, who can only reveal himself to himself in another self, but can only recognize himself as other, and recognize this other as himself only because he is God in himself. » ix
Another image, often used in the Psalms, is that of clothing. It is necessary to reach this state where the body is no more than a ‘garment’ that one can freely undress or put on, because it is really the other in oneself that is the true garment of oneself.
iHenry Corbin. Heavenly earth and resurrection body. From Mazdean Iran to Shî’ite Iran. Ed. The boat of the sun. Buchet/Chastel. 1960. p.12
ii Louis Massignon. Lettres d’humanité tome II, 1943, p.137
iiiAccording to the expression of H. Corbin. op.cit. p. 111
ivHenry Corbin. Heavenly earth and resurrection body. From Mazdean Iran to Shî’ite Iran. Ed. The boat of the sun. Buchet/Chastel. 1960. p.13
vA. de Biberstein Kazimirski. Arab-French dictionary. Volume I. Ed Al Bouraq. Beirut. 2004, pp. 411-412.
vi The mystical meaning of the word tams is precisely the annihilation of the individuality of man’s attributes in the attributes of God. The word dhat means « that » and, in context, the very essence of God.
viiIn Latin: ens = « being », esse = « to be », esto = « Be! »
viiiHenry Corbin. Heavenly earth and resurrection body. From Mazdean Iran to Shî’ite Iran. Ed. The boat of the sun. Buchet/Chastel. 1960. p.16
ixHenry Corbin. Heavenly earth and resurrection body. From Mazdean Iran to Shî’ite Iran. Ed. The boat of the sun. Buchet/Chastel. 1960. p.111
Franz Rosenzweig is a prophet of the 20th century (there are not so many), whose name means ‘branch of roses’. Zebrased with inchoate intuitions, and seraphic brilliance, a short text of him astonishes me by its searing audacity:
« Redemption delivers God, the world and man from the forms and morphisms that Creation has imposed on them. Before and after, there is only the « beyond ». But the in-between, Revelation, is at the same time entirely beyond, for (thanks to it) I am myself, God is God, and the world is world, and absolutely beyond, for I am with God, God is with me, and where is the world? (« I do not desire the earth »). Revelation overcomes death, creates and institutes in its place the redeeming death. He who loves no longer believes in death and believes only in death.» i
The ambiguity of Revelation in relation to the Redemption, but also its invitations to openness, to invention, are staged here.
On the one hand, Revelation is addressed to the man of the earth, to the children of the clay, immersed in worldly immanence, immersed in the closed orbs of their minds.
On the other hand, it affirms the absolute transcendence of the Creator, opening worlds, flaring very backwards towards unheard-of beginnings, and accelerating very forwards towards an unthinkable afterlife.
Can we connect these two poles, seemingly opposite?
For Rosenzweig, Revelation is situated in time, that time which is the proper time of the world, between Creation and Redemption – the two figures, original and eschatological, the two ‘moments’ of the ‘beyond’ of time.
The unique role of Creation is inexplicable if we consider it only as a divine fiat. Why inexplicable? Because such a fiat displays neither its reason nor its why. It is more consistent with the anthropological structure of human experience (and probably with the very structure of the brain) to consider that even God does nothing for nothing.
An ancient answer to this riddle may be found in the Vedic idea of Creation.
In the Veda, Creation is thought as being a sacrifice of God.
Two thousand years later, this sacrifice will be called kenosis by Christians, and even later (in the Kabbalah of the Middle Age) Jews will call it tsimtsum.
The Vedic idea of God’s sacrifice – is incarnated in the sacrifice of Prajāpati, the supreme God, the Creator of the worlds, at the price of His own substance.
It is certainly difficult to conceive of God’s holocaust by (and for) Himself, willingly sacrificing His own glory, His power and His transcendence, – in order to transcend Himself in this very sacrifice.
How can a human brain understand God transcending Himself!
It is difficult, of course, but less difficult than understanding a Creation without origin and without reason, which refers by construction to the absolute impotence of all reason, and to its own absurdity.
With or without reason, with or without sacrifice, Creation obviously represents a ‘beyond’ of our capacity to understand.
But reason wants to reason and tries to understand.
In the hypothesis of God’s sacrifice, what would be the role of Creation in this divine surpassing?
Would God make a covenant with His Creation, ‘giving’ it, by this means, His breath, His life, His freedom, His spirit?
Would God give the responsibility for the World and Mankind to multiply and make this Breath, this Life, this Freedom, this Spirit bear fruit throughout time?
At least there is in this view a kind of logic, though opaque and dense.
The other pole of the cosmic drama – Redemption – is even more ‘beyond’ human intelligence. But let us have a try to understand it.
Redemption « frees God, the world and man from the forms imposed on them by Creation, » Rosenzweig suggests.
Does Redemption deliver God from God Himself? Does it deliver Him from His infinity, if not from His limit? from His transcendence, if not from His immanence? from His righteousness, if not from His goodness?
It is more intuitive to understand that it also liberates the world (i.e. the total universe, the integral Cosmos) from its own limits – its height, width and depth. But does it free it from its immanence?
It frees man, at last.
Does that mean Redemption frees man from his dust and clay?
And from his breath (nechma), which binds him to himself?
And from his shadow (tsel) and his ‘image’ (tselem), which binds him to the light?
And from his blood (dam) and his ‘likeness’ (demout), which structure and bind him (in his DNA itself)?
What does Rosenzweig mean when he says: « Redemption delivers God (…) from the forms that Creation has imposed »?
It is the role of Revelation to teach us that Creation has necessarily imposed certain structures. For example, it imposes the idea that the ‘heavens’ (chammayim) are in essence made of ‘astonishment’, and perhaps even ‘destruction’ (chamam).
But the truth is that we don’t know what ‘to redeem’ means, – apart from showing the existence of a link between Death, the Exodus from the world, and man.
We must try to hear and understand the voice of this new prophet, Rosenzweig.
He says that to believe in Redemption is to believe only in love, that is, to believe « only in death ».
For it has been said that « strong as death is love » (ki-‘azzah kham-mavêt ahabah), as the Song saysii.
Revelation is unique in that it is ‘one’ between two ‘moments’, two ‘beyond’.
It is unique, being ‘below’ between two ‘beyond’.
Being ‘below’ it is not inexpressible, – and being ‘revealed’ it is not as inexpressible as the ‘beyond’ of Creation and Redemption, which can only be grasped through what Revelation wants to say about it.
The Revelation is told, but not by a single oracular jet.
She is not given just at once. She is continuous. She spreads out in time. She is far from being closed, no doubt. No seal has been placed on her moving lips. No prophet can reasonably claim to have sealed her endless source foreveriii.
Time, time itself, constitutes all the space of Revelation, which we know has once begun. But we don’t know when Revelation will end. For now, Revelation is only ‘below’, and will always remain so, – as a voice preparing the way for a ‘beyond’ yet to come.
And besides, what is really known about what has already been ‘revealed’?
Can we be sure at what rate the Revelation is being revealed?
Can we read her deep lines, hear her hidden melodies?
Does she appear in the world only in one go or sporadically, intermittently? With or without breathing pauses?
Won’t her cannon thunder again?
And even if she were « sealed », aren’t the interpretations, the glosses, part of her open breath?
And what about tomorrow?
What will Revelation have to say in six hundred thousand years from now?
Or in six hundred million years?
Will not then a cosmic Moses, a total Abraham, a universal Elijah, chosen from the stars, come in their turn to bring some needed Good News?
iFranz Rosenzweig. The Man and His Work. Collected writings 1. letters and diaries, 2 vol. 1918-1929. The Hague. M.Nijhoft, 1979, p.778, quoted by S. Mosès. Franz Rosenzweig. Sous l’étoile. Ed. Hermann. 2009, p. 91.
iiiThe Torah itself, who can claim to have really read it?
« Although Thorah was quite widespread, the absence of vowel points made it a sealed book. To understand it, one had to follow certain mystical rules. One had to read a lot of words differently than they were written in the text; to attach a particular meaning to certain letters and words, depending on whether one raised or lowered one’s voice; to pause from time to time or link words together precisely where the outward meaning seemed to demand the opposite (…) What was especially difficult in the solemn reading of the Thorah was the form of recitative to be given to the biblical text, according to the modulation proper to each verse. The recitative, with this series of tones that rise and fall in turn, is the expression of the primitive word, full of emphasis and enthusiasm; it is the music of poetry, of that poetry that the ancients called an attribute of the divinity, and which consists in the intuition of the idea under its hypostatic envelope. Such was the native or paradisiacal state, of which only a few dark and momentary glimmers remain today. « J.-F. Molitor. Philosophy of tradition. Trad Xavier Duris. Ed. Debécourt. Paris, 1837. p.10-11
Born in 1886 into an assimilated Jewish family, Franz Rosenzweig decided to convert to Christianity in the 1910s, after numerous discussions with his cousins, Hans and Rudolf Ehrenberg, who had already converted, and with his friend Eugen Rosenstock, also a converted Jew. But he renounced the conversion after attending the Yom Kippur service in a Berlin synagogue in 1913.
Shortly afterwards, he wrote in the trenches of the First World War his masterpiece, The Star of Redemption, which offers a kind of parallelism between Judaism and Christianity.
Parallels that do not meet, except perhaps at the end of Time.
I find Rosenzweig’s essay truly significant for a double distance, for a constitutive split, the outcome of which is difficult to see, unless there is a total change of paradigm – which would perhaps be the real issue, in some future.
Rosenzweig asserts that Christianity faces three « dangers » that it « will never overcome ». These « dangers » are essentially of a conceptual nature: « the spiritualization of the concept of God, the apotheosis granted to the concept of man, the panthetization of the concept of the world ». i
The Christian concept of God, the Christian concept of man, the Christian concept of the world, are wrong and dangerous, according to Rosenzweig, because they imply an attack on the absolute transcendence of God, to which, by contrast, Judaism is supposed to be fundamentally attached.
« Let the Spirit be the guide in all things, and not God; let the Son of Man, and not God, be the Truth; let God one day be in all things, and not above all; these are the dangers. »ii
Rosenzweig cannot accept that the absolutely transcendent God of Judaism can be represented by His « Spirit », even though this Spirit is « holy ».
Why not? Is God not His own Spirit?
No. God’s transcendence is probably so absolute that the use of the word « spirit » is still too anthropomorphic in this context. From the point of view of Judaism, as interpreted by Rosenzweig, to use the word « spirit » as an hypostasis of God is an attack on its absolute transcendence.
But, is not God called in the Torah the « God of spirits » (Num 16:22), because He is the Creator? Could the spirit, as created by God, then be a « substance » which God and man would then have in common? No. This is not acceptable. The very principle of the absolute transcendence of God excludes any idea of a community of substance between the divine and the human, even that of the « spirit ».
Nor can Rosenzweig accept that the absolutely transcendent God of Judaism could be represented here below by a « Son », or horresco referens, could lower Himself to humiliation by consenting to a human « incarnation », to whom He would further delegate, ipso facto, the care and privilege of revealing His Truth to men.
Finally, and a fortiori, Rosenzweig obviously cannot accept that the absolutely transcendent God can condescend to any immanence whatsoever, and in particular by coming into the « world » to dwell « in all ».
Judaism will not compromise.
The absolute transcendence of God, of His revelation, and of Redemption, are infinitely beyond the spirit, infinitely beyond the human, infinitely beyond the world.
Rosenzweig’s attack on Christianity focuses on its supposed « concepts ».
Concepts are positive attempts by the human mind to capture the essence of something.
The dogma of the absolute transcendence of God excludes from the outset any attempt whatsoever to « conceptualize » it, whether through names, attributes or manifestations.
The only acceptable conceptualization is the concept of the impossibility of any conceptualization. The only possible theology is an absolutely negative theology, rigorously and infinitely apophatic.
But then what about the revelation of His Name, made to Moses by God Himself?
What about the theophanies found in the Torah?
What about God’s dialogues with the Prophets?
Or in another vein, what about the granting of a Covenant between God and his People?
What about thewandering of the Shekhina in this world, and her « suffering »?
Or, on yet another level, how to understand the idea that heaven and earth are a « creation » of God, with all that this entails in terms of responsibility for the content of their future and the implications of their inherent potentialities?
Are these not notable exceptions, through word or spirit, to thevery idea of God’s absolute, radicaltranscendence? Are they not in fact so many links, so many consensual interactions between God Himself and all that is so infinitely below Him, – all that is so infinitely nothing?
These questions are not dealt with by Rosenzweig. What is important to him is to reproach Christianity for « exteriorizing itself in the Whole, » for « dispersing its rays » in the march through time, with the spiritualization [of the concept of God], the divinization [of the concept of man] and the mondanization [of transcendence].
But Rosenzweig’s reproaches do not stop there. For good measure, he also criticizes the « dangers » peculiar to Judaism.
Where Christianity sins by « dispersing », by « externalizing » the idea of God, Judaism sins on the contrary by « shrinking », by confinement in « the narrow », by refuge in « a narrow home »iii. To sum up: « The Creator has shrunk to the creator of the Jewish world, Revelation has only taken place in the Jewish heart.» iv
Franz Rosenzweig analyzes the « Jewish dangers » in this manner :
« Thus, in the depths of this Jewish feeling, any split, anything that encompasses Jewish life, has become very narrow and simple. Too simple and too narrow, that is what should be said, and in this narrowness, as many dangers should be fanned as in Christian dilatation. Here it is the concept of God that was in danger: in our midst, it is His World and His Man who seem to be in danger (…) Judaism, which is consumed within, runs the risk of gathering its heat in its own bosom, far from the pagan reality of the world. In Christianity, the dangers were named: spiritualization of God, humanization of God, mondanization of God; here [in Judaism] they are called denial of the world, contempt for the world, suffocation of the world.
Denial of the world, when the Jew, in the proximity of his God, anticipated the Redemption for his own benefit, forgetting that God was Creator and Redeemer, that, as Creator, He conserved the whole world and that in the Revelation He ultimately turned His face to mankind at large.
Contempt for the world, when the Jew felt himself to be a remnant, and thus to be the true man, originally created in the image of God and living in the expectation of the end within this original purity, thus withdrawing from man: yet it was precisely with his hardness, forgetting God, that the Revelation of God’s love had come about, and it was this man who now had to exercise this love in the unlimited work of Redemption.
Choking of the world, finally, when the Jew, in possession of the Law revealed to him and becoming flesh and blood in his spirit, now had the nerve to regulate the being there at every renewed moment and the silent growth of things, even to pretend to judge them.
These three dangers are all necessary consequences of the interiority that turned away from the world, just as the dangers of Christianity were due to the exteriorization of the self turned towards the world. » v
Not being able to resolve to elect a single champion, Rosenzweig concludes that Jews and Christians are in fact working at the same task, and that God cannot deprive Himself of either of them: « He has bound them together in the closest reciprocity. To us [Jews] He has given eternal life by lighting in our hearts the fire of the Star of His truth. He has placed Christians on the eternal path by making them follow the rays of the Star of His truth throughout the centuries to the eternal end.»vi
The life, the truth, the way. The Anointed One from Nazareth, the Christian Messiah, had already designated himself by these three words, identifying them with his own Person.
Shrinkage, narrowness, suffocation.
Dispersion, expansion, paganization.
Let the millennia flow, let the eons bloom.
What will the world be like in three hundred billion years? Will it be Jewish? Christian? Buddhist? Nihilist? Gnostic? Or will the world be All Other?
Will we one day see the birth of a non-Galilean Messiah or a non-Anointed Anointed One, far away in galaxies at the unimagined borders of the known universes, revealing in clear language a meta-Law as luminous as a thousand billion nebulae assembled in one single point?
Or is it the very message of the Scriptures that, by some miracle, will be repeated, word for word, letter for letter, breath for breath, in all the multiverse, crossing without damage the attraction and translation of multiple black holes and vertiginous wormholes?
The path before us is infinitely, obviously, open.
We only know that at the very end there will be life – not death.
What kind of life? We don’t know.
We know that with life, there will also be truth.
Truth and life are indissolubly linked, as are transcendence and immanence.
« What is truth? » asked Pilatus once, famously.
One could also ask : « What is life? »
Since transcendence is so infinitely above the human mind, how can one dare to ask even these kinds of questions?
That’s exactly the point.
Daring to ask these questions is already, in a way, beginning to answer them.
I have no doubt that in six hundred million years, or thirty-three billion years, some truth will still be there to be grasp, – if there are still, of course, eyes to see, or ears to hear.
iFranz Rosenzweig. The Star of Redemption. Alexandre Derczanski and Jean-Louis Schlegel, Seuil , 1882, p.474.
iiFranz Rosenzweig. The Star of Redemption. Alexandre Derczanski and Jean-Louis Schlegel, Seuil , 1882, p.474.
iiiFranz Rosenzweig. The Star of Redemption. Alexandre Derczanski and Jean-Louis Schlegel, Seuil , 1882, p.478.
ivFranz Rosenzweig. The Star of Redemption. Alexandre Derczanski and Jean-Louis Schlegel, Seuil , 1882, p.476.
vFranz Rosenzweig. The Star of Redemption. Alexandre Derczanski and Jean-Louis Schlegel, Seuil , 1882, p.479-480.
viFranz Rosenzweig. The Star of Redemption. Alexandre Derczanski and Jean-Louis Schlegel, Seuil, 1882, p. 490.
Two years before his own death, C.G. Jung evoked as a strong possibility the prospect of the « definitive destruction » of the « Christian myth ».
However, psychology could still help « saving » this myth. Through a better understanding of mythology and its role in intrapsychic processes, « it would be possible to arrive at a new understanding of the Christian myth, and especially of its apparently shocking and unreasonable statements. If the Christian myth is not finally to become obsolete, which would mean a liquidation of unpredictable scope, the idea of a more psychologically oriented interpretation is necessary to save the meaning and content of the myth. The danger of definitive destruction is considerable. » i
Christianity, from the beginning, had already been considered « scandal for the Jews and folly for the Greeks »ii. Now, it had even become « shocking » and « unreasonable » for the Swiss and « obsolete » for psychologists.
The fall in religious vocations, the desertion of the faithful and the decline of the denarius were already beginning to be felt at the end of the 1950s of the last century. All this seemed to give some consistency to these Jungian prophecies of the « destruction » and « liquidation » of the « Christian myth » as a logical consequence of its supposed « obsolescence ».
The movement of disaffection with Christianity has not stopped growing over the last six decades, one might add, at least if we look at the indicators already mentioned.
Is the « Christian myth », to use Jung’s expression, now dying, or even « dead »?
And if so, can it still be « resurrected »?
And if it could indeed be resurrected, in what form, and for what purpose?
Like a Saint George slaying the dragon of obsolescence, an obsolescence less flamboyant than sneaky, silent, but swallowing credence, Jung brandishes in his time the victorious spear of psychology, the only one capable, according to him, of reviving the Christian myth.
To understand Jung’s idea of the assimilation of Christianity to a « myth » – and to a myth in the process of becoming obsolete, one must return to what underlies his entire understanding of the world, the existence of the unconscious, and the « creative » character of the psyche.
For Jung, any « representation » is necessarily « psychic ». « When we declare that something exists, it is because we necessarily have a representation of it (…) and ‘representation’ is a psychic act. Nowadays, however, ‘only psychic’ simply means ‘nothing’. Apart from psychology, only contemporary physics has had to recognize that no science can be practiced without the psyche. » iii
This last assertion seems to allude to the opinion of the Copenhagen Schooliv, hard fought by Einstein et al., but an opinion to which the latest conceptual and experimental developments seem to be giving reason today.
Despite such assurances, at the highest theoretical and experimental level of contemporary science, and despite the flattering successes of analytical psychology, C.G. Jung, while at the peak of his brilliant career, seemed bitter about having to fight again and again against the outdated cliché (typical of modern times) that « only psychic » means « nothing ».
No doubt cruelly wounded in the depths of his soul, C.G. Jung may have wanted to take a terrible revenge, by showing that this « nothing » can still, and in a short time, put down one of the most important foundations of European, and even world civilization…
The unconscious exists, it is a certainty for Jung, and for many people. But few have understood the immense power, almost divine, or even divine at all, of this entity.
« No one has noticed, » explains Jung, « that without a reflexive psyche, there is virtually no world, that therefore consciousness represents a second creator, and that cosmogonic myths do not describe the absolute beginning of the world, but rather the birth of consciousness as a second creator ». v
Before Jung: In the beginning God created the earth, etc.
After Jung: The Unconscious Mind created the idea that « God created the earth etc. ».
Myths correspond to psychic developments. They can grow and die, just like the latter. « The archetypes all have a life of their own that unfolds according to a biological model. » vi
This metaphor of the « biological model » must be taken literally, including birth, maturity and death.
« A myth is still a myth, even if some consider it to be the literal revelation of an eternal truth; but it is doomed to death if the living truth it contains ceases to be an object of faith. It is necessary, therefore, to renew one’s life from time to time through reinterpretation. Today Christianity is weakened by the distance that separates it from the spirit of the times, which is changing (…). It needs to re-establish the union or relationship with the atomic age, which represents an unprecedented novelty in history. The myth needs to be told anew in a new spiritual language ». vii
All the nuances of the biological model can be subsumed under a much broader concept of life, a much more global power of meaning, including in particular the idea of resurrection (– an idea, it will be recalled, « scandalous », « crazy » and « shocking »).
If we apply the idea of resurrection in particular to the Christian myth itself, it is possible that the latter in fact escapes its natural, « biological » destiny and its inevitable death, provided that it is subjected to a total « renovation », to an unprecedented reinterpretation, a sine qua non condition for its « resurrection« .
The idea of the « resurrection » of a myth incarnated by a dead Savior, and whose apostles based their faith on the certainty of his own resurrection (as Paul reminds us), is not lacking in salt.
But in order to taste this salt, it would be necessary to be able to reinterpret the resurrection of Christ under the species of a new « resurrection », which is more in accordance with the spirit of the (atomic) time.
The idea of an ‘atomic’ zeitgeist was probably obvious to a psychologist living in the 1950s, after Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the rise of nuclear winter threats made tangible by Cold War arsenals.
Nowadays, the ‘spirit of the time’ of our time is a little less ‘atomic’, it seems, and more ‘climatic’ or ‘planetary’. It is inclined to let itself be influenced by new global threats, those towards which global warming and the foreseeable extinction of entire sections of the biosphere are pointing.
In this new context, what does it mean to « renovate » or « resurrect » the Christian myth of the « resurrection » (as distinct, for example, from the myths of the resurrection of Osiris or Dionysus)?
A first response would be to apply it (quite literally) to the putative resurrection of the millions of animal and plant species now extinct.
But would the idea of an « ecological » Christianity, relying for its own rebirth on the effective resurrection of billions of insects or amphibians, be enough to bring the faithful back to the parishes and to resurrect vocations?
This is doubtful.
It is not that we should not strive to bring back to life the dead species, if this is still humanly (or divinely?) possible. The modern myth that is being constituted before our eyes lets us imagine that one day a few traces of DNA will be enough to recreate disappeared worlds.
Such a re-creation by a few future learned priests, packed into their white coats and their spiritual laboratories, would then in itself be a kind of miracle, capable of melting the hardest, most closed hearts.
But one can also assume that this would still be insufficient to extricate the « Christian myth » from its spiral of obsolescence, in which accumulated millennia seem to lock it up.
But what? Will the resurrection of an immense quantity of fauna and flora, abolished from the surface of the globe, not be like a sort of living symbol of the resurrection of a Savior who died two thousand years ago?
Wouldn’t that be enough to announce to the world, urbi et orbi, that the very idea of resurrection is not dead, but alive again?
No, that would not be enough, one must argue with regret.
How can the resurrection of only half of the Earth’s biodiversity be weighed against the resurrection of the one universal Messiah?
The bids are going up, we can see it.
If Jung is right, the majority of humanity can no longer believe in the very myth of salvation and resurrection (as embodied by Christ in history two thousand years ago).
Why is that? Because this Messiah seems too dated, too local, too Galilean, too Nazarene even.
The story of that Messiah no longer lives on as before.
Why is that? The spirit of the times « has changed ».
And it is not the tales of the agony of the world’s fauna and flora, however moving they may be, that will be able to « convert » minds deprived of any cosmic perspective, and even more so of eschatological vision, to the call of a « renewed » Christian myth.
In the best of cases, the rescue and (momentary?) resurrection of half or even nine-tenths of the Anthropocene could never be more than a short beep on the radar of the long times.
We no longer live in Roman Judea. To be audible today, it would take a little more than the multiplication of a few loaves of bread, the walking on still waters or the resurrection of two or three comatose people; it would even take much more than the resurrection (adapted to the spirit of the time) of a Son of Man, a Son of God, both descended into Hell and ascended into Heaven.
After Season 1, which apparently ended with a sharply declining audience, Christianity’s Season 2, if it is to attract a resolutely planetary audience, must start again on a basis that is surprising for the imagination and fascinating for the intellect.
Reason and faith must be truly overwhelmed, seized, petrified with stupor, and then transported with « enthusiasm » by the new perspectives that want to open up, that must open up.
So one has to change words, worlds, times and perspectives.
The little Galilea must now compete with nebulous Galaxies.
The resurrected Carpenter must square black holes, plane universal constants and sweep away dark energy, like a simple cosmic sawdust.
The once dead Messiah must now truly live again before us, and at once tear all the veils, – the veils of all Temples, of all Ages, of all spirits, in all times, whether in the depths of galactic superclusters, or in the heart of quarks.
Quite an extensive program. But not unfeasable.
iLetter from C.G. Jung to Pastor Tanner Kronbühl (February 12, 1959). In C.G. Jung. The Divine in Man. 1999. p.136
Hegel puts science far above religion in the final chapter of Phenomenology of the Mind.
Why? Because only science is capable of true knowledge.
What is true knowledge ? It is the knowledge that the mind has of itself.
« As long as the spirit has not been fulfilled in itself, fulfilled as a spirit of the world (Weltgeist), it cannot reach its perfection as a self-conscious spirit. Thus in time, the content of religion expresses earlier than science what the spirit is, but science alone is the true knowledge that the spirit has of itself ». i
Today, we are nearing the end of the Hegelian « system ». We are at the end of the book. But there are still a few crucial steps to be taken…
First of all, the spirit must be « self-fulfilling », that is to say, it must be « fulfilled as the spirit of the world ». After this accomplishment, we could say that it has reached its perfection.
This perfection can be measured as follows: it has become a self-conscious mind.
But how can we be aware of this accomplishment as « spirit of the world », of this accomplishment of the mind as « self-awareness »?
How can we get some knowledge about the mind becoming self-aware?
By religion? No.
Religion does not yet express true knowledge about the spirit. Religion expresses what the spirit is, when it is finally fulfilled as « spirit of the world ». But this is not enough. What religion expresses (by its content) is not yet true knowledge.
So what is true knowledge about the self-conscious mind?
True knowledge is not what the mind is, but what the mind has, – true knowledge is the knowledge that the mind has of itself.
Religion, by its content, can give an idea of what the mind is, but it remains somehow outside the mind, it does not penetrate the essence of the mind.
In order to really know, we must now enter into the spirit itself, and not be satisfied with the content of religion, which gives only an external image of it.
To reach true knowledge, one can only rely on « science alone ».
How does this « science » work?
« Science alone » makes it possible to go beyond the content ofreligion and finally penetrate the mysteries of the mind.
By entering the mind itself, « science alone » accesses what the mind knows of itself, it accesses the knowledge that the mind has of itself, which alone is true knowledge.
That is the goal, the absolute knowledge: the mind knowing itself as mind.
Given the emphasis thus placed on « absolute knowledge » as the final goal, one might be tempted to describe the Hegelian approach as « Gnostic ».
Gnosis (from the Greek gnosis, knowledge) flourished in the first centuries of our era, but it undoubtedly had much more ancient roots. Gnosticism was intended to be the path to the absolute ‘knowledge’ of God, including the knowledge of the world and of history. Ernest Renan noted incidentally that the word ‘Gnostic’ (Gnosticos) has the same meaning as the word ‘Buddha’, « He who knows ».
Some specialists agree on Simon the Magician as being at the origin of Gnosticism among Judeo-Christians, as early as the first century AD. Who was Simon the Magician? Renan, with a definite sense of provocation, but armed with considerable references, speculates that Simon the Magician may well have been the apostle Paul himself. Adolf von Harnack, more cautious, also puts forward this hypothesis but does not settle the question.
Was Paul a « Gnostic »? Or at least, was his doctrine a Gnostic one, in some respects?
Perhaps. Thus, as Hegel will do later, long after him, Paul used a formula with Gnostic resonances : the « spirit of the world ».
But unlike Hegel, who identifies the « spirit of the world » (Weltgeist) with the « accomplished » spirit, the « self-conscious » spirit, Paul radically contrasts the « spirit of the world » (« pneuma tou kosmou ») with the spirit of God (« pneuma tou theou »).
« We have not received the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which comes from God, that we may know the good things which God has given us by his grace »ii.
Not only is the « spirit of the world » nothing like the « Spirit that comes from God, » but the « knowledge » we derive from it is never more than the « knowledge of the blessings » that God has given us. It is not, therefore, the intimate knowledge of the « self-conscious mind » that Hegel seeks to achieve.
One could infer that Hegel is in this respect much more Gnostic than Paul.
For Hegel, the « spirit of the world » is already a figure of the fulfillment of the « self-conscious mind, » that is, a prefiguration of the mind capable of attaining « absolute knowledge ». One could even add that « the spirit of the world » is for Hegel a hypostasis of Absolute Knowledge, that is, a hypostasis of God.
However, the idea of « absolute knowledge » as divine hypostasis does not correspond in any way to Paul’s profound feeling about the « knowledge » of God.
This feeling can be summarized as follows:
On the one hand, people can know the « idea » of God.
On the other hand, men can know the « spirit ».
Let’s look at these two points.
– On the one hand, people can know the « idea » of God.
« The idea of God is known to them [men], God has made it known to them. What He has had unseen since creation can be seen by the intellect through His works, His eternal power and divinity ». iii
Men cannot see God, but ‘His invisible things’ can be seen. « This vision of the invisible is the idea of God that men can ‘know’, the idea of his « invisibility ».
It is a beginning, but this knowledge through the idea is of no use to them, « since, having known God, they have not given him as to a God of glory or thanksgiving, but they have lost the sense in their reasoning and their unintelligent heart has become darkened: in their claim to wisdom they have gone mad and have changed the glory of the incorruptible God against a representation. » iv
The knowledge of the invisibility of God, and the knowledge of the incomprehensibility and insignificance of our lives, do not add up to a clear knowledge. In the best of cases, this knowledge is only one « light » among others, and these « lights » that are ours are certainly not the light of « Glory » that we could hope to « see » if we had really « seen » God.
It is as much to say then that these human « lights » are only « darkness », that our intelligence is « vain » and that our heart is « unintelligent ». We are limited on all sides. « Empty of meaning, left to his own resources, man faces the forces which, empty of meaning, reign over the world (…) Heartless, understanding without seeing, and therefore vain, such has become thought; and without thought, seeing without understanding, and therefore blind, such has become the heart. The soul is alien to the world and the world is without a soul when they do not meet in the knowledge of the unknown God, when man strives to avoid the true God, when he should lose himself and the world, in order to find himself and the world again in this God. » v
The only sure knowledge we have, therefore, is that we always walk in the night.
– On the other hand, men can have a knowledge of the mind.
Here, two things:
If the spirit has always been silent, if it is still silent, or if it has never just existed, then there is nothing to say about it. The only possible « way » then is silence. A silence of death. There is nothing to know about it.
But if the spirit means, if it speaks, however little, then this sign or word necessarily comes into us as from someone Other than ourselves.
This sign or word is born in us from a life that was certainly not in us until then, not in the least. And this life that was not in us could even die, before us, and like us.
Words, writings, acts, silences, absences, refusals, life, death, all of this always refers us back only to ourselves, to extensible « I’s » whose tour we make indefinitely, – a potentially cosmic tour (in theory), but really always the same (deep down).
Only the spirit has the vocation to burst in, to suddenly melt into us as the very Other, with its breath, its inspiration, its life, its fire, its knowledge.
Without this blatant breath, this inspiration, this living life, this fire of flame, this knowledge in birth, I would never be but me. I would not find, alone, helpless by myself, any clue whatsoever, from the path to the abyss, from the bridge over the worlds, from Jacob’s ladders to heaven.
It is certainly not the man who enters of himself into the knowledge of the Spirit « conscious of himself », on his way to « absolute knowledge ». It is rather the opposite, according to testimonies.
It is the Spirit, « conscious of itself », which enters, of itself, into the spirit of man to make itself known there. Man, if he is vigilant, then knows the Spirit, not as a « self-conscious » Spirit, but only as a « grace », – the grace of « knowing » that there is an « Other consciousness ».
Another name for the « Other » is « truth ». The Spirit is « Other » and it is « truth » (in this, Hegel is no different). But it is not we who can see the truth, who can consider it objectively. It is the opposite. It is the truth that sees us, from its own primal point of view. Our own point of view is always subjective, fragmented, pulverized.
But the true cannot be subjective, exploded, pulverized.
As for what the true is, one can only say (negatively) that it is hidden, unknown, foreign, unfathomable, beyond all knowledge.
The true is beyond life and death, beyond all life and death. If truth were not beyond life and death, it would not be « true ».
It would be life, and death, that would be « true » instead of the « true ».
We don’t know what the True is. We do not know what the Spirit is.
We can only hope to find out one day.
Hoping for what we don’t see is already a bit like knowing it.
And we are not necessarily alone in this expectation.
If the Spirit is not pure nothingness, it is not impossible to hope for a sign of it one day.
If it is « breath », some breeze can be expected (as the prophet Elijah testifies):
« And after the hurricane there was a hurricane, so strong and so violent that it split the mountains and broke the rocks, but the Lord was not in the hurricane; and after the hurricane there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire, and after the fire there was the murmur of a gentle breeze. »vi
From the Spirit, we can always expect the « unexpressed »:
« The Spirit also comes to meet our weakness. For we do not know what we should be praying for as we should. But the Spirit himself, in his overpowering power, intercedes for us with unspoken sighs, and he who searches the hearts knows what the Spirit’s thought is (‘to phronèma tou pneumatos’), andthat his intercession for the saints corresponds to God’s views. » vii
Even prayer is useless in this waiting, in this hope. You never know how to pray.
Man does not know how to get out of himself, he does not know the way out of what he has always been.
He knows nothing of the encounter with the living God.
And even if he met Him, he knows nothing of what the Spirit thinks.
But that doesn’t mean that man can never get out of himself. He can – if the circumstances are right, or if he gets a little help.
We don’t even know that yet. We are only waiting without impatience.
We look into the distance. Or beyond. Or within. Or below.
There are in us two men, one from the earth, the other from heavenviii.
And it is the latter, the man from heaven in us, who can feel the light breath, and hear the murmur.
iHegel. Phenomenology of the mind, II. Trad. J. Hyppolite. Aubier, 1941, p.306
Jacob Taubes wrote an article, The controversy between Judaism and Christianity, whose subtitle reads: « Considerations on their indissoluble difference« i, in which he densely summed up what he views as the essence of the « impossible dialogue between « the Synagogue » and « the Church » ».
This non-dialogue has been going on for two millennia, and will only end at the end of time, in all probability.
The popular expression « Judeo-Christian tradition » is often used. But it is meaningless. Above all, it impedes a full understanding of the « fundamental » differences in the « controversial questions concerning the Jewish and Christian religions » that « continue to influence every moment of our lives ». ii
From the outset, Jacob Taubes asserts that no concession on the part of Judaism towards Christianity is possible. The opposition is frontal, radical, absolute, irremediable.
In order for two parties to begin any kind of debate, at the very least, they must recognize each other’s legitimate right to participate in that debate.
However, these really basic conditions are not even fulfilled…
One party does not recognize the other. Christianity means nothing to Judaism. Christianity has absolutely no religious legitimacy for the latter:
« For the Jewish faith, the Christian religion in general and the body of the Christian Church in particular have no religious significance. For the Church, there is a Jewish « mystery, » but the Synagogue knows no « Christian » mystery of any kind. For Jewish belief, the Christian Church cannot have any religious significance; and the division of historical time into a « before Christ » and an « after Christ » cannot be recognized by the Synagogue. Moreover, it cannot even be recognized as something that, though meaningless to the Jewish people, represents a truth to the rest of the world. » iii
The denial of Christianity by Judaism is implacable, definitive. Christianity is not « recognized » by Judaism. It has intrinsically no « religious significance ». This absence of « religious significance » is not limited to the « Jewish people ». Nor does Judaism recognize any religious « significance » for religions from « the rest of the world ».
It is useless to expect from Jacob Taubes scholarly comparisons and fine analyses comparing Jewish and Christian theological elements in order to try to deepen the terms of a common questioning.
A major element of the Christian faith is only « blasphemy » from the Jewish point of view:
« But, from the Jewish point of view, the division into « Father » and « Son » operates a cleavage of the divine being; the Synagogue looked at it, and still looks at it, simply as blasphemy. » iv
In theory, and in good faith, for the sake of the « controversy », Jacob Taubes could have evoked, on this question of the « Father » and the « Son », the troubling passages of the Zohar which deal with the generation of Elohim following the « union » of the One with Wisdom (Hokhmah)v.
Is the « Father-Son-Holy Spirit » Trinity structurally analogous to the Trinity of « the One, Hokhmah and Elohim »?
Does it offer points of comparison with the revelation made to Moses under a formal Trinitarian formula: « Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh » (Ex. 3:14) or with the strange Trinitarian expression of Deuteronomy: « YHVH, Elohenou, YHVH » (Deut. 6:4)?
Maybe so. Maybe not. But this is not the bottom line for Taubes: he is not at all interested in a thorough confrontation of texts and ideas on such opaque and metaphysical subjects.
This lack of interest in comparative hermeneutics is all the more striking because Taubes immediately admits that Judaism, in its long history, has in fact fallen back a great deal on its supposed « rigid monotheism »:
« The recent insistence on rigid monotheism as the defining characteristic of Jewish religious life is contradicted by a fact that contemporary Jewish thinkers tend to dismiss: the centuries-long predominance of the Lurian Kabbalah in Judaism. The Kabbalah has developed theological speculations that can only be compared to Gnostic (and pagan) mythologies. The mythical unity of the divine King and the divine Queen, the speculation on Adam Kadmon, the mythology of the ten sephirot, which are not attributes but manifestations of the divine, of different essences, poses a challenge to any historian of religion who claims to judge what is Jewish and what is not according to the criterion of a « rigid monotheism ». The Jewish religion would not have been able to cope with the explosion of Kabbalistic mythologization if its fundamental and determining characteristic had been a rigid monotheism. » vi
Even more astonishing, Jacob Taubes, after having denied any kind of « religious significance » to Christianity, affirms however that « Christianity is a typically Jewish heresy »:
« Christian history, Jesus’ claim to the title of Messiah and Pauline theology of Christ as the end of the Law are not at all « singular » events for Judaism, but are things that regularly recur in the fundamental Jewish frame (Grundmuster)of religious existence. As I have already said, Christian history does not constitute a « mystery » for the Jewish religion. Christianity represents a « typical » crisis in Jewish history, which expresses a typically Jewish « heresy »: antinomistic messianism – the belief that with the coming of the Messiah, what is decisive for salvation is not the observance of the Law, but faith in the Messiah. » vii
But if Christianity is, for Judaism, a « typically Jewish heresy », does this not recognize it as a form of « significance » in the eyes of Judaism, if only because of its antinomic opposition? The fact that forms of heresy, at least formally analogous to Christianity, may have appeared in a recurring manner within Judaism itself, does not this imply the presence of a subterranean question, always at work, in the darkness of the foundations?
Judaism seems indeed to suffer from certain structural « weaknesses », at least according to the opinion of Jacob Taubes :
« The weakness of all modern Jewish theology – and not only modern – is that it fails to designate Halakhah, the Law, as its alpha and omega. Since the period of Emancipation, the Jewish religion has been in crisis because it lost its center when Halakhah lost its central position and binding force in Jewish thought and life. From the moment Halakhah ceases to be the determining force in Jewish life, the door is open to all the anti-halakhic (antinomistic) and disguised Christian assumptions that are prevalent in secularized modern Christian society. » viii
On the one hand, Christianity has no « religious significance », according to Jacob Taubes.
On the other hand, Christianity threatens Halakhah in its very foundation, which is of the order of the Law, and in its « ultimate » principle, justice:
« Halakhah is essentially based on the principle of representation: the intention of man’s heart and soul must be manifested and represented in his daily life. Therefore the Halakhah must become « external » and « legal », it must deal with the details of life because it is only in the details of life that the covenant between God and man can be presented. (…) Halakhah is the Law because justice is the ultimate principle: ecstatic or pseudo-ecstatic religiosity can see in the sobriety of justice only dead legalism and external ceremonialism, just as anarchy can conceive law and order only as tyranny and oppression. » ix
Here we are at the core. For Taubes, Judaism has as its essential foundations Law and Justice, which are radically opposed to the « principle of love »:
« The controversy between the Jewish religion and the Christian religion refers to the eternal conflict between the principle of the Law and the principle of love. The « yoke of the Law » is challenged by the enthusiasm of love. But in the end, only the « justice of the Law » could question the arbitrariness of love. » x
-Judaism does not give any religious significance to Christianity, nor does it recognize any meaning for the « rest of the world ».
-In reality Christianity is only a « Jewish heresy », as there have been so many others.
-Judaism is threatened by Christianity in that it deeply undermines Halakhah in a modern, secularized Christian society.
-The two essential principles of Judaism are the Law and justice.
-The essential principle of Christianity is love, but this principle is « arbitrary », -Judaism must question the « principle of love » through the « justice of the Law ».
Logically, the above points are inconsistent with each other when considered as a whole.
But logic has little to do with this debate, which is not, and probably cannot be « logical ».
Therefore, one has to use something other than logic.
But what? Vision? Intuition? Prophecy?
One reads, right at the very end of the Torah, its very last sentence:
« No prophet like Moses has ever risen in Israel, whom YHVH knew face to face. »xi
Let’s presume that the Torah tells the ultimate truth about this. How could it be otherwise?
Then, maybe, « He » could have risen out of Israel?
The Masters of Israel, from blessed memory, also testified, according to Moses de Leon:
« He has not risen in Israel, but He has risen among the nations of the world.» xii
The Masters cited the example of Balaam. He is a prophet, undeniably, since « God presented Himself (vayiqar) to Balaam » (Num. 23:4), but Balaam still is a « sulphurous » prophet.
However Balaam « stood up » before the end of the Torah. Which leaves open the question of other prophets « standing up » after the Torah was completed…
It is up to us, who belong to the nations of the world, to reflect and meditate on the prophets who may have risen – no longer in Israel, since none could possibly have « risen » in Israel since Moses – but among the « nations of the world ».
And this according to the testimony, not only of the Torah, but of the illustrious Jewish Masters who commented on it.
iJacob Taubes. « The controversy between Judaism and Christianity: Considerations on their indissoluble difference ». In « Time is running out. From worship to culture » (« Le temps presse ». Du culte à la culture. ) Ed. du Seuil. Paris, 2009.
iiJacob Taubes. « The controversy between Judaism and Christianity: Considerations on their indissoluble difference. « Time is running out. From worship to culture. Ed. du Seuil. Paris, 2009. p.101
iiiJacob Taubes. « The controversy between Judaism and Christianity: Considerations on their indissoluble difference ». In « Time is running out. From worship to culture » (« Le temps presse ». Du culte à la culture. ) Ed. du Seuil. Paris, 2009. p. 105
ivJacob Taubes. « The controversy between Judaism and Christianity: Considerations on their indissoluble difference ». In « Time is running out. From worship to culture » (« Le temps presse ». Du culte à la culture. ) Ed. du Seuil. Paris, 2009. . p. 104
viJacob Taubes. « The controversy between Judaism and Christianity: Considerations on their indissoluble difference ». In « Time is running out. From worship to culture » (« Le temps presse ». Du culte à la culture. ) Ed. du Seuil. Paris, 2009. . p. 111
viiJacob Taubes. »The controversy between Judaism and Christianity: Considerations on their indissoluble difference ». In « Time is running out. From worship to culture » (« Le temps presse ». Du culte à la culture. ) Ed. du Seuil. Paris, 2009. p. 113
viii« The controversy between Judaism and Christianity: Considerations on their indissoluble difference ». In « Time is running out. From worship to culture » (« Le temps presse ». Du culte à la culture. ) Ed. du Seuil. Paris, 2009. p. 114-115
ix« The controversy between Judaism and Christianity: Considerations on their indissoluble difference ». In « Time is running out. From worship to culture » (« Le temps presse ». Du culte à la culture. ) Ed. du Seuil. Paris, 2009. p. 115
xJacob Taubes. « The controversy between Judaism and Christianity: Considerations on their indissoluble difference ». In « Time is running out. From worship to culture » (« Le temps presse ». Du culte à la culture. ) Ed. du Seuil. Paris, 2009. Seuil. 2009. p. 117
The Book of Creation (« Sefer Yetsirah ») explains that the ten Sefirot Belimah (literally: the ten « numbers of non-being ») are « spheres of existence out of nothingness ». They have appeared as « an endless flash of light, » and « the Word of God circulates continuously within them, constantly coming and going, like a whirlwind. »i.
All of these details are valuable, but should not in fact be disclosed at all in public. The Book of Creation intimates this compelling order: « Ten Sefirot Belimah: Hold back your mouth from speaking about it and your heart from thinking about it, and if your heart is carried away, return to the place where it says, ‘And the Haioth go and return, for that is why the covenant was made’ (Ezekiel 6:14). »ii
I will not « hold my mouth » : I will quote the very texts of those who talk about it, think about it, go to it and come back to it over and over again.
For example, Henry Corbin, in a text written as an introduction to the Book of Metaphysical Penetrations by Mollâ Sadrâ Shîrâzi, the most famous Iranian philosopher at the time of the brilliant Safavid court of Isfahan, and a contemporary of Descartes and Leibniz in Europe, wonders in his turn about the essence of sefirot, and raises the question of their ineffability.
« The quiddity or divine essence, what God or the One is in his being, is found outside the structure of the ten sefirot, which, although they derive from it, do not carry it within them at all. The ten sefirot are ‘without His quiddity’ (beli mahuto, בלי מהותו), such is the teaching of the sentence in the Book of Creation. (…) But a completely different exegesis of the same sentence from the Book ofCreation is advanced in the Sicle of the Sanctuary. For this new exegesis, the word belimah does not mean beli mahout (without essence) but refers to the inexpressible character of the sefirot whose mouth must ‘refrain itself (belom) from speaking' ». iii
So, the question is : are sefirot « without divine essence », as the Book of Creation seems to say?
Or are sefirot really divine, and therefore « unspeakable »?
Or are they only « that which cannot be spoken of », according to the restrictive opinion of Moses de Leon (1240-1305), who is the author of the Sicle of the Sanctuary?
It seems to me that Moses de Leo, also apocryphal author of the famous Zohar, occupies a position on this subject that is difficult to defend, given all the speculations and revelations that abound in his main work…
Moreover, if one « cannot speak » of the sefirot, nor « think » about them, how can one then attribute any value whatsoever to the venerable Sefer Yetsirah (whose origin is attributed to Abraham himself, – but whose writing is dated historically between the 3rd and 6th century A.D.)?
On the other hand, – an argument of authority it is true, but not without relevance -, it should be emphasized that the Sicle of the Sanctuary is nevertheless « a little young » compared to the Sefer Yestsirah, which is at least a millennium older.
In view of these objections, let us consider that we can continue to evoke here (albeit cautiously) the sefirot, and try to reflect on them.
The sefirot, what are they? Are they of divine essence or are they pure nothingness?
The Zohar clearly states :
« Ten Sefirot Belimah: It is the breath (Ruah) of the spirit of the Living God for eternity. The Word or creative power, the Spirit and the Word are what we call the Holy Spirit. » iv
Finding expressions such as the « Word » or the « Holy Spirit » in one of the oldest philosophical texts of Judaism (elaborated between the 3rd and 6th centuries A.D.), may evoke strangely similar wordings, used in Christian Gospels.
There is, at least, a possibility of beginning a fruitful debate on the nature of the divine « emanations », to use the concept of atsilut – אצילות, used by Moses de Leon, and on the possible analogy of these « emanations » with the divine « processions » of the Father, Son and Spirit, as described by Christian theology?
What I would like to discuss here is how the Zohar links the « triple names » of God with what Moses de Leon calls the divine « emanations ».
The Zohar repeatedlyquotes several combinations of God’s « names », which form « triplets ».
In addition, it also deals with the divine « emanations » of which the sefirot seems an archetype, as well as expressions such as the « Breath » of God or his « Seed ».
Do the « divine emanations » and the « triple names » of God have some deep, structural, hidden relationship, and if so, what does this teach us?
The « triple names » of God.
In Scripture, there are several instances of what might be called the « triple names » of God, that is, formulas consisting of three words that form a unitary whole, an indissoluble verbal covenant to designate God:
-Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh (Ex. 3:14) (« I am he who is »)
To these « trinitarian » formulas, the Zohar adds for example:
–Berechit Bara Elohim (Gen 1:1) (« In the beginning created Elohim »)
Bringing these different « triplets » together, the Zohar establishes the idea that the names contained in each of these « triplets » are individually insufficient to account for the divine essence. Only the union of the three names in each of these formulations is supposed to be able to approach the mystery. But, taken individually, one by one, the names « YHVH », or « Ehyeh », or « Elohim », do not reach the ultimate level of comprehension. It is as if only the dynamic « procession » of the relationships between the names « within » each triplet could account for the mystery of God’s « Name ».
On the other hand, the Zohar suggests a kind of structural identity between the « triple names » just mentioned. Thus, by comparing term by term the verses Ex. 3:14 and Dt. 6:4, one can assume a kind of identity between YHVH and « Ehyeh ». And, based on the supposed analogy between Dt 6:4 and Gen 1:1, we can also identify the name « YHVH » with the names « Berechit » and « Elohim ».
Finally, if we pursue this structuralist logic, a word that could a priori be a « simple conjunction » with a grammatical vocation (the word « asher« ) acquires (according to the Zohar) the status of « divine noun », or divine hypostasis, as does the verb « bara« .
Let’s look at these points.
The Zohar formulates these structural analogies as follows:
« This is the meaning of the verse (Dt. 6:4): ‘Listen, Israel, YHVH, Elohenu, YHVH is one’. These three divine names designate the three scales of the divine essence expressed in the first verse of Genesis: ‘Berechit bara Elohim eth-ha-shamaim’, ‘Berechit’ designates the first mysterious hypostasis; ‘bara’ indicates the mystery of creation; ‘Elohim’ designates the mysterious hypostasis which is the basis of all creation; ‘eth-ha-shamaim’ designates the generating essence. The hypostasis ‘Elohim’ forms the link between the two others, the fecundating and the generating, which are never separated and form one whole. » v
We see that the Zohar thus distinguishes, from the first verse of the Torah, two « triplets » of divine names, somehow embedded in each other: ‘Berechit bara Elohim’ on the one hand, and ‘Bara Elohim eth-ha-shamaym’ on the other.
We also deduce that the second « triplet » is somehow « engendered » (in the sense of « generative grammars ») by the first « triplet », thanks to the special role played by the name ‘Elohim’.
The generative theory of the divine « triplets » also allows us to better understand the profound structure of the famous verse ‘Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh’ (Ex. 3:14) (« I am he who is »), and moreover allows us to establish a link with the theory of the divine emanations of the Zohar.
Let’s look at this point.
The Seed of God: ‘Asher’ and ‘Elohim’.
The « Seed » of God is evoked metaphorically or directly in several texts of Scripture as well as in the Zohar. It has various names: Isaiah calls it ‘Zera’ (זֶרָע: ‘seed’, ‘seed’, ‘race’)vi. The Zohar calls it « Zohar » (זֹהַר: glow, brightness, light), but also « Asher » (אֲשֶׁר: « that » or « who » – that is, as we have seen, the grammatical particle that can be used as a relative pronoun, conjunction or adverb), as the following two passages indicate:
« The word ‘glow’ (Zohar) refers to the spark that the Mysterious One caused when he struck the void and which is the origin of the universe, which isa palace built for the glory of the Mysterious One. This spark constitutes in a waythe sacred seed of the world. This mystery is expressed in the words of Scripture(Is. 6:13): ‘And the seed to which it owes its existence is sacred.’ Thus the word ‘glow’ (Zohar) refers to the seed He sowed for His glory, since the purpose of creation is the glorification of God. Like a mollusk from which purple is extracted andclothed in its shell, the divine seed is surrounded by the material that serves as its palace, built for the glory of God and the good of the world. This palace from which the divine seed has surrounded itself is called « Elohim » (Lord). This is the mysticalmeaning of the words: ‘With the Beginning He created Elohim’, that is, with the help of the ‘light’ (Zohar), the origin of all the Verbs (Maamaroth), God created ‘Elohim’ (Lord) ». vii
But a few lines later, the Zohar assigns to the word « Zohar » two more meanings, that of « Mysterious » and that of « Beginning ». Therefore, since the word « Zohar » is no longer available as a metaphor for the divine « Seed », the Zohar uses the word « Asher » (אֲשֶׁר: « that » or « who ») to designate the latter, but also the word « Elohim », which derives from it by synonymous engendering and following a kind of « literal » pirouette, as shown in this passage:
« By the word ‘glow’ (Zohar), Scripture refers to the Mysterious called ‘Berechit’ (Beginning), because it is the beginning of all things. When Moses asked God what His name was, God replied (Ex. 3:14): « Ehyeh asher Ehyeh » (אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה , I am He who is). The sacred name ‘Ehyeh’ appears on both sides, while the name ‘Elohim’ forms the crown, since it appears in the middle; for ‘Asher’ is synonymous with ‘Elohim’, whereas the name ‘Asher’ is formed from the sameletters that make up the word ‘Roch’ (head, crown). ‘Asher’, which is the same as ‘Elohim’, is derived from ‘Berechit’. As long as the divine spark was enclosed in the sublime palace, that is to say, before it manifested itself,it did not form any peculiarity that could be designated in the divine essenceby anyname; the Whole was One, under the name ‘Roch’. Butwhen God created, with the help of the sacred seed (‘Asher’), the palace of matter, ‘Asher’ took shape in the divine essence; only then did ‘Asher’ take, in the divine essence, the shape of a crown head (‘Roch’), being situated in the middle (‘Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh’). Now, the word ‘Berechit’ contains the word ‘Roch’, synonymous with ‘Asher’;it forms the words ‘Roch’ and ‘Baït’, i.e. ‘Roch’ enclosed in a palace (‘Baït’). viiiThe words: ‘Berechit Bara Elohim’ thus mean : When ‘Roch’, synonymous with ‘Asher’,wasused as divine seed in the palace of matter, ‘Elohim’ was created; that is to say, Elohim took shape in the essence of God. ix
Let’s summarize what we just learned from the Zohar.
The divine « Seed » receives, according to its authors, the following names: Zera‘, Zohar, Asher, Roch (‘seed, glow, who, head’).
The « Seed » is deposited in the middle of the « palace ».
The Palace-Semen together are called ‘Beginning’ (Berechit).
And this ‘Beginning’ ‘created’ ‘Elohim’.
And all this is presented in the first verse of the Torah.
How can we fail to see in this thesis of the Zohar a structural analogy between « Elohim » and the Christian concept of « Son of God »?
Decidedly, even a purely ‘monotheistic’ theology needs « emanations » to live in the « world ».
Hair has always had an anthropological, imaginary and symbolic depth. Literature, painting, sculpture, under all latitudes, have testified and still testify to the metaphorical (and metonymic) power of hair, and more generally of hairs.
An exhaustive analysis of the representations of hair in Western painting alone could yield some exciting material.
Where does it come from? One of the fundamental problems that painters face is to make forms and backgrounds blend together in a meaningful way. The restricted and highly organized space of the canvas allows to give meaning to graphic analogies and pictorial proximities, which are as many opening metaphors, as many potential metonymies.
How, for example, should a character’s hair, whether spread or held, mad or wise, meet on the canvas the background against which it is shaped? Should it contrast sharply with its immediate environment, or attempt a latent fusion?
For the painters who represent the metamorphosis of Daphne into a laurel, the hair of the nymph is a propitious place to present the fusion of forms to come, the transformation of the human figure into an evergreen shrub. The sculpture also takes advantage of these effects of metamorphosis. Bernini, with Apollo and Daphne, presents with precision the beginning of the vegetable transition of hair and fingers into foliage and branches, where it naturally begins.
The hair favors many other metaphors, such as that of the veil:
« O fleece, flowing down to the neckline! O curls! O perfume loaded with nonchalance! Ecstasy! To populate this evening the dark alcove With memories sleeping in this hair, I want to shake it in the air like a handkerchief! » ii
From this handkerchief, we can use it to wipe tears or tears, Luke attests it:
« And behold, a sinful woman who was in the city, when she knew that he was sitting at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster vase full of ointment and stood behind it at Jesus’ feet. She wept, and soon she wet his feet with her tears, wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and anointed them with ointment. » iii
There is also the metaphor of the waves:
« Strong braids, be the swell that takes me away!
You contain, sea of ebony, a dazzling dream
Of sails, rowers, flames and masts : A resounding port where my soul can drink. « iv.
Multiple, heteroclite, are the poetic or graphic metaphors of the hair: knots, linksv, helmets, breastplates, interlacing, clouds, and even the stars! The Hair of Berenice is a constellation of the Northern Hemisphere, named so because Berenice II, Queen of Egypt, sacrificed her hair, and that, according to the astronomer Conon of Samos, it was then placed by the gods in the sky.
Among the most widespread in painting, it is undoubtedly the metaphors of water and blood, which lend themselves very well to the supple and silky variations of the hair.
Ophelia’s drowned hair blends harmoniously with the wave, in which her body is bathed, in Eugène Delacroix or J.E. Millais. Gustave Klimt uses this effect to paint Ondines swimming lying down in Sang de poisson and in Serpents d’eau.
Bernardino Luini represents the head of John the Baptist, above a dish held by Salome, and his blood still runs in long dark streaks, prolonging the hair of the beheaded man.
Among all the countless metaphors of hair, there is one very particular one, that of fire and flame.
« The hair, flight of a flame to the extreme Occident of desires to deploy it, Poses itself (I’d say die a diadem) Towards the crowned forehead its former home »vi The image of a ‘hair of fire’ goes to the extreme indeed, and makes it possible to reach untold ends, and the Divine too…
The Ṛg Veda evokes a single God, Agni, named « Hairy », who is incarnated in three figures, endowed with different attributes. These three « Hairy » have the hair of a flamevii. « Three Hairy ones shine in turn: one sows himself in Saṃvatsara; one considers the Whole by means of the Powers; and another one sees the crossing, but not the color.» viii
The « Hair » connotes the reproductive power, the creative force, the infinite radiance of divine light. The first « Hairy » engenders himself in the Soma, in the form of a primordial germ. The second « Hairy » contains the Whole, i.e. the universe, again through Soma. The third « Hairy » is the « dark » Agni, the « unborn » Agni aja, which passes from night to light and reveals itself there.
In Judaism, hair does not burn, and it must be carefully maintained. ix
However, God chose a kind of vegetable hair, in the form of a « burning bush », to address Moses on Mount Horeb.
In Christianity, the flames of the Holy Spirit, at Pentecost, come to mingle with the hair of the Apostles. x
In Sufism, the « Hair » represents the Divine Essence as a symbol of multiplicity hiding unity. « Multiplicity conceals the non-existence of things, and thereby obscures the Heart, but at the same time as it veils, the Hair attracts Divine Grace and Divine Gifts. » xi
The hair represents here the « multiple », and thus nothingness. By its abundance and luxuriance, hair is an image of everything that is not the « unique ».
In absolute contrast to Sufism, John of the Cross chose precisely the metaphor of the « single hair » to represent the reciprocal love of the singular soul and of God, and to represent the fine and impalpable link that connects the soul to God. An infinitely fine link, but so strong that it has the power to link God himself to the soul he loves.
For John of the Cross, fundamentally, « the hair represents love ». xii
The initial inspiration for this metaphor seems, apparently at least, to come from the Song of Songs.
« Speaking of this wound, the Bridegroom of the Song of Songs says to the soul: You have made a woundin my soul, my sister, my wife, you have made a woundin my heart, with one of your eyes and with one hair of your neck (Ct 4:9). The eye here represents faith in the Incarnation of the Bridegroom, and the hair represents the love inspired by this mystery.» xiii
Vaporous lightness, evanescent subtlety, but also inconceivable power. Beneath the most feeble appearance, the single hair hides an extraordinary strength. A single, solitary hair has the power to hold God captive in the soul, because God falls in love with it, through this hair.
« God is strongly in love with this hair of love when he sees it alone and strong. » xiv
John of the Cross explains: « The hair that makes such a union must surely be strong and well untied, since it penetrates so powerfully the parts that it links together. The soul exposes, in the following stanza, the properties of this beautiful hair, saying :
« The soul says that this hair ‘flew on her neck’, because the love of a strong and generous soul rushes towards God with vigor and agility, without enjoying anything created. And just as the breeze stirs and makes the hair fly, so the breath of the Holy Spirit lifts and sets the strong love in motion, making it rise up to God. » xvi
But how can the supreme God fall in love with a hair?
« Until now God had not looked at this hair in such a way as to be enamored of it, because he had not seen it alone and free from other hair, that is to say, from other loves, appetites, inclinations and tastes; it could not fly alone on the neck, symbol of strength ». xvii
And, above all, how can the supreme God remain captive, bound by a single hair?
« It is a marvel worthy of our admiration and joy that a God is held captive by a single hair! The reason for this infinitely precious capture is that God stopped to look at the hair that was flying on the neck of the bride, because, as we have said, God’s gaze is his love ». xviii
God allows himself to be captivated by the « theft of the hair of love », because God is love. This is how « the little bird seizes the great golden eagle, if the latter comes down from the heights of the air to let himself be caught ». xix
The single hair embodies the will of the soul, and the love it bears to the Beloved.
But why a single hair, and not rather, to make a mass, a tuft, a fleece, or an entire head of hairxx ?
« The Spouse speaks ‘of one hair’ and not of many, to make us understand that her will is God’s alone, free from all other hair, that is to say, from all affections foreign to God. » xxi
But the case is more complicated than it seems.
The Song of Songs does not actually contain this image. In its chapter 4 verse 9, we read the following:
« You have captured my heart, O my sister, my fiancée, you have captured my heart by one of your glances, by one of the necklaces that adorn your neck. »
The word « necklace » correctly translates the Hebrew word עֲנָק, which actually has no other meaning, and certainly does not mean « hair ».
In Hebrew, « hair » is said to be שַׂעָר. This word is also used just before, in verse 1 of the same chapter of the Song of Songs: « Your hair is like a herd of goats coming down from the Mount of Gilead »xxii.
The metaphor of the « herd of goats » implies a play on words, which is not unrelated to our subject. Indeed, the Hebrew שַׂעָר , « hair », is very close semantically to שָׂעׅיר , « goat » and שְׂעׅירָה , « goat ».
This is understandable. The goat is a very hairy animal, « hairy » par excellence. But the verse does not use this repetition, and does not use here the word שְׂעׅירָה , but another word, which also means « goat », עֵז, and which allows for an equivalent play on words, since its plural, עׅזׅים, metonymically means « goat hair ». By forcing the note, verse Ct 4.1 could be translated literally: « Your hair is like a multitude of goat’s hairs coming down from Mount Galaad… ». »
If verse 1 multiplies the effect of multitude, in verse 9, it would only be a matter of a single hair, according to John of the Cross.
The problem, we said, is that this hair is not present in the Hebrew text.
So did the Vulgate, in a translation here defective, mislead John of the Cross?
The Vulgate gives for Ct 4:9: « Vulnerasti cor meum, soror mea, sponsa; vulnerasti cor meum in uno oculorum tuorum, et in uno crine colli tui. »
The Vulgate thus translates the Hebrew עֲנָק, « necklace » by uno crine, « a curl of hair », which seems a dubious equivalence.
Poets are seers, and outstanding visionaries, they see higher, further, more accurately. Perhaps the « hair » that God « sees » on the Bride’s neck is in fact a fine, precious thread, attaching to the neck a unique jewel? Hair, or thread on the neck, what does it matter, then, if both words fulfill their role of metaphor and metonymy, signifying the love of the soul for God, and God’s love for the soul?
In the film Call me by your name, by Luca Guadagnino, the hero, Elio Perlman, played by Timothée Chalamet, sees a Star of David hanging from a thin golden thread around the neck of Oliver, played by Armie Hammer. In the film, this precious object plays a transitional role in Elio’s budding passion for Oliver.
Perhaps we can imagine an extremely precious piece of jewelry around the Bride’s neck? In this case, one should not be mistaken: what attracts the gaze of God, as Bridegroom, is not this jewel, however precious it may be, but the very thin thread that holds it, and which the Vulgate assimilates to a « hair ».
In the eyes of John of the Cross, the unique necklace of the Bride of the Song of Songs is in any case a powerful metonymy assimilating the thread to a hair and the hair to a mystical link. This metonymy inspires him, and allows him to write his own original spiritual Song of Songs, whose stanzas 21 and 22 tie the metaphor tightly together:
viiiIncidentally, one of the attributes of Apollo, Xantokomès (Ξανθόκομης), also makes him a God « with fire-red hair ».
ixThe rules concerning hair are very codified. But only he who purifies himself must make them disappear completely, under the razor blade: « Then on the seventh day he shall shave off all his hair, his hair, his beard, his eyebrows, all his hair; he shall wash his clothes, bathe his body in water, and become clean. « Lev 14:9
x« On the day of Pentecost, they were all together in the same place. Suddenly there came a sound from heaven like a rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Tongues like tongues of fire appeared to them, separated from one another, and rested on each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them power to speak. « Acts 2:1-4
xxHowever, in Ascent to Carmel, John of the Cross uses the metaphor of ‘hair’ in the plural. He relies on a passage from the Lamentations of Jeremiah which he translates again from the Vulgate: « Candidiores sunt Nazaraei ejus nive, nitidiores lacte, rubincundiores ebore antiquo, saphiro pulchriores ». « Their hair is whiter than snow, brighter than milk, redder than antique ivory, more beautiful than sapphire. Their faces have become blacker than coal, and are no longer recognizable in public squares. « (Rom 4:7-8) John of the Cross uses here the word cabello, « hair, » to translate into Spanish the word Nazaraei (« Nazarenes, » or « Nazirs of God ») used by the Vulgate. And he explains what, according to him, Jeremiah’s metaphor means: « By ‘hair’ we mean the thoughts and affections of the soul which are directed to God (…) The soul with its operations represented by hair surpasses all the beauty of creatures. « (John of the Cross, The Ascent of Carmel 1,9,2. Complete Works . Cerf, 1990. p.611)
Pherecyde of Syros, the uncle and tutor of Pythagoras, active in the 6th century B.C., was the first to affirm that the souls of men are eternal, according to Ciceroi . However I presume that he must have been preceded by many shamans of ancient times, for whom eternity of souls was obvious, because they had personally experienced that human souls can travel between worlds, those of the living and those of the dead, under certain conditions.
Pherecyde wrote of a dead hero: « His soul was sometimes in Hades and sometimes in the places above the earth »ii . Did he have first-hand experience of these strange phenomena? Or was he just repeating stories he had heard from elsewhere ?
According to Suidas, Pherecyde had been influenced by the secret cults of Phoenicia. Many other Greeks, for their part, fell under the spell of the Chaldean rites, as reported by Diodorus of Sicily, or those of Ethiopia, described by Diogenes Laertius, or were fascinated by the depth of the ancient traditions of Egypt, reported by Herodotus with great detail. Many peoples have cultivated religious mysteries. The Magi of Persia loved the dark caves for their sacred celebrations; the Hebrews practiced the mysteries of the Kabbalah, probably long before their late medieval development; Caesar, in his Gallic Wars, describes those of the Druids.
Benjamin Constant devotes part of his book on « Religion, considered in its source, its forms and its development », to this transnational, multicultural, and several thousand year old phenomenon. « The mysteries of Eleusis were brought by Eumolpe, from Egypt or Thrace. Those of Samothrace, which served as a model for almost all those of Greece, were founded by an Egyptian Amazon (Diodorus of Sicily 3.55). The daughters of Danaus established the Thesmophoria (Herodotus 2:171; 4:172) and the Dionysians were taught to the Greeks by Phoenicians (Herodotus 2:49) or Lydians (Euripides, The Bacchaeans, 460-490). The mysteries of Adonis penetrated from Assyria through the island of Cyprus into the Peloponnese. The dance of the Athenian women to the Thesmophoria was not a Greek dance (Pollux, Onomast. 4) and the name of the Sabarian rites brings us back to Phrygia.» iii
Benjamin Constant notes that the names Ceres and Proserpine in the language of the Cabirs are identical to those of the Queen of the Underworld and her daughter among the Indians, Ceres deriving from Axieros and Asyoruca, and Proserpine from Axiocersa and Asyotursha. He quotes Creutzer who asserts, in his Mithraics (III,486), that the formulas with which the Greek initiates were consecrated (« Konx, Om, Pax ») are in reality Sanskrit words. Konx (κονξ) comes from Kansha (the object of desire), Om is the famous Vedic monosyllable, and Pax (παξ) comes from Pasha (Fortune).
Other similarities are worth noting, such as the role of the (stylized) representation of the sexual organs in Vedic and Greek cults. Constant indicates that the Pelagi in Samothrace worshipped the phallus, as reported by Herodotusiv, and that in the Thesmophoria a representation of the cteisv was staged. The Dionysian Canephores, young virgins chosen from the best families, carried the sacred phallus on their heads in baskets and brought it close to the lips of the candidates for initiation. »vi It was through the Lernéan mysteries that were celebrated in Argolide in honor of Bacchus, that the practice of planting phallus on the tombs was introduced »vii, symbols of genetic power, but also of the immortality of the soul and metempsychosis. Cicero speaks of the infamy of the Sabarian mysteriesviii, Ovid and Juvenal describe the obscene ceremonies of the feasts of Adonisix. Tertullian condemns: « What the mysteries of Eleusis have of more holy, what is carefully hidden, what one is admitted to know only very late, it is the simulacrum of the Phallus. » x
Eusebius of Caesarea is also interested in these ancient orgies and quotes Clement of Alexandria, a well-informed source, who does not hide his indignation: « Do you want to see the orgies of the Corybantes? You will see only assassinations, tombs, laments of priests, the natural parts of Bacchus with his throat cut, carried in a box and presented for adoration. But don’t be surprised if the barbaric Tuscans have such a shameful cult. What shall I say of the Athenians and the other Greeks, with their mysteries of Demeter? »» xi.
Both sexes are publicly displayed in the sacred cults of the Dioscuri in Samothrace and Bacchus in the Dionysies. It is a « feast of raw flesh, » the interpretation of which can vary considerably. One may decide to see it as a simple allusion to the wine harvest: the torn body of Bacchus is the body of the grape pulled from the vine and crushed under the press. Ceres is the Earth, the Titans are the grape-pickers, Rhea gathers the members of the God torn to pieces, who is incarnated in the wine made from the juice of the grapes.
But the metaphor can be completely overturned, and one can read in it the profound message of a theophany of God’s death and sacrifice, of his dismembered body shared in communion, in a strange prefiguration of Christ’s death, and then of the communion of his flesh and blood by his faithful, even today, at the crucial moment of the Mass.
Always in a kind of pagan prefiguration of Christian beliefs, more than half a millennium ahead of time, we witness the death and resurrection of God: Attys, Adonis, Bacchus and Cadmille die and rise again, following the example of Osiris and Zagreus, avatar of the mystic Dionysus.
We can see that the mystery religions of the Greeks owe almost everything to much older cults, coming from Egypt, Phoenicia, Chaldea, Mesopotamia, and further east still.
This raises a question which is not without merit: to what extent was Christian worship, which appeared some seven or eight centuries later, influenced by those ancient pagan cults revering a God who died in sacrifice for men, and whose body and blood are shared in communion by them? « The Logos as son of God and mediator is clearly designated in all the mysteries. » Benjamin Constant affirms in this regard. xii
The protagonists of the initiation ceremonies, composed of many degrees, certainly did not ask themselves such questions at the time. The initiates to the small mysteries (μύσται, the « mystes ») remained confined to the vestibules of the temples, only the initiates to the great mysteries (ἐπόπται, the « epoptes », a name that later applied to Christian « bishops ») could enter the sanctuary.
But what was their motivation? What was this secret that was so difficult to obtain? What justified to stoically endure eighty degrees of trials (hunger, whip, stay in the mud, in the ice water, and other torments…) to be initiated, for example, to the mysteries of Mithra?
What is certain is that these systems of initiation were subversive, they ruined the bases of the established order, of public religions, making too many gods proliferate, too visible. Part of this last revelation, which it took so long to discover, was the idea of the non-existence of these Homeric gods, popular, multiplied, covering the peristyles of the cities, encouraged by the government of the plebeians. The radical negation of the existence of the national gods, was part of the truths finally revealed to only a very small number of chosen ones.
« The secret did not lie in traditions, fables, allegories, opinions, or the substitution of a purer doctrine: all these things were known. What was secret, then, was not the things that were revealed, but that these things were thus revealed, that they were revealed as the dogmas and practices of an occult religion, that they were revealed gradually. » xiii
The initiation was, well before the time of the modern Enlightenment, a conditioning, a training of the mind, an asceticism of the soul, an exercise in radical doubt, an absolute « mise en abîme ». It was a revelation of the inanity of all revelation. At the end of this long journey, there were no other established doctrines than the absence of any doctrine, only an absolute negation of all known assertions, those which the uneducated people were being fed with. There were no more dogmas, but only signs of recognition, symbols, rallying words that allowed the initiated to allusively share the feeling of their election to penetrate the ultimate ends.
But what were these? If we had to free ourselves from all known gods and dogmas, what was left to believe?
That men go to heaven, and that the Gods have gone to earth.
Cicero testifies to this, in an exchange with an initiate: « In a word, and to avoid a longer detail, was it not men who populated the heaven? If I were to delve into antiquity, and take it upon myself to delve deeper into the stories of the Greeks, we would find that even those of the Gods, who are given the first rank, lived on earth, before going to heaven. Find out which of these Gods, whose tombs are shown in Greece. Since you are initiated into the mysteries, remember the traditions. » xiv
Cicero encourages us to recognize that the greatest of mysteries is that of our soul, and that the most sacred sanctuary is therefore not so inaccessible, since it is so close, though buried in the depths of our intimacy, in the center of our very soul.
« And truly there is nothing so great as to see with the eyes of the soul, the soul itself. This is the meaning of the oracle, which wants everyone to know each other. No doubt Apollo did not pretend to tell us to know our body, our size, our figure. For he who speaks of us does not speak of our body; and when I speak to you, it is not to your body that I speak. When therefore the oracle says to us, ‘Know thyself,’ he hears, ‘Know thy soul. Your body is, so to speak, only the vessel, only the home of your soul. » xv
Cicero, at the peak of his art, is modest. He knows that he owes everything he believes to Plato. This can be summed up in a few incisive phrases, in precise, surgical logic: « The soul feels that she is moving: she feels that she is not dependent on a foreign cause, but that she is by herself, and by her own virtue; it can never happen that she misses herself, so she is immortal.» xvi
If one finds the elliptic reasoning, one can read the more elaborate version, as developed by Plato in the Phaedra, as cited by Cicero in his Tusculanes:
« A being that always moves, will always exist. But he who gives movement to another, and who receives it himself from another, necessarily ceases to exist, when he loses his movement. There is therefore only the being moved by his own virtue, who never loses his movement, because he never misses himself. And moreover he is for all other things that have movement, the source and principle of the movement they have. Now, who says principle, says what has no origin. For it is from the principle that everything comes, and the principle cannot come from anything else. It would not be a principle if it came from elsewhere. And since it has no origin, it will therefore have no end. For, being destroyed, it could neither be itself reproduced by another principle, nor produce another, since a principle presupposes nothing anterior. Thus the principle of movement is in the being moved by its own virtue. A principle that can be neither produced nor destroyed. Otherwise it is necessary that heaven and earth be turned upside down, and that they fall into eternal rest, without ever being able to recover a force, which, as before, makes them move. It is obvious, therefore, that that which is moved by its own virtue, will always exist. And can it be denied that the ability to move in this way is not an attribute of the soul? For everything that is moved only by a foreign cause is inanimate. But that which is animated is moved by its own virtue, by its inner action. Such is the nature of the soul, such is its property. Therefore, the soul being, of all that exists, the only thing that always moves itself, let us conclude from this that it is not born, and that it will never die ». xvii
Are we satisfied enough? Do we need more? We are still far from the Gods, or perhaps much closer than we think. « Immortality, wisdom, intelligence, memory. Since our soul gathers these perfections, it is therefore divine, as I say. Or even a God, as Euripides dared to say. » xviii
The soul is a sun. Cicero reports these last words of Socrates, a few moments before drinking the hemlock: « The whole life of philosophers is a continual meditation of death ». This was his swan song. The swans, by the way, were dedicated to Apollo, because they seem to hold from him the art of knowing the future. Foreseeing the benefits of following death, the swans die voluptuously, while singing. Likewise Socrates, who took the time to recall this metaphor in front of his assembled disciples, sang an unforgettable song, and pondered his ultimate doubt, in the face of imminent death, with the smile of a wise man: « When one looks too fixedly at the setting sun. One comes to see no more. And in the same way, when our soul looks at herself, her intelligence sometimes becomes blurred, so that our thoughts become blurred. We no longer know what to fix ourselves on, we fall from one doubt to another, and our reasoning has as little consistency as a ship beaten by the waves. »
This very doubt, this blindness, this ultimate blurring, when we approach revelation, comes only from the too great strength of this inner sun, which the weak eyes of the mind cannot bear.
To detach the mind from the body is to learn how to die. Let us separate ourselves from our bodies by the power of the soul, and thus become accustomed to dying. By this means, our life will already hold a heavenly life, and we will be better prepared to take off when our chains break.
i« According to the written documents, Pherecyde of Syros was the first to have said that the souls of men are eternal. « Cicero, Tusculanes, I, 16, 38.
iiPherecyde of Syros, fragment B 22, trans. G. Colli, La sagesse grecque, t. 2, p. 103: scholies of Apollonius of Rhodes, I, 643-648.
iiiBenjamin Constant. Of religion considered in its source, its forms and its developments. 1831. Book 13, ch.12
ivHerodotus, Story 2:51: « The Greeks, then, hold these and many other rites among the Egyptians, of which I will speak later; but it is not according to these peoples that they give the statues of Mercury an indecent attitude. The Athenians were the first to take this custom from the Pelasians; the rest of Greece followed their example. The Pelasges remained in fact in the same canton as the Athenians, who, from that time, were among the Hellenes; and it is for this reason that they then began to be reputed as Hellenes themselves. Whoever is initiated into the mysteries of the Cabires, which the Samothracians celebrate, understands what I am saying; for these Pelasges who came to dwell with the Athenians used to inhabit Samothrace, and it is from them that the peoples of this island took their mysteries. The Athenians are thus the first of the Hellenes who learned from the Pelagiuses to make statues of Mercury in the state we have just represented. The Pelasges give a sacred reason for this, which is explained in the mysteries of Samothrace. « Pierre-Henri Larcher. Paris, Lefevre and Charpentier 1842.
vSee Theodoret, Serm. 7 and 12. The cteis is a Greek word which literally means « tooth comb » but which also figuratively designates the pubis of the woman, and also means « cup, chalice ».
viTheodoret, Therapeut. Disput. 1, cited by B. Constant in op.cit. Book 13, ch.2
In a famous passage from the Acts of the Apostles, Paul recounts his rapture in paradise in a strangely indirect way:
« I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago – was it in his body? I don’t know; was it outside his body? I don’t know; God knows – … that man was taken up to the third heaven. And that man – was it in his body? Was it without his body? I don’t know; God knows; I know that he was taken up to heaven and heard words that cannot be spoken, that a man is not allowed to say again.»i
Augustine commented specifically on the « third heaven », where Paul was delighted.
According to him, there are indeed three « heavens » corresponding to three different levels of « vision ». There are the heaven of the body, the heaven of the mind and the heaven of the soul.
In the third heaven, at the third level of vision, one can « see the divine substance ».
Augustine exercises in passing his critical mind about the « rapture » of which Paul was apparently the beneficiary. Quite acid is his comment:
« Finally, even though the Apostle who was taken away from the bodily senses and then was taken up to the third heaven and into paradise, he certainly lacked one thing to have this full and perfect knowledge, such as is found in the angels: not knowing whether he was with or without his body. »ii
The body seems to be a hindrance to the full consciousness of the delighted soul. If one can access through ecstasy or rapture to the contemplation of divine things by the soul, what is the use of the body in these exceptional circumstances?
« Perhaps the objection will be made: what need is there for the spirits of the dead to recover their bodies at the resurrection, if, even without their bodies, they can enjoy this sovereign bliss? The question is undoubtedly too difficult to be perfectly dealt with in this book. There is no doubt, however, that the intellectual soul of man, both when rapture takes it away from the use of the carnal senses and when after death it abandons the remains of the flesh and even transcends the similarities of the bodies, cannot see the substance of God as the holy angels see it. This inferiority is due either to some mysterious cause or to the fact that there is a natural appetite in the soul to rule the body. This appetite somehow delays it and prevents it from reaching for that supreme heaven with all its might, as long as the body is not under its influence. »iii
The delighted soul, therefore, sees the substance of God, but in an incomplete way, in any case less than that which the angels enjoy. The body corrupts and burdens the soul, and binds it.
These limitations come from the special relationship (« the natural appetite ») that in men, is established between the soul and the body.
We can deduce that death brings deliverance and gives the soul a power of transformed vision.
But then, if this is the case, why desire the resurrection? Won’t finding one’s body bind the soul again?
Augustine answers that « mysterious » transformations of the glorious body will change its relationship with the soul after the resurrection. The soul will no longer be hindered, but on the contrary energized, and perhaps even capable of contemplating the divine substance in a more active or perfect way, surpassing then that of the angels. iv
In an epistle to the Corinthians, Paul gives his own explanation.
« Other the brightness of the sun, other the brightness of the moon, other the brightness of the stars. A star itself differs in brightness from another star. So it is with the resurrection of the dead: one is sown in corruption, one resurrects in incorruptibility; one is sown in ignominy, one resurrects in glory; one is sown in weakness, one resurrects in strength; one is sown in the psychic body, one resurrects the spiritual body.
If there is a psychic body, there is also a spiritual body. This is how it is written: The first man, Adam, was made a living soul; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that appears first; it is the psychic, then the spiritual. The first man, who came from the ground, is earthly; the second comes from heaven. Such was the earthly, such will also be the earthly; such will also be the celestial, such will also be the celestial. And just as we have borne the image of the earthly, so shall we also bear the image of the heavenly. »v
The first Adam is made a living soul. The last Adam is made a life-giving spirit, for Paul.
For Augustine, the vision of the « spirit » reaches the second heaven, and the vision of the « intellectual soul » reaches the third heaven.
Strangely enough, everything happens as if Paul and Augustine had switched their respective uses of the words « soul » and « spirit ».
Perhaps a return to Biblical Hebrew, which distinguishes neshma, ruah, and nephesh, (breath, spirit, soul), will be helpful?
In Gen. 2:7 we read precisely two different expressions:
The French Rabbinate offers a French translation, of which I propose this translation in English:
« The Eternal-God fashioned man from dust detached from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils a breath of life, and man became a living soul. »
The Jerusalem Bible gives :
« Then YHVH God molded man with the clay of the ground, breathed into his nostrils a breath of life and man became a living being. »
Rachi comments on this verse as follows:
« HE FASHIONED (the word is written וַיִּיצֶר with two יּ). Two formations, one for this world, one for the resurrection of the dead. But for the beasts that will not appear on Judgment Day, the same word has only one י (verse 19).
DUST FROM THE GROUND. God has gathered dust from all the earth at the four cardinal corners. In every place where man dies, the earth agrees to be his grave. Another explanation: it was dust taken from the place where it says, « You will make me an altar OF THE EARTH » (Ex. 20:24). God said, « May it be an atonement for him, and he will be able to remain ».
AND HE BREATHED INTO HIS NOSTRILS. He formed it from elements from below and elements from above. The body from below; the soul from above.
For on the first day the heavens and the earth were created. On the second day He said, « Let the earth appear beneath. On the fourth day He created the lights above. On the fifth day He said, « Let the waters swarm and so forth, below. On the sixth day, He had to finish with the world above and the world below. Otherwise there would have been jealousy in the work of creation.
A LIVING SOUL. Pets and field animals are also called living souls. But man’s soul is the most living soul, because it also has knowledge and speech. »
We can see that what matters for Rashi is not so much the distinction between nephesh and neshma, but the life of the soul, which is « more alive » in the case of man.
It is not enough to be alive. It is important that life be « as alive » as possible.
And there is a connection between this « more alive » life and God’s vision.
In a note by P. Agaësse and A. Solignac – « Third Heaven and Paradise » – added to their translation of Augustine’s Genesis in the literal sense, there is a more complete analysis which I summarize in the following paragraphs.
If the third heaven that St. Paul saw corresponds to the third kind of vision, it may have been given to Paul’s soul to see the glory of God, face to face, and to know His very essence. This is Augustine’s interpretation.
But if we make the third heaven one of the celestial spheresvi, among many others, we can in this hypothesis, admit a hierarchy of spiritual and intellectual visions with numerous degrees. Augustine, rather dubious, admits that he himself does not see how to arrive on this subject at a knowledge worthy of being taught.
If most modern exegetes adopt Augustine’s interpretation, the history of ideas is rich in other points of view.
Ambrose affirms that man « goes from the first heaven to the second, from the second to the third, and thus successively to the seventh, and those who deserve it to go to the top and to the vault of the heavens ». vii
He admits the existence of more than three heavens. And he criticizes the idea that Paul only ascended to the « third heaven », which would be only that of the « moon ».
Origen also evokes Paul’s vision to show that man can know heavenly things. But, he says, it is not man by himself who accesses this knowledge, it is the Spirit of God who illuminates man.viii
Origen also says that the friends of God « know him in His essence and not by riddles or by the naked wisdom of voices, speeches and symbols, rising to the nature of intelligible things and the beauty of truth. » ix
Origen also believes that it is reasonable to admit that the Prophets, through their hegemonikon (which is another Greek name for the noos, the spirit), were able to « see wonders, hear the words of the Lord, see the heavens opened »x, and he gives the rapture of Paul as an example of those who saw the heavens open.
From all this we can infer that there is some confusion about the nature of the « heavenly visions », their hierarchy, and their actual ability to « know » the divine essence.
This confusion is somehow symbolized by the fact that Augustine calls spiritual and intellectual what other authors call psychic and spiritual.
Paul himself distinguishes, as we have seen, the living soul of the « first Adam » and the life-giving spirit of the « last Adam » .
Are these only battles of words? No, they bear underlying witness to a fundamental question: what is the nature of the bond between soul and body?
This is a very old question, but also a hyper-modern one, as it highlights the powerlessness of neuroscience to deal with this kind of subject.
The three kinds of visions proposed by Augustine shed light on the nature of the « place » that the soul reaches after death. This place, in which the soul finds rewards, or punishments, is essentially spiritual. There is therefore a corporeal Paradise or Hell, such as the Jewish Gehenna, one of whose entrances is in Jerusalem, and Eden, whose entrance is in Damascus or Palestine, according to the Talmud?
The separated soul no longer has a body, but it keeps a mysterious link with the body in which it lived, as a « living soul », and retains a certain similarity with it.
The body is a cocoon, and the soul separates from it to continue its progression.
« It is a whole theory of knowledge that Augustine develops (with the three kinds of visions), in all its dimensions, sensitive, imaginative and intellectual, normal and pathological, profane and mystical, intramural and celestial.
The three kinds of visions mark the stages of the soul’s journey from the corporeal to the intelligible, reveal the structure of its essence in its triple relationship to the world, to itself, to God, and develop the dialectic of transcendence that fulfills its destiny. »xi
Let’s give Paul the benefit of the last word. The first Adam was made a « living soul ». His destiny, which sums up Man, is to metamorphose, through life, death, and resurrection, into the last Adam, who is « life-giving spirit ».
The destiny of the soul, therefore, is to metamorphose not into a merely « living » spirit, but into a spirit that « invigorates », a spirit that gives life and « makes live ».
iiS. Augustine. Genesis in the literal sense. Book XII, 36, 69. Desclée de Brouwer. 1972, p.455.Augustine concedes, however: « But this knowledge will no longer fail him when, once the bodies are recovered at the resurrection of the dead, this corruptible body will be clothed with incorruptibility and this mortal body clothed with immortality (1 Cor. 15:53). For all things will be evident and, without falsity or ignorance, will be distributed according to their order – both bodily and spiritual and intellectual – in a nature that will have recovered its integrity and will be in perfect bliss. »
iv« Afterwards, when this body is no longer an animal body, but when the coming transformation has made it a spiritual body, the soul, equal to the angels, will acquire the mode of perfection proper to its nature, obedient and commanding, invigorated and invigorating, with such ineffable ease that what was a burden to it will become for it an added glory. Even then, these three kinds of vision will subsist ; but no falsehood will make us take one thing for another, neither in bodily nor in spiritual visions, much less in intellectual visions. These will be so present and clear to us that in comparison the bodily forms which we reach today are much less obvious to us, they which we perceive with the help of our bodily senses and to which many men are so enslaved that they think that there are no others and figure that, all that is not such, does not exist at all. Quite different is the attitude of the sages in the face of these bodily visions: although these things appear more present, they are nevertheless more certain of what they grasp is worth to them by intelligence beyond the bodily forms and similarities of bodily things, although they cannot contemplate the intelligible with the intellectual soul as they see the sensible with the bodily sense. « » S. Augustine. Book XII, 35-36, 68-69. Desclée de Brouwer. 1972, p.451
And where is the entrance to the Underworld? Rabbi Jeremiah ben Eleazar said, « Gehenna has three entrances: one in the desert, another in the sea, and the third in Jerusalem. » iii
Gehenna takes its name from Gaihinom, meaning a valley as deep as the Valley of Hinom. But Gehenna has many other names as well: Tomb, Perdition, Abyss, Desolation, Mire, Mire of Death, Land of Below. iv
This last expression is similar to the one used by the Nations: the « Underworld ».
« We speak in Latin of the underworld (inferi) because it is below (infra). Just as in the order of bodies, according to the law of gravity, the lowest are all the heaviest, so in the order of spirits, the lowest are all the saddest. » v
Everyone agrees that the Underworld is a sad place. But is it a geographical place, like being located « under Zion »?
Augustine, for his part, asserts that the Underworld is a spiritual place, not a place « under the earth ».
And he adds that this « spiritual place » is in Heavens.
In Heavens ? But which one?
Augustine indeed distinguishes three different Heavens.vi
First Heaven: The corporeal world, which extends over the waters and the earth.
Second Heaven: Everything that is seen by the spirit, and resembles bodies, like the vision of animals that Peter in ecstasy saw coming down to him (Acts, X, 10-12).
Third Heaven: « What the intellectual soul contemplates once it is so separated, distant, cut off from the carnal senses, and so purified that it can see and hear, in an ineffable way, what is in heaven and the very substance of God, as well as the Word of God by whom all things were made, and this in the charity of the Holy Spirit. In this hypothesis, it is not unreasonable to think that it was also in this sojourn that the Apostle was delighted (II Cor., 12:2-4), and that perhaps this is the paradise superior to all the others and, if I may say so, the paradise of paradises. » vii
How can one explain the difference between the second Heaven and the third one ?
One may get an idea of the difference by analyzing two visions of Peter as opposed to Paul’s own famous revelation:
« He felt hungry and wanted to eat something. But while they were preparing food for him, he fell into ecstasy. He saw the sky open and an object, like a large tablecloth tied at the four corners, descending towards the earth. And inside there were all the quadrupeds and reptiles and all the birds of the sky. Then a voice said to him, ‘Come, Peter, kill and eat.’ But Peter answered, ‘Oh no! Lord, for I have never eaten anything that is unclean or impure!’ Again, a second time, the voice spoke to him, ‘What God has cleansed, you do not defile.’ This was repeated three times, and immediately the object was taken up to heaven. (…) As Peter was still reflecting on his vision, the Spirit said to him, ‘Here are men who are looking for you. Go therefore, come down and go with them without hesitation, for I have sent them.» viii
Following the advice, Peter goes to Cornelius’ home, who was a Roman centurion. There he finds a large number of people waiting for him. Then Peter said to them, « You know that it is absolutely forbidden for a Jew to fraternize with a stranger or to enter his house. But God has just shown me that no man is to be called unclean or impure.» ix
This first vision had a very real and concrete effect on Peter. It induced this eyebrowed and law-abiding Jew to somewhat overlook some prohibitions set by the Law, and to fraternize and share food with a group of non-Jews, assembled in their own home.
Peter then had a second vision, in more dramatic circumstances.
Peter had been arrested, put in prison, and about to be executed, on the order of King Herod.
« Suddenly the angel of the Lord came, and the dungeon was flooded with light. The angel struck Peter on the side and raised him up: « Get up! Quickly, » he said. And the chains fell from his hands. »x
Then, « Peter went out and followed him, not realizing that which was done by the angel was real, but he thought he was having a vision.» xi
This was not a vision indeed, but a real event, since Peter was really set free.
Still, there was an element of « vision » in this « reality » : the apparition of the angel and his role in the escape of Peter.
Peter had yet to acknowledge that role.
« Suddenly, the angel left him. Then Peter, returning to consciousness, said, « Now I know for certain that the Lord has sent His angel and has taken me out of the hands of Herod and out of all that the people of the Jews were waiting for.» xii
It was not the reality of his evasion from the prison of Herod that awakened the consciousness of Peter.
He became conscious only when the angel left him.
iAt least that is what Rech Lakich asserts in Aggadoth of the Babylonian Talmud. Erouvin 19a §16. Translated by Arlette Elkaïm-Sartre. Ed. Verdier. 1982, p.264.
iiThe passage « Who has his fire in Zion and his furnace in Jerusalem » (Is. 31:9) shows us this. According to the school of R. Ishmael, His fire in Zion is Gehenna; His furnace in Jerusalem is the entrance to Gehenna. In Aggadoth of the Babylonian Talmud. Erouvin 19a §14. Translation by Arlette Elkaïm-Sartre. Ed. Verdier. 1982, p.263.
iiiAggadoth of the Babylonian Talmud. Erouvin 19a §14. Translated into French by Arlette Elkaïm-Sartre, and my English translation. Ed. Verdier. 1982, p.263.
Is a « beautiful girl », whose beauty is « without soul », really beautiful?
Kant thought about this interesting question.
« Even of a girl, it can be said that she is pretty, conversational and good-looking, but soulless. What is meant here by soul? The soul, in the aesthetic sense, refers to the principle that, in the mind, brings life.» i
For Kant, here, the soul is an aesthetic principle, a principle of life. Beauty is nothing if it does not live in some way, from the fire of an inner principle.
Beauty is really nothing without what makes it live, without what animates it, without the soul herself.
But if the soul brings life, how do we see the effect of her power? By the radiance alone of beauty? Or by some other signs?
Can the soul live, and even live to the highest possible degree, without astonishing or striking those who are close to her, who even brush past her, without seeing her? Or, even worse, by those who see her but then despise her?
« He had no beauty or glamour to attract attention, and his appearance had nothing to seduce us. » ii
These words of the prophet Isaiah describe the « Servant », a paradoxical figure, not of a triumphant Messiah, but of God’s chosen one, who is the « light of the nations »iii and who « will establish righteousness on earthiv.
A few centuries after Isaiah, Christians interpreted the « Servant » as a prefiguration of Christ.
The Servant is not beautiful, he has no radiance. In front of him, one even veils one’s face, because of the contempt he inspires.
But as Isaiah says, the Servant is in reality the king of Israel, the light of the nations, the man in whom God has put His spirit, and in whom the soul of God delightsv.
« Object of contempt, abandoned by men, man of pain, familiar with suffering, like someone before whom one hides one’s face, despised, we do not care. Yet it was our suffering that he bore and our pain that he was burdened with. And we considered him punished, struck by God and humiliated. » vi
The Servant, – the Messiah, has neither beauty nor radiance. He has nothing to seduce, but the soul of God delights in him.
A beautiful woman, without soul. And the Servant, without beauty, whose soul is loved by God.
Would soul and beauty have nothing to do with each other?
In the Talmud, several passages deal with beauty; others with the soul; rarely with both.
Some rabbis took pride in their own, personal beauty.
R. Johanan Bar Napheba boasted: « I am a remnant of the splendors of Jerusalem ». vii
His beauty was indeed famous. It must have been all the more striking because his face was « hairless ».viii
And, in fact, this beauty aroused love, to the point of triggering unexpected transports.
« One day, R. Johanan was bathing in the Jordan River. Rech Lakich saw him and jumped into the river to join him.
– You should devote your strength to the Torah, » said R. Johanan.
– Your beauty would suit a woman better, » replied Rech Lakich.
– If you change your life, I’ll give you my sister in marriage, who is much more beautiful than I am. » ix
At least this R. Johanan was looked at and admired ! The same cannot be said of Abraham’s wife. She was beautiful, as we know, because the Pharaoh had coveted her. But Abraham did not even bother to look at her…
« I had made a covenant with my eyes, and I would not have looked at a virgin (Job, 31:1): Job would not have looked at a woman who was not his, says Rabbah, but Abraham did not even look at his own wife, since it is written, « Behold, I know that you are a beautiful woman (Gen. 12:11): until then he did not know it. » x
From another point of view, if someone is really beautiful, it can be detrimental, even deadly.
The very handsome rabbi R. Johanan reported: « From the river Echel to Rabath stretches the valley of Dura, and among the Israelites whom Nebuchadnezzar exiled there were young men whose radiant beauty eclipsed the sun. Their very sight alone made the women of Chaldea sick with desire. They confessed it to their husbands. The husbands informed the king who had them executed. But the women continued to languish. So the king had the bodies of young men crushed.» xi
In those days, the rabbis themselves did not hide their appreciation of the beauty of women :
« Rabbi Simon b. Gamaliel was on the steps of the Temple Hill when he saw a pagan woman of great beauty. How great are your works, O LORD! (Ps. 104:24) he exclaimed. Likewise, when R. Akiba saw Turnus Rufus’ wifexii, he spat, laughed, and wept. He spat because she came from a stinking drop; he laughed because she was destined to convert and become his wife; and he wept [thinking] that such beauty would one day be under the earth. » xiii
That Rabbi Akiba dreamt of converting and seducing the wife of the Roman governor of Judea can be attributed to militant proselytizing.
Or was it just a parable?
Why did Rabbi Akiba mourn the beauty of this pagan?
Shouldn’t the beauty of her « converted » soul have obliterated forever the beauty of her body, destined moreover to be buried some day?
iEmmanuel Kant. Criticism of the faculty of judgment.
« All men are either Jews or Hellenes; either they are driven by ascetic impulses which lead them to reject all pictorial representation and to sacrifice to sublimation, or they are distinguished by their serenity, their expansive naturalness and their realistic spirit, » wrote Heinrich Heinei.
The over-schematic and somewhat outrageous nature of this statement may surprise in the mouth of the « last of the Romantic poets ».
But, according to Jan Assmann, Heine here would only symbolize the opposition between two human types, each of them holding on to two world visions, one valuing the spirit, without seeking a direct relationship with material reality, and the other valuing above all the senses and the concrete world.
In any case, when Heinrich Heine wrote these words at the beginning of the 19th century, this clear-cut opposition between « Hebraism » and « Hellenism » could be seen as a kind of commonplace “cliché” in the Weltanschauung then active in Germany.
Other considerations fueled this polarization. A kind of fresh wind seemed to be blowing on the European intellectual scene following the recent discovery of Sanskrit, followed by the realization of the historical depth of the Vedic heritage, and the exhumation of evidence of a linguistic filiation between the ‘Indo-European’ languages.
All this supported the thesis of the existence of multi-millennia migrations covering vast territories, notably from Northern Europe to Central Asia, India and Iran.
There was a passionate search for a common European origin, described in Germany as ‘Indo-Germanic’ and in France or Britain as ‘Indo-European’, taking advantage as much as possible of the lessons of comparative linguistics, the psychology of peoples and various mythical, religious and cultural sources.
Heine considered the opposition between « Semitic » and « Aryan » culture as essential. For him, it was a question not only of opposing « Aryans » and « Semites », but of perceiving « a more general opposition that concerned ‘all men’, the opposition between the mind, which is not directly related to the world or distant from it, and the senses, which are linked to the world. The first inclination, says Heine (rather simplistically, I must say), men get it from the Jews, the second, they inherited it from the Greeks, so that henceforth two souls live in the same bosom, a Jewish soul and a Greek soul, one taking precedence over the other depending on the case.» ii
A century later, Freud thought something comparable, according to Jan Assmann. « For him, too, the specifically Jewish contribution to human history lay in the drive toward what he called « progress in the life of the spirit. This progress is to the psychic history of humanity what Freud calls ‘sublimation’ in the individual psychic life.”iii
For Freud, the monotheistic invention consisted « in a refusal of magic and mysticism, in encouraging progress in the life of the spirit, and in encouraging sublimation ». It was a process by which « the people, animated by the possession of truth, penetrated by the consciousness of election, came to set great store by intellectual things and to emphasize ethics »iv.
This would be the great contribution of « Judaism » to the history of the world.
At the same time, however, Freud developed a particularly daring and provocative thesis about the « invention » of monotheism. According to him, Moses was not a Hebrew, he was Egyptian; moreover, and most importantly, he did not die in the land of Moab, as the Bible reports, but was in fact murdered by his own people.
Freud’s argument is based on the unmistakably Egyptian name ‘Moses’, the legend of his childhood, and Moses’ « difficult speech, » an indication that he was not proficient in Hebrew. Indeed, he could communicate only through Aaron. In addition, there are some revealing quotations, according to Freud: « What will I do for this people? A little more and they will stone me! « (Ex. 17:4) and : « The whole community was talking about [Moses and Aaron] stoning them. » (Numbers 14:10).
There is also that chapter of Isaiah in which Freud distinguishes the « repressed » trace of the fate actually reserved for Moses: « An object of contempt, abandoned by men, a man of sorrow, familiar with suffering, like one before whom one hides his face, despised, we took no notice of him. But it was our sufferings that he bore and our pains that he was burdened with. And we saw him as punished, struck by God and humiliated. But he was pierced because of our crimes, crushed because of our faults. « (Is. 53:3-5)
Freud infers from all these clues that Moses was in fact murdered by the Jews after they revolted against the unbearable demands of the Mosaic religion. He adds that the killing of Moses by the Jews marked the end of the system of the primitive horde and polytheism, and thus resulted in the effective and lasting foundation of monotheism.
The murder of the « father », which was – deeply – repressed in Jewish consciousness, became part of an « archaic heritage », which « encompasses not only provisions but also contents, mnemonic traces relating to the life of previous generations. (…) If we admit the preservation of such mnemonic traces in the archaic heritage, we have bridged the gap between individual psychology and the psychology of the masses, we can treat people as the neurotic individual.”v
The repression is not simply cultural or psychological, it affects the long memory of peoples, through « mnemonic traces » that are inscribed in the depths of souls, and perhaps even in the biology of bodies, in their DNA.
The important thing is that it is from this repression that a « decisive progress in the life of the spirit » has been able to emerge, according to Freud. This « decisive progress », triggered by the murder of Moses, was also encouraged by the ban on mosaic images.
« Among the prescriptions of the religion of Moses, there is one that is more meaningful than is at first thought. It is the prohibition to make an image of God, and therefore the obligation to worship a God who cannot be seen. We suppose that on this point Moses surpassed in rigor the religion of Aten; perhaps he only wanted to be consistent – his God had neither name nor face -; perhaps it was a new measure against the illicit practices of magic. But if one admitted this prohibition, it necessarily had to have an in-depth action. It meant, in fact, a withdrawal of the sensory perception in favor of a representation that should be called abstract, a triumph of the life of the mind over the sensory life, strictly speaking a renunciation of impulses with its necessary consequences on the psychological level.”vi
If Judaism represents a « decisive progress » in the life of the spirit, what can we think of the specific contribution of Christianity in this regard?
Further progress in the march of the spirit? Or, on the contrary, regression?
Freud’s judgment of the Christian religion is very negative.
« We have already said that the Christian ceremony of Holy Communion, in which the believer incorporates the Saviour’s flesh and blood, repeats in its content the ancient totemic meal, certainly only in its sense of tenderness, which expresses veneration, not in its aggressive sense ».vii
For him, « this religion constitutes a clear regression in the life of the spirit, since it is marked by a return to magical images and rites, and in particular to the sacrificial rite of the totemic meal during which God himself is consumed by the community of believers.”viii
Freud’s blunt condemnation of Christianity is accompanied by a kind of contempt for the « lower human masses » who have adopted this religion.
« In many respects, the new religion constituted a cultural regression in relation to the old, Jewish religion, as is regularly the case when new, lower-level human masses enter or are admitted somewhere. The Christian religion did not maintain the degree of spiritualization to which Judaism had risen. It was no longer strictly monotheistic, it adopted many of the symbolic rites of the surrounding peoples, it restored the great mother goddess and found room for a large number of polytheistic deities, recognizable under their veils, albeit reduced to a subordinate position. Above all it did not close itself, like the religion of Aten and the Mosaic religion which followed it, to the intrusion of superstitious magic and mystical elements, which were to represent a serious inhibition for the spiritual development of the next two millennia.”ix
If one adopts a viewpoint internal to Christianity, however hurtful Freud’s attacks may be, they do not stand up to analysis. In spite of all the folklore from which popular religiosity is not exempt, Christian theology is clear: there is only one God. The Trinity, difficult to understand, one can admit, for non-Christians as well as for Christians, does not imply « three Gods », but only one God, who gives Himself to be seen and understood in three « Persons ».
To take a cross-comparison, one could infer that Judaism is not « strictly monotheistic » either, if one recalls that the Scriptures attest that « three men » (who were YHVH) appeared to Abraham under the oak tree of Mamre (Gen 18:1-3), or that the Word of God was « incarnated » in the six hundred thousand signs of the Torah, or that God left in the world His own « Shekhinah » .
From the point of view of Christianity, everything happens as if Isaiah chapter 53, which Freud applied to Moses, could also be applied to the figure of Jesus.
It is the absolutely paradoxical and scandalous idea (from the point of view of Judaism) that the Messiah could appear not as a triumphant man, crushing the Romans, but as « an object of contempt, abandoned by men, a man of sorrow, familiar with suffering, like someone before whom one hides one’s face, despised. »
But what is, now, the most scandalous thing for the Jewish conscience?
Is it Freud’s hypothesis that Isaiah’s words about a « man of sorrow », « despised », indicate that the Jews murdered Moses?
Or is it that these same Isaiah’s words announce the Christian thesis that the Messiah had to die like a slave, under the lazzis and spittle?
If Freud is wrong and Moses was not murdered by the Jews, it cannot be denied that a certain Jesus was indeed put to death under Pontius Pilate. And then one may be struck by the resonance of these words uttered by Isaiah seven centuries before: « Now it is our sufferings that he bore and our sorrows that he was burdened with. And we considered him punished, struck by God and humiliated. But he was pierced because of our crimes, crushed because of our faults. « (Is. 53:4-5)
There is obviously no proof, from the Jewish point of view, that these words of Isaiah apply to Jesus, — or to Moses.
If Isaiah’s words do not apply to Moses (in retrospect) nor to Jesus (prophetically), who do they apply to? Are they only general, abstract formulas, without historical content? Or do they refer to some future Messiah? Then, how many more millennia must Isaiah’s voice wait before it reaches its truth?
History, we know, has only just begun.
Human phylum, if it does not throw itself unexpectedly into nothingness, taking with it its planet of origin, still has (roughly) a few tens of millions of years of phylogenetic « development » ahead of it.
To accomplish what?
One may answer: to rise ever more in consciousness.
Or to accomplish still unimaginable « decisive progress »…
With time, the millennia will pass.
Will Isaiah’s words pass?
What is mankind already capable of?
What will be the nature of the « decisive progress » of the human spirit, which has yet to be accomplished, and which still holds itself in the potency to become?
It is necessary to prepare for it. We must always set to work, in the dark, in what seems like a desert of stone, salt and sand.
For example, it would be, it seems to me, a kind of « decisive » progress to “see” in the figure of Moses « put to death » by his own people, and in that of Christ « put on the cross », the very figure of the Sacrifice.
The original Sacrifice, granted from before the creation of the world by the Creator God, the « Lord of Creatures » (that One and Supreme God whom the Veda already called « Prajāpati » six thousand years ago).
It would also, it seems to me, be another kind of « decisive » progress to begin to sense some of the anthropological consequences of the original « Sacrifice » of the supreme God, the « Lord of Creatures ».
Among them, the future of the « religions » on the surface of such a small, negligible planet (Earth): their necessary movement of convergence towards a religion of Humanity and of the World, a religion of the conscience of the Sacrifice of God, a religion of the conscience of Man, in the emptiness of the Cosmos.
iHeinrich Heine. Ludwig Börne. Le Cerf. Paris, 1993
iiJan Assmann. Le prix du monothéisme. Flammarion, Paris 2007, p. 142
They all claim to bring « revelation », but no religion has ever presented total transparency, assumed full disclosure. Much of their foundation is shrouded in secrecy, and « the further back we go in religious history, the greater the role of secrecy”i .
But this secrecy should not be confused with mystery.
The mystery is deep, immense, alive.
The secret is useful and human. It is maintained on purpose, by the pythies, the shamans, the magi, the priests, the haruspices. It is used for control, it facilitates the construction of dogma, reinforces rites and the rigor of laws.
The mystery belongs to no one. It is not given to everyone to sense it, and even less to grasp its essence and nature.
The secret is put forward, proclaimed publicly, not in its content, but as a principle. It is therefore imposed on all and benefits a few.
To a certain extent, the secret is based (a little bit) on the existence of the mystery. One is the appearance of the reality of the other.
This is why the secret, through its signs, can sometimes nourish the sense of mystery, give it a presence.
The secret can remain such for a long time, but one day it is discovered for what it is, and we see that it was not much, in view of the mystery. Or, quite simply, it is lost forever, in indifference, without much damage to anyone.
The mystery, on the other hand, always stands back, or very much in the front, really elsewhere, absolutely other. It’s never finished with it.
Of the mystery what can we know?
A divine truth comes to be « revealed », but it also comes « veiled ».
« Truth did not come naked into the world, but it came dressed in symbols and images. The world will not receive it in any other way.”ii
Truth never comes « naked » into the world.
At least, that is what sarcastic, wily common sense guarantees.
God cannot be « seen », and even less « naked »…
« How could I believe in a supreme god who would enter a woman’s womb through her sexual organs […] without necessity? How could I believe in a living God who was born of a woman, without knowledge or intelligence, without distinguishing His right from His left, who defecates and urinates, sucks His mother’s breasts with hunger and thirst, and who, if His mother did not feed Him, would die of hunger like the rest of men?”iii
Rigorous reasoning. Realism of the details.
Yehoshua, the Messiah? « It is impossible for me to believe in his being the Messiah, for the prophecy says of the Messiah, ‘He shall have dominion from sea to sea and from the river to the ends of the earth’ (Psalm 72:8). But Jesus had no reign at all; on the contrary, he was persecuted by his enemies and had to hide from them: in the end he fell into their hands and could not even preserve his own life. How could he have saved Israel? Even after his death he had no kingdom… At present, the servants of Muhammad, your enemies, have a power greater than yours. Moreover, prophecy foretells that in the time of the Messiah … ‘the knowledge of YHVH will fill the earth as the waters cover the sea’ (Isaiah 11:9). From the time of Jesus until today, there have been many wars and the world has been full of oppression and ruin. As for Christians, they have shed more blood than the rest of the nations.”iv
In this affair, it seems, common sense, reason, truth, are on the side of the doubters. Two millennia of Christianity have not changed their minds, quite the contrary…
What is striking in this whole affair is its paradoxical, incredible, implausible side.
Philosophically, one could tentatively argue that there are « naked » truths that are, by that very fact, even more veiled. They are hidden in the plain sight.
But history teaches us over and over again that there are no « naked » truths, in fact, but only veiled ones.
« The ancient theory of Egypt’s secret religion, as found in Plutarch and Diodorus, Philo, Origen, and Clement of Alexandria, and in Porphyry and Iamblichus, is based on the premise that truth is a secret in itself, and that it can only be grasped in this world through images, myths, allegories, and riddles.”v
This ancient conception probably dates back to the pre-dynastic period, and one can think that it goes back well before pre-history itself .
Since these immensely remote times, it has not ceased to influence the « first » religions, then the « historical » religions. Nor has it ceased to proliferate in Pythagorism, Platonism, Hermeticism or Gnosis.
The Nag Hammadi manuscripts still retain the memory of it. One of them, found in 1945, the Gospel of Philip, affirms that the world cannot receive truth otherwise than veiled by words, myths and images.
Words and images do not have the function of hiding the truth from the eyes of the unbelievers, the hardened, the blasphemers.
Words and images are themselves the very expression of the secret, the symbols of mystery.
Goethe summed up the ambivalence of the secret, both as concealment and as the manifestation of truth, in three words:
Secrets always end up being revealed, but then they only reveal the ’emptiness’ of their time, their era.
The mystery, for its part, never ceases to stay hidden.
Jan Assmann concluding his beautiful study on « Moses the Egyptian » with a provocative thought:
« At its apogee, the pagan religion did not hide a void in the mysteries, but the truth of the One God.”vii
A good example of that is Abraham himself coming all the way to pay tribute to Melchisedech, a non-Hebrew « priest of the Most High ».
Augustine connected all the ages of belief in one stroke:
« What today is called the Christian religion existed in antiquity, and from the origin of the human race until Christ became incarnate, and it was from him that the true religion that already existed began to be called Christian.”viii
Basically the idea is very simple. And very stimulating, in a way.
Truth always has been ‘true’, and always will be. Truth was ‘true’ from the beginning of the world, and even before the beginning of the world. Truth will still be »true in a hundred million or a hundred billion years, and even after the end of this (fleeting) universe.
The various words that tell the Truth, and the men who believe in it, such as Akhnaton, Melchisedech, Abraham, Moses, Zoroaster, Plato, Yehoshua, are only themselves quite fleeting, but they serve It, according to their rank, and wisdom.
Truth is as ancient as the Ancient of Days; Truth is also very young, and just beginning to live again, everyday, in hidden, mysterious cradles.
The « realist » philosophers analyze the world as it is, or at least how it looks, or what they believe it to be. But they have nothing to say about how being came to be, or about the genesis of reality. They are also very short about the ultimate ends, whether there are any or none.
They are in no way capable of conceptualizing the world in its full potency. They have no idea how the universe emerged from nothingness in indistinct times, when nothing and no one had yet attained being, when nothing was yet « in act ».
Nor do they have any representation of this world (the planet Earth) a few hundred million years from now, which is not a large space of time, from a cosmological point of view.
My point is: if one takes the full measure of the impotence and pusillanimity of the “realist” philosophy, then our mind is suddenly freed, – freed from all the past web of philosophical tatters studded with limited thoughts, turning short, local truths, fleeting views, closed syllogisms.
Our mind is freed from all inherited constraints. Everything is yet to be thought, and discovered.
We should then exercise the highest faculty, that of imagination, that of dreaming and vision.
It is an incentive to get out of reason itself, not to abandon it, but to observe it from an external, detached, non-rational point of view. “Pure reason” is ill-equipped to judge itself, no matter what Kant thinks.
What can we see, then?
Firstly, reason is truly unable to admit that it is closed on itself, let alone willing to admit that it necessarily has an outside, that there is something out there that is inconceivable to reason.
The purest, most penetrating reason is still quite blind to anything that is not reasonable.
Reason sees nothing of the oceanic immensity of non-reason which surrounds it, exceeds it infinitely, and in which however reason bathes, as an ignorant, fragile, ephemeral bubble.
Reason has always been in a strong relationship with language. But we know quite well that the language is a rudimentary tool, a kind of badly cut, flimsy flint, producing from time to time some rare sparks…
Let’s try to show this flimsiness with an example, based on a simple but foundational sentence, like « God is one ».
Grammatically, this sentence is a flimsy oxymoron. It oozes inconsistency. It links a subject (« God ») and a predicate (« one ») with the help of the copula (« is »). But in the same time it separates (grammatically) the subject and the predicate. In the same time, it separates them (semantically) and then reunites them (grammatically) by the sole virtue of a copulative verb (« is »), which, by the way, exists only in some human languages, but remains unknown to the majority of them…
If truly, I mean grammatically, ‘God is one’, then it should be impossible to really separate the words ‘God’, ‘is’, or ‘one’. They would be just the same reality.
If grammatically ‘God is one’, there would only be a need for the word ‘God’, or if one prefers only for the word ‘one’, or only for the word ‘is’. Those words or ‘names’ imply just the same, unique reality. Moreover, after having stated this ‘unique reality’, one would remain (logically) short. What else could be added, without immediately contravening the ‘unitary’ dogma? If anything else could be added, it should be immediately engulfed into the “oneness” of the “being”. Or, if not, that would imply that something could “be” outside the “One and Unique Being”. Which is (grammatically) illogical.
If grammatically ‘God is one’, then one must already count three verbal instances of His nature: the ‘name’ (God), the ‘essence’ (Being), the ‘nature’ (Oneness).
Three instances are already a crowd, in the context of the Unique One…
And no reason to stop there. This is why there are at least ten names of God in the Torah, and 99 names of Allah in Islam….
If grammatically ‘God is one’, then how can language itself could dare to stand as overhanging, outside of the ‘oneness’ of God, outside of His essential ‘unity’?
If grammatically ‘God is one’, then shouldn’t the language itself necessarily be one with Him, and made of His pure substance?
Some theologians have seen this difficulty perfectly well. So they have proposed a slightly modified formula: « God is one, but not according to unity.”
This clever attempt doesn’t actually solve anything.
They are just words added to words. This proliferation, this multiplicity (of words) is not really a good omen of their supposed ability to capture the essence of the One… Language, definitely, has untimely bursts, uncontrolled (but revealing) inner contradictions… Language is a mystery that only really take flight, like the bird of Minerva (the Hegelian owl), at dusk, when all the weak, flashy and illusory lights of reason are put under the bushel.
Here is another example of reason overcome by the proper power of language.
The great and famous Maimonides, a specialist in halakha, and very little suspect of effrontery in regard to the Law, surprised more than one commentator by admitting that the reason for the use of wine in the liturgy, or the function of the breads on display in the Temple, were completely beyond his comprehension.
He underlined that he had tried for a long time to search for some « virtual reasons »i to use wine and bread for religious purpose, to no avail. This strange expression (« virtual reasons ») seems to vindicate that, for Maimonides, there are in the commandments of the Law « provisions of detail whose reason cannot be indicated », and « that he who thinks that these details can be motivated is as far from the truth as he who believes that the general precept is of no real use »ii.
Which leaves us with yet another bunch of mysteries to tackle with.
Maimonides, a renowned expert of halakha in the 11th century A.D., candidly admitted that he did not understand the reason for the presence of bread and wine in Jewish liturgy, and particularly their presence in the premises of the Temple of Jerusalem.
It is then perhaps up to the poet, or the dreamer, or the anthropologist, to try to guess by analogy, or by anagogy, some possible « virtual reasons » for this religious use of bread and wine?
Maybe the bread and wine do belong to the depths of the collective inconscious, and for that reason are loaded with numinous potency?
Or, maybe Maimonides just would not want to see the obvious link with what had happened, more that a millennium before his time, in Jerusalem, during the Last Supper?
Whatever the answer, the question remains: why bread and wine, if “God is One”?
iMaimonides. Le Guide des égarés. Ed. Verdier. 1979. The translation from Arabic into French by Salomon Munk, p.609, gives here : « raisons virtuelles ».
iiMaimonides. Le Guide des égarés. Ed. Verdier. 1979. Translation from Arabic into French by Salomon Munk, p.609 sq.
In ancient Greek dictionaries, just right after the name Orpheus, one may find the word orphne (ὄρφνη), « darkness ». From a semantic point of view, orphne can be applied to the underworld, the « dark » world. Orpheus, also descended into the Underworld, and was plunged into orphne.
Orpheus was « orphic » par excellence. He sought revelation. He ventured without hesitation into the lair of death, and he came out of it alive – not without the fundamental failure that we know well. But later, the shadows caught up with him. A screaming pack of Thracian women tore him apart, member to member.
Only his severed head escaped the furious melee, rolled ashore. The waves swept him across the sea, and Orpheus‘ head was still singing.
He had defeated death, and passed over the sea.
The myth of Orpheus symbolizes the search for the true Life, the one that lies beyond the realm of Death.
The philosopher Empedocles testifies to the same dream: « For I was once a boy and a girl, and a plant and a bird and a fish that found its way out of the sea.”1
In tablets dating from the 6th century BC, found in Olbia, north of the Black Sea, several characteristic expressions of Orphism, such as bios-thanatos-bios, have been deciphered. This triad, bios-thanatos-bios, « life-death-life », is at the center of orphism.
Orpheus, a contemporary of Pythagoras, chose, contrary to the latter, to live outside of « politics ». He refused the « city » and its system of values. He turned towards the elsewhere, the beyond. « The Orphics are marginal, wanderers and especially ‘renouncers‘ », explains Marcel Detiennei.
Aristophanes stated that the teaching of Orpheus rested on two points: not making blood flow, and discovering »initiation ».
The Greek word for initiation to the Mysteries is teletè (τελετή). This word is related to telos, « completion, term, realization ». But teletè has a very precise meaning in the context of Orphism. Among the Orphic mysteries, perhaps the most important is that of the killing of the god-child, Dionysus, devoured by the Titans, – except for his heart, swallowed by Zeus, becoming the germ of his rebirth within the divine body.
Several interpretations circulate. According to Clement of Alexandria, Zeus entrusted Apollo with the task of collecting and burying the scattered pieces of Dionysus’ corpse on Mount Parnassus.
According to the neo-Platonic gnosis, the Mysteries refer to the recomposition, the reunification of the dismembered body of God.
The death of Orpheus is mysteriously analogous to the more original death of the god Dionysus, which probably derives from much older traditions, such as those of the ancient Egyptians, who worshipped Osiris, who was also torn to pieces, scattered throughout Egypt, and finally resurrected.
For the comparatist, it is difficult to resist yet another analogy, that of the sharing of Christ’s « body » and « blood, » which his disciples « ate » and « drank » at the Last Supper just before his death. A scene that has been repeated in every Mass since then, at the time of « communion ».
There is a significant difference, however, between the death of Christ and that of Osiris, Dionysus or Orpheus. Contrary to the custom that governed the fate of those condemned to death, the body of Christ on the cross was not « broken » or « dismembered, » but only pierced with a spear. The preservation of the unity of his body had been foretold by the Scriptures (« He keeps all his bones, not one of them is broken », Psalm 34:20).
No physical dispersion of the body of Christ at his death, but a symbolic sharing at Communion, like that of the bread and wine, metaphors of flesh and blood, presented at the Last Supper, symbols of a unity, essentially indivisible, universally shareable.
This makes all the more salient the search for the divine unity apparently lost by Osiris or Dionysus, but found again thanks to the analogous care of Isis, Zeus, or Apollo.
Beyond the incommensurable divergences, a paradigm common to the ancient religions of Egypt and Greece and to Christianity emerges.
The God, one in essence, is dismembered, dispersed, really or symbolically, and then, by one means or another, finds Himself unified again.
One, divided, multiplied, dispersed, and again One.
Again One, after having been scattered throughout the worlds.
So many worlds: so many infinitesimal shards within the divine unity.
« Modern atheism is dying a beautiful death » and « modern nihilism » will soon, too, « lose the game », Philippe Nemoi wants to believe. The good news, he prophesies, is that as a consequence, a period of glory will open up for new ideals, with infinite possibilities for the development of the human adventure, on the way to the highest destinies…
Quite a radiant perspective…
But « modern atheism » and « modern nihilism » actually do resist very much. They have occupied the front stage in the West during the last two centuries.
Only two centuries, one may ask? …. Is atheism a « modern » specialty?
When it comes to anthropology, nothing beats the measure of millenia.
Traces of religious practices dating from 800,000 years ago have been found in the excavations at Chou-Kou-Tien (Zhoukoudian 周口店 ). Eight thousand centuries ago, then, so-called « Peking Man, » or « Sinanthrope, » painted red carefully prepared human skulls and placed them in a composed circle for ceremonial purposes. To evoke what? For what purpose? For what sort of Deity?
Almost a million years ago, hominids in the Beijing area could probably answer these questions in their own way, and not necessarily confusedly, but we actually know next to nothing of their understanding of the world.
We only can infer from the clues left behind that death was certainly a profound mystery to them.
Analogous questions will no doubt still arise for future anthropologists, who will analyze the few remains of our own “civilization”, that may still be accessible in a million years from now, preserved in a some deep geological layers… Future anthropology, assuming that such a discipline will then still make sense, will perhaps try to infer from the traces of many future, successively « modern » civilizations yet to appear, the role of « atheism », « nihilism » and religious « creeds », throughout millenia?
I find it is a stimulating thought experience. It is necessary to try to project oneself into the distant future, while at the same time connecting through a reflexive and memorial line to the still accessible depths of the paleontological past. In order to test our capacity to represent the ‘human phenomenon’, we can try to draw a perspective on the history of religious feeling (or absence thereof), to gauge its essence, to understand its nature and foundation.
Some provisional lessons can already be drawn. Let us listen to Benjamin Constant: « The time when religious feeling disappears from the souls of men is always close to that of their enslavement. Religious peoples may have been slaves; but no irreligious people remained free.”ii
Benjamin Constant was without illusion about human nature. « India, Ethiopia, Egypt, show us the humankind enslaved, decimated, and, so to speak, confined by priests.”iii The priests of antiquity were « condemned to imposture », by their very functions, which involved constant communication with the gods, with oracles to be rendered, – the correctness of which could be easily checked afterwards, not to mention the wonders, miracles and other revelations. Fraud must have been, one can imagine, a permanent temptation, if not a vital necessity.
Regardless of past and future (religious) frauds and impostures, the most significant question that men of all times have asked themselves and will ask themselves remains that of the meaning of life, for a man confronted with the mystery of an assured death, after a rather short life.
Hence this quite logical (and cynical) statement:
« To defend freedom, one must know how to immolate one’s life, and what is there more than life for those who see beyond it only nothingness? Also when despotism meets with the absence of religious sentiment, the human species prostrates itself in dust, wherever force is deployed.”iv
Absurd, useless, inessential lives and deaths, crushed by despotism, pose a question to which neither atheism nor nihilism can provide the slightest answer.
Perhaps « atheism » is already « dying its beautiful death », if we are to believe Nemo.
This does not mean that from this death will arise some « theism » ready to live a new life.
The mystery cannot be solved by such elementary, simplified qualifiers.
In a million years, it is a good bet that all our « philosophies », all our « religions », will appear only just as some sort of red skulls, arranged in forgotten circles.
iPhilippe Nemo. La belle mort de l’athéisme moderne. 2012
iiBenjamin Constant. De la religion considérée dans sa source, ses formes et ses développements. 1831
In India at the end of the 19th century, some Indian intellectuals wanted to better understand the culture of England, the country that had colonized them. For instance, D.K. Gokhale took it as a duty to memorize Milton’s Paradise Lost, Walter Scott’s Rokeby, and the speeches of Edmund Burke and John Bright.
However, he was quite surprised by the spiritual emptiness of these texts, seemingly representative of the « culture » of the occupying power.
Perhaps he should have read Dante, Master Eckhart, Juan de la Cruz, or Pascal instead, to get a broader view of Europe’s capabilities in matters of spirituality?
In any case, Gokhale, tired of so much superficiality, decided to return to his Vedic roots. Striving to show the world what India had to offer, he translated Taittirīya-Upaniṣad into English with the famous commentary from Śaṃkara.
At the time of Śaṃkara, in the 8th century AD, the Veda was not yet preserved in written form. But for five thousand years already, it had been transmitted orally through the Indian souls, from age to age, with extraordinary fidelity.i
The Veda heritage had lived on in the brains of priests, during five millenia, generation after generation. Yet it was never communicated in public, except very partially, selectively, in the form of short fragments recited during sacrifices. The integral Veda existed only in oral form, kept in private memories.
Never before the (rather late) time of Śaṃkara had the Veda been presented in writing, and as a whole, in its entirety.
During the millenia when the Veda was only conserved orally, it would have been necessary to assemble many priests, of various origins, just to recite a complete version of it, because the whole Veda was divided into distinct parts, of which various families of Brahmins had the exclusive responsibility.
The complete recitation of the hymns would have taken days and days. Even then, their chanting would not have allowed a synoptic representation of the Veda.
Certainly, the Veda was not a « Book ». It was a living assembly of words.
At the time the Taittirīya-Upaniṣad was composed, the Indo-Gangetic region had cultural areas with a different approach to the sacred « word » of Veda.
In the Indus basin, the Vedic religion has always affirmed itself as a religion of the « Word ». Vāc (the Sanskrit word for « Word ») is a vedic Divinity. Vāc breathes its Breath into the Sacrifice, and the Sacrifice is entirely, essentially, Vāc, — « Word ».
But in the eastern region, in Magadha and Bihar, south of the Ganges, the Deity remains ‘silent’.
Moreover, in northeast India, Buddhism, born in the 6th century B.C., is concerned only with meaning, and feels no need to divinize the « Word ».
These very different attitudes can be compared, it seems to me, to the way in which the so-called « religions of the Book » also deal with the « Word ».
The « word » of the Torah is swarming, bushy, contradictory. It requires, as history has shown, generations of rabbis, commentators and Talmudists to search for all its possible meanings, in the permanent feeling of the incompleteness of its ultimate understanding. Interpretation has no end, and cannot have an end.
The Christian Gospels also have their variations and their obscurities. They were composed some time after the events they recount, by four very different men, of different culture and origin: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
As human works, the Gospels have not been « revealed » by God, but only « written » by men, who were also witnesses. In contrast, at least if we follow the Jewish tradition, the Torah has been (supposedly) directly revealed to Moses by God Himself.
For Christianity, the « Word » is then not « incarnated » in a « Book » (the Gospels). The « Word » is incarnated in Jesus.
Islam respects the very letter of the Qur’an, « uncreated », fully « descended » into the ear of the Prophet. Illiterate, Muhammad, however, was its faithful mediator, transmitting the words of the angel of God, spoken in Arabic, to those of his disciples who were able to note them down.
Let us summarize. For some, the « Word » is Silence, or Breath, or Sacrifice. For others, the « Word » is Law. For others, the « Word » is Christ. For others, the « Word » is a ‘Descent‘.
How can such variations be explained? National « Genius »? Historical and cultural circumstances? Chances of the times?
Perhaps one day, in a world where culture and « religion » will have become truly global, and where the mind will have reached a very high level of consciousness, in the majority of humans, the « Word » will present itself in still other forms, in still other appearances?
For the moment, let us jealously preserve the magic and power of the vast, rich and diverse religious heritage, coming from East and West.
Let us consider its fundamental elevation, its common aspiration, and let us really begin its churning.
i Cf. Lokamanya Bâl Gangâdhar Tilak, Orion ou Recherche sur l’antiquité des Védas, French translation by Claire et Jean Rémy, éditions Edidit & Archè, Milan et Paris, 1989
Five centuries after Luther, some followers of the Reformed religion were able to affirm without blinking an eye that it is the modern religion par excellence and that it even embodies the « legitimacy of modern times ».i As for other religions, according to them, they « flee » the world and reality. ii
These rather arrogant statements may be, in fact, symptoms of the changing world at work. If thousand-year-old religions seem to be « fleeing » modernity, with some level of credibility, how can we not see this as a sign of the coming catastrophe?
The era of the post-human has been announced. Everything is possible, once again, now that modernity has definitively freed itself from pre-modern thoughts. We must prepare ourselves for a new great leap forward.
In order to understand what kind of leap the Reformation implied, it is necessary to recall its foundations, laid when modernity emerged from the Middle Ages.
The Reformation suddenly and strongly called into question a world order that had prevailed until then. The effects were considerable. It changed the religious and political map. It encouraged the development of science and technology. It was even instrumental in the rise of capitalism – and the « disenchantment » of the world.
This legacy is appreciable.
Protestantism also has been generously credited with the liberation of consciousness and the birth of the rights of the individual. This is an interesting paradox for a religion whose fundamental dogma absolutely denies free will, and whose founders advocated the enslavement of men to a predestination decided from all eternity.
But, in a sense, this apparent contradiction sums up the essence of modernity, and the whole post-modern agenda.
The other principles of the Reformation seem to explain its historical success. They have the merit of simplicity: the sovereign authority of the Bible and salvation by grace.
Luther specified them in his famous sola.
–Sola Scriptura (« the Scriptures alone »): Canonical texts are the only infallible sources of faith and religious practice. There is no recognized authority for the interpretation of the texts. Exegesis is free, individual. The believer, with an unshakeable faith, is alone in front of the text. Extreme individualism is justified.
–Sola Fide (« Faith alone »): Faith is everything, and works are nothing. The Law can only bring about the Fall. By it, all are condemned. Only faith can save. Human merit can do nothing. Human reason is powerless to grasp an unintelligible God. Luther said it was the « bride of Satan », the « Prostitute ».
–Sola Gratia (« Grace alone »). God chooses a few souls, and to them alone He gives His grace. Luther and Calvin borrowed this idea from St. Paul. There are very few « chosen ones », and the « rest » of humanity is condemned from all eternity to its doom. This theory of Predestination is considered the essential doctrine of Protestantism. iii
The Scriptures alone: the individual is isolated from any communal tradition, and sent back to himself. Faith alone: it is separated from reason. Grace alone: everything, everyone is determined. There is no free will.
These inaugural cuts were later secularized and mundanized. Nowadays, the cult of the individual, the hatred of the common (or, in the speaking of running neo-liberal slogans, the hate of any sort of ‘socialist’ or ´communist’ ideals) , but also the nominalist passion, the deterministic yoke, all bear witness to this.
The sola have five centuries of existence. But they themselves take their sources from very ancient theological disputes. And they now deeply (and paradoxically) imbue a « modern » society that is more and more dechristianized, paganized and disenchanted. They sum up the modern agenda surprisingly well: individualism, nominalism, determinism. Post-modernity will no doubt take on the task of pushing this program ever further. And quite possibly to the extreme and perhaps to the absurd.
Paradoxes and contradictions abound. Predestination, a Pauline and Calvinist idea, analogous to the ancient and pagan fatum, is clearly opposed to the ideas of freedom, will and personal responsibility. It is therefore surprising that this idea of predestination (secularized as determinism) has been able to permeate all modernity. Hobbes, Spinoza, Hume, Diderot, Voltaire, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Marx, Freud, Einstein took it up and adapted it, each in his own way.
The rhetorical form of the « sola« , their sharpness, their brittleness, their bleeding edge, must be emphasized. They affirm the « absoluteness » of faith and grace and of the « manifest destiny » of the chosen one,. But as a direct consequence, humanity as a whole is also deemed a « mass of perdition », the (Catholic) Church is judged « satanic », reason seems « diabolical », and free will simply does not exist. All this is not very cheerful. But for those who believe they are on the right side, who will make it, what a triumph!
Max Weber famously explained the link between Protestantism and capitalism, hard work and accumulation. One should now go even further, and also consider its links with the deep economic, social and political decomposition of the « living together », the dissolution of the « glue of the world ».
The pre-eminence of the « chosen one » over the « rest » of humanity justifies everywhere the war of each one against each one, an exacerbated individualism, and propagates hatred of the common. What does the ideology of grace and election imply politically in an overpopulated, compressed planet dominated by structural, systemic injustices? Isn’t the image of the chosen few, hermetically sealing off the world ghetto, the prodrome of a possible final catastrophe?
The dissociation of faith and reason has favored nominalism and anti-rationalism. But after the humiliation of reason, its negation, what can we expect from faith deprived of reason, if not barbarism?
The negation of free will has led to the theological and philosophical justification of determinism, with its innumerable political, economic and social translations. Universal enslavement is on the march – for whose benefit?
It has been written that the doctrine of the Reformer was « childish » iv. The sola can easily be summed up: the individual is ‘separated’, reason is ‘discarded’, freedom is ‘alienated’. Only the « Chosen one », the Faith and the Law remain, — but « alone ».
From this initial base of beliefs, Protestantism developed several variations, not without contradictions.
For example, the Lutheran saint turns away from politics, abandons the kingdom of the earth. On the contrary, the Calvinist ‘chosen one’ seizes the world to transform it. v
Lutheran piety favors the purely interior feeling. Calvinist religiosity is opposed to this quietist flight from the world, and requires engagement, action. vi
Calvin believes that the ´works´ remain a sign of the election. Luther rejects them as a curse.
These differences explain divergent historical destinies: Lutheranism remained confined to Northern Europe, and Calvinism was to be « globalized ». vii
They also reflect the structural problem of Protestantism: how to reconcile the freedom of individual conscience with the demands of community life? How to build a community of belief if the interpretation of the texts is free?
This contradiction was underlined by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The two fundamental points of the Reformation (the Bible, the only rule of belief, and the believer, the only interpreter of the meaning of the Bible), imply that the Reformed Church cannot have « any profession of faith that is precise, articulated, and common to all its members ». viii
Protestant culture, critical and individualistic, was defined from the outset by an ideal of autonomy and inner freedom, regardless of the weight of the dogma of predestination. Having abolished all authority imposed from outside, the culture of intimate conviction is based on the exercise of personal judgment. The argument of authority being rejected, one must turn to one’s own resources. The soul, alone, seeks its way with the help of its own lights.
This is a strong encouragement for critical exercise. Hence, also, the potential for social or political questioning.
The culture of individualism can lead to a general relativism. The moral segregation of the « chosen » and the « fallen », like all « apartheid », also carries the seeds of decomposition and social fragmentation.
Individualism is not a modern invention. But Protestantism added a radical, metaphysical dimension to it. Salvation depends on an incomprehensible God, who grants his grace without reason. Predestination, assigned from all eternity, is equivalent to establishing an absolute difference between people. Salvation has been given to the chosen few, and to the vast majority of the fallen, has been given the Fall. There is such a difference in destiny between them that it amounts to a difference in nature. Their common humanity itself radically separates them: for some it is a source of divine election and dilection, for others of eternal punishment and damnation.
This metaphysical apartheid is so despairing that it implies social, economic, political, cultural, psychological effects. In several countries of Protestant culture, poverty or social exclusion are considered as the consequence of a moral defect, or even as the visible punishment of an invisible degeneration, willed by God. For Calvin, poverty is a sin, damaging to the glory of God. He had forbidden begging, whereas the Middle Ages had tolerated it, and even exalted it with Francis of Assisi and the mendicant orders. The harshness of English legislation on assistance to the destitute was influenced by this asceticism indifferent to the misfortunes of the world. Michaël Walzerix notes in Calvin, as in English puritan literature, the frequency of warnings aboutmutual aid and human friendship. It is recommended not to trust anyone. The Puritan should only be concerned with his personal salvation. And he has only one possible confidant: God himself.
The certainty of the « chosen ones » to be saved, their metaphysical optimism, are powerful levers for action.
The « saints » believe that the planet, and the entire universe, are offered to them, that they are « manifestly » to be taken, for the greater glory of God, for example by means of force, in the service of highly militarized states. This state of mind also favors the development of capitalism, in its most inegalitarian forms.
A military-industrial economy, an encouragement to grow at all costs, at the expense of the rest of the world, are all assets in the confrontation of the « saints » with a fallen world.
There is no room for the idea of equality in this system. It is God who willed an ontological, metaphysical inequality between the « saints » and the « rest ».
The divine plan includes all individual and collective misfortunes. However unjustifiable they may be to human eyes, misfortunes are part of this divine plan, and they are somehow mysteriously necessary for the election of the few predestined.
Several remarkable psychological consequences can be deduced from this.
The « chosen ones » must believe without fail in their own predestination, they must display unshakeable trust and resolve.
There is no room for doubt. The constant dread of decay and doom provokes in return a need for external signs, for concrete proof of the election. One of the best possible proofs of this election is, for example, to be able to declare war on the rest of the world, and to win it. In such a disposition of mind, how can one avoid Manichaeism, arrogance, contempt?
The « chosen ones » may have a tactical advantage in overlooking the immense distance that separates them from the « fallen ». Hypocrisy and double talk are however recommended. The real thoughts of the « saints » and the opinion of the « chosen ones » about the « fallen » are not publicly avowable. They must hide their contempt and disgust from those whom they think are destined for damnation. What would happen if, crushed with contempt, and lost for lost, the « fallen » revolted?
It is very logical that a religion of election, individualistic and nominalist, propagates hatred of the universal, the general and the common, which are all negations of the gratuitous and inexplicable character of the singular, the particular and the unique. When God has « spoken », when He has « decided » and « chosen », who will dare to evoke reason, justice or equity, to dare contradict ´God´s will´? There is no room for universal salvation before singular grace.
To understand how such radical, astounding, incredible ideas actually arose in the Europe of Erasmus and the Renaissance, one must turn to one of its main ideologues, John Calvin.
For Calvinx, the human heart is completely wretched. Everything in man is unclean. His soul is an abyss, a cavern of garbage and « stench ». Human nature loves evil, and enjoys multiplying it. Man is perverse. Left to himself he is like a beast. All his desires are vicious, defiled, corrupt. Man is nothing but rottenness, and the devil reigns over the world.
There is no recourse to this rot and corruption. Man is lonely and powerless. The world and human society are of no help to him. Decline is irremediable. Whatever he does, whatever his actions, he is damnable. His fate is death and nothingness.
There is, however, a tiny hope. Strangely enough, God wants a few men, rare exceptions, to escape from nothingness.
But a fearsome enemy lies in wait: the devil, who tries to deceive man by imitating God. Hence a perpetual war. The life of the « saint » is a permanent, military combat. To counter the devil, he can resort to violence and war.
If the « saint » loses the battle, God’s punishment awaits: eternal fire and the swarming of worms that gnaw at his heart.
As for the Gnostics and Manicheans, the Calvinist « devil » also embodies the permanent, irremediable cut that separates man from God.
Calvin feels particularly this impenetrability of God, His absolute mystery, His infinite distance from mankind. He makes it a key element of his system. And if Calvin calls himself anti-Manichean like his master, Augustine, he, like him, displays deeply Manichean traits in the very structure of his thought.
Calvin denies Manichean dualism and reaffirms the unity and transcendence of God. But by lowering man and creation to nothingness and pleading the absolute decay of human nature, he recreates a kind of metaphysical dualism between the nature of the One, who is everything, and the nature of creatures, who are nothing. Man has absolutely nothing to do with God. There is no portion of divinity in him, not the slightest spark. The gulf between them is immeasurable. The anguish of such an annihilation is inextinguishable.
Calvin never dreamed of an impossible reconciliation with a « good » God. It is necessary to be content with humble and submissive obedience, to subdue the « vain swelling » of men, to bring down their arrogance.
Only in humility can man understand his nakedness and ignominy. It is necessary to renounce all presumption, however small it may be, and decisively lose all self-confidence. All men are useless. « Their gullet is like an open sepulchre » xi.
The thesis of man’s decay is central, massive. Fallen, man is always alone. He is cut off from God, and he is isolated on earth. After the Fall, he has become an essentially perverse, asocial being. There is nothing to expect from society. Particular vices invariably lead to public error. People are stupid. The whole human race is condemned.
The only exceptions are the few « saints » who have abolished everything in them that is of common nature. For if nature is ´common´, grace absolutely is not.
God separates those He has chosen. He uses the Law as a « wall ». He sets them apart from one another. Calvin reminds us that God did not hesitate to cut off from Israel a multitude of the fallen. This sharp and tough God can go to extremes. Elijah was left alone, after the entire people had been condemned.
The new Law separates « saints » from the fallen, just as the old Law separated Jews from Gentiles. For Calvin, this law is a law of general, absolute exclusion. It separates the chosen few from the rest of the world, but also the chosen ones from each other. All remain irremediably alone.
This general solitude implies a rigorous, assumed individualism. The righteous suffer alone, but it is for his/her own salvation.
The « saint », separated from men, remains a stranger in the world. He/she also remains separated from God. Without reference points, without support of any kind, he/she has no other sign than his/her faith alone.
There is no question of believing that the benefit of grace can be universal, under the pretext that God’s promises are addressed to all and that He is the common father of men. We must harshly castigate the error of those who, using the generality of the (biblical) promises as a pretext, would like to « level the whole human race« .
Yet, it is true that Luke affirmed that salvation is for the whole human race. Could it be possible that the new covenant concerns the whole world? No! The number of the chosen ones is very small, it is infinitesimal. It is God’s hidden treasure.
Decay has an absolute meaning, and it affects the vast majority of creatures. The reprobates are all destined for a total, abyssal nothingness.
God, a loving father, protects the interests of His only children, the « saints », and He is careful to rigorously exclude the « rest », the scum. To a few, all mercy, and grace, to all others all punishment, and doom. Calvin admits that it is « strange » that everything is given or taken away so absolutely. He recognizes the incomprehensible nature of this arbitrariness.
To those who object that the « cruelty » of exclusion is incompatible with God’s mercy, Calvin responds that it is not God who refuses forgiveness. It is sinners who do not ask for it – but he adds that they do not ask for it because God has blinded them .
Calvin has no problem with so few chosen ones in the face of so many fallen. But we must remain cautious. If the ontological fracture between the chosen ones and the fallen were to become known, assumed, claimed, it would obviously bring about atrocious, immense, irreconcilable violence. In such a case, the elected representatives would have to assume the monopoly of a just war and fight against the rest of the world. It is better to keep this burning issue under wraps as long as possible.
The chosen few are neither better nor worse than the fallen, – according to the judgment of men. But they are chosen for other, hidden reasons. It must be concluded that there can be no « common good ». In the face of such inequality of nature and grace, it makes no sense to speak of the good of society as a whole, let alone the good of humanity as a whole. There is no real good other than the good of the chosen ones. The only « common good » is the good of the chosen ones alone, and it consists in the union with God, reserved only for them. The demands of natural morality mean nothing in the face of God’s impenetrable designs. The whole of humanity is now only a kind of background, a setting, a passive figure in the global scene, unintelligible, directed by God.
The election of the presumed elected officials comes with a very high price for the fallen, at least according to common morality. The chosen one must get used to the idea that there is no universal mercy. Faced with the incomprehensibility of his own predestination, he must make the sacrifice of his reason, devalued, unable to provide the slightest explanatory argument.
He must accept the perspective of a fully determined world order, inhabited by creatures deprived of free will and free will. For « we are enslaved ».xii It is our very nature that is enslaved. God is an absolute master who assigns to us without recourse, and without justification, either eternal life or eternal damnation. In any case, the enslavement of men is radical.
The meaning of individual destinies is a mystery that is impossible to unravel. No one is entitled to glorify in one´s divine election, no one is entitled to complain about the decline into which God has thrown him. To apply the norms of earthly justice to divine decrees is completely devoid of meaning.
If by any chance the damned were to complain about an obviously undeserved fate, they would behave like animals who would lament not having been born human.
An important point of the Calvinist view is that the attainment of salvation does not depend in any way on the behavior of the creature. Only God’s will, not human works, is decisive for salvation.
Above all, one should not try to penetrate this « totally incomprehensible » mystery. God is accountable to no one. He can violate the laws of nature as he pleases. « No wind ever rises without God’s special commandment »xiii.
If one even tries to understand, this is a sure sign of corruption…
The chosen one must believe that he is always under the direct control of God. He sees the finger of God in the smallest details of his life. This constant presence strengthens and justifies him, and makes him all the more confident in his predestination.
Puritans never cease to gratify God for their election and their singular perfection. The unequal distribution of the goods of this world seems to them to respond to a special decree of Providence, pursuing its secret ends, and to which there is no need to return, and nothing to correct. Certainly we must not expect from the Puritans a revolt against Providence, or against the social order.
Thomas Adamsxiv believed that if God leaves so many people in poverty, it is probably because they cannot resist the temptations that wealth brings with it.
When material success happens to manifestly « damned » individuals, the Calvinist interprets it as a divine will to harden them in evil…
Calvin did not question his own state of grace and represented himself as a « vase of election » as opposed to the « vases of dejection » xv, the « mud pots ». The chosen ones form an oligarchy, separated from the rest of defiled and corrupt humanity. Their keen awareness of the grace that has fallen to them can incite them to contempt, even hatred, for those they consider enemies, marked with the seal of damnation.
Such awareness of the degradation of others facilitates the encouragement of social segregation. One thinks of these examples of protected areas, exclusive, indifferent to each other’s fate. Communities physically closed to the outside world (gated communities) are a contemporary illustration of elective, individualistic communitarianism.
The Calvinist thesis of the election and separation of « saints » is brutal, ruthless. It has always been highly controversial. Based on divine decrees beyond the reach of human intelligence and reason, it casts a definitive shadow on the capacity of reason to articulate any notion related to divine things. It has inspired disgust and revolt throughout the centuries in souls enamored of justice, provoking their instinctive repulsion.
From a political perspective, the doctrine of predestination points to an elitist, oligarchic, and certainly undemocratic system. It explains why the right to vote must be limited, since there is no reason to give voice and power to the « common », to the multitude of the « fallen ».
This oligarchic system is, however, compatible with the contractual election of political authorities, because the authority can be considered as « elected » by God to fulfill a mission inspired by Him.
We are far from the rationalism of the Enlightenment. The idea of a democracy based on the will of the people is completely foreign to Calvinism. The only thing that counts is the interest of the « saints » and their tightly knit, sacred, invisible community.
This doctrine never ceased to raise serious doubts, given its fantastic and desperate radicalism: « Such a God will never command respect, » said John Milton.
The problems raised are such that Melanchton deliberately avoided introducing this « dangerous and obscure » doctrine into the Augsburg Confession. Max Weber notes that Luther firmly believed that God’s « secret decrees » are the sole source, devoid of apparent meaning, of his own state of grace. The idea of predestination was never central to his concerns. For Lutherans, grace can be lost, but it can also be regained through humility, penance and trust.
For Calvin, on the other hand, the meaning of predestination has been steadily reinforced. The predestined sees himself as one of the masters of the world. He is on a mission on Earth. He is called to intervene for the glory of God in the world in order to transform it.
Thus, under the guise of total humility before divine decrees, Calvinism makes possible the boundless arrogance of the privileged, since the powerful and the rich are supposed to owe their fate to a divine decision. On the other hand, Calvinist ideas introduce the seeds of a certain political passivity towards the powers that be, for all those who find themselves in an inferior social position.
Election implies a radical break between the chosen few and the mass of the fallen; predestination adds to it the idea of the absolute determination of each individual’s destiny, even before the creation of the world.
In this conception, God completely determines all existences. The slightest event is under his control. He counts every hair on every head, and every drop of rain.
Why this integral and permanent control by an all-powerful and omniscient God? The reason for this order of things is hidden. The whole matter is incomprehensible to man. God governs everything, and it is He who dispenses good and evil. All misfortunes, poverty, prison, sickness, happen only by His will. Calvin says that God even goes so far as to marry men badly or give them ungrateful children to teach them humility.
The logical consequence of this universal determinism is irresponsibility. There is never any merit, since there is no free will. God wants His grace to have absolute power.
So what´s the purpose of all this?
One can wonder. What is the point of creating the creation and creatures, if from all eternity the dice of all destinies have already been thrown? Why the Law and the Prophets, if everything is already written, even before the creation of the world, and the works are useless? If neither man’s desire nor effort can do anything,xviwhat is the point of living?
And how can we explain the subjective feeling of freedom that everyone can experience in their lives? Is it just another illusion, sent by a God who is decidedly very manipulative?
Calvin repeats over and over again that there is no point in asking these types of questions: all these mysteries are incomprehensible. As for subjective freedom, it is only apparent. Man is truly stripped of all freedom, and he is necessarily subject to evil. xvii
Even if we have the subjective feeling that something is happening according to our will, we must in fact attribute all the responsibility to God.
For Origen, S. Augustin and S. Thomas Aquinas, reason could help to discern good from evil. The will can choose one or the other. Calvin denies both the power of reason and the power of will.
S. Bernard used to say that all good will is the work of God, but that man can desire this good will with his own heart.
Calvin refuses such compromises. The will is entirely chained, enslaved. Human nature itself has lost all freedom. The (absolutely false) feeling of ´free will´ can only lead to evil and death. It is equivalent to the poisonous fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which gives death.
That is why it is best to move away from these issues. To even mention them is dangerous. From the outset, Calvin invites the « saints » to be very careful. Above all, the doctrine of predestination, which is so pernicious in its implications, must not be divulged to the people. The people could revolt, indulge in laziness and despair, or else, lost for lost, go further and further into evil.
On the one hand, appalling prospects are opening up for the multitude. On the other hand, there is no point in trying to ward off fate, by trying to show good will, by acquiring merits, by means of works.
One cannot dream to be the equal and companion of God. Or even arrogate to oneself the right to be above His council. No! It is not a question of looking for signs of election, by exhibiting such and such a work or such and such an action. Calvin mercilessly hunts down every form of pelagianism. God’s grace gives everything. Man brings nothing, and cooperates in nothing. There is in him only a necessity to sin. It is not that man is devoid of all will. What man lacks is not will, but a healthy will. The will necessarily goes towards evil. In no way does it have the faculty to go towards good.
The so-called freedom of the human will is a trap. This freedom is in reality a servitude, because it leads inevitably, irresistibly, to evil. It enslaves all the more because it believes itself to be « free ».
The most ancient Christian source on all these matters is S. Paul. It was he who inspired the Augustinian and Calvinist theses. But St. Paul offers contradictory formulas. On the one hand, « it is God who makes all things in all » (1 Cor 12:6). On the other hand, « God creates and puts in us the will (Phil 2:13)« . What is will, if it is entirely determined by « a God who makes all things »? And if will is not determined, it is because God does not make « all things in all ».
Far from these subtleties! Calvin suffers no compromise: man is not free, period. He quotes the prophet Jeremiah: « I know, Lord, that the way of man is not free« (Jer. 10:23).
Pelagius was declared a heretic in the 4th century for having maintained that by free will one can abstain from sin, that nature is not bound, and that freedom of choice is always present. S. John Chrysostom admitted a cooperation of will and grace, a possibility to choose between good and evil. More pelagianism!
Calvin absolutely vomits pelagianism. Grace cannot cooperate with the will. It is always God who does all the work. His grace is indispensable at all stages, at all times. It alone makes one free. It is freedom that enslaves. It is grace that makes it possible to do good. It is grace that makes it possible to resist evil. And it is freedom that binds evil.
Calvin goes as far as possible in the direction of predestination and absolute determination. But he is also careful to affirm that his doctrine has no connection, despite appearances, with the fatum of the Stoics.
The fact remains that the two doctrines are similar. What does it matter whether the fate of men is due to fatum or to the hand of God? Being slaves to fate, or enslaved to predestination, is it not the same thing?
There is obviously a language problem. The words freedom and servitude are really only metaphors. « Freedom » is not freedom of choice, since free will is denied. This « freedom » is only the freedom to feel « safe ». It is only a word, or an image, to give confidence in one’s election. The only « freedom » is the freedom to choose to recognize oneself as chosen.
Freedom is in no way a freedom to act on the world. It gives no power. Freedom is only the freedom to free oneself entirely from the crushing yoke of the Mosaic Law. To be « free » for Calvin is to be free from this Law.
Calvinism is based on a fantastic thesis, that of God’s election of a few « saints » and the exclusion of all the rest of humanity. This thesis generates immense anguish among the « chosen ones » themselves. How can one recognize whether one is elected or fallen? How can one be assured of one’s election? In this life, the chosen ones are in no way distinguished, externally, from the reprobates. In fact, all the subjective experiences of the former are also within the reach of the latter, with the exception, however, of persevering and faithful trust.
The very fact of asking oneself this question (« Am I chosen? ») is already a sign that one is giving in to the devil. Calvin affirms it: it is impossible to find proof of election in man. Nor can they be found in God. So where then?
The only mirror of the election is Christ. To be elected implies reflecting Christ himself; which is certainly not within the reach of the first to come. Moreover, the chosen one must prove his election by leaving no room for doubt. Any kind of doubt is a symptom of degeneration.
The chosen one must be content to know that God has decided his destiny from all eternity. He must persevere in the unshakeable confidence that he is one of the fortunate chosen ones, this confidence being moreover the sign of his true faith.
God cannot be satisfied with anything man does. On the other hand, He can accuse him of a thousand crimes. The smallest defilement is enough to invalidate any work. There is no intermediary between perfection and nullity. It is all or nothing.
However, the works remain indispensable, not for their value, which is null, but as « signs of election ». It is less the works that signify this election than their absence, which testifies to the decline. The (good) works that one has not done give a bad signal. But the (good) works that one has done also give a bad signal, if by misfortune one should glorify in them. The only merit is to acknowledge that one has no merit at all.
In short, works are indispensable, but they are nothing in front of faith, in which everything is concentrated. It is faith alone that gives works their value, not the other way around.
Among the early apostles, this question had been the subject of debate. Against St. Paul, St. James affirmed that faith without works is « dead in itself » and that it is therefore « useless ». But for Calvin, this fundamental divergence between Paul and James is only a simple battle of words.
Faith does not need works, nor does it need reason. The mystery of God is totally beyond man and remains entirely elusive to the intellect. Reason is only capable of foolish daydreaming, and intelligence leads only to error and chimeras.
Thinkers and poets are like « barking dogs ». The doctrines of men are of straw, compared to the Spirit, which is of fire. Philosophers can teach us nothing about the soul. They are « sophists ». Calvin rains insults down on the Sorbonne. The Jesuits are « scum ». Clerics are « swine ».
All men decidedly are « of nothingness » and can only conceive « of nothingness ».
There are, obviously, some political and societal consequences to Calvinism…
God determines all societies. He is the cause of all political realities. He institutes the powerful.xviii No matter the qualities of the leaders, or their faults. They are put where they are by God.xix The power of princes is due to God, but the power of popes is due to the devil. The Church is a sham. It is the fantasy of men. The only true and only invisible Church is that of the « saints ».
The coexistence of the two kingdoms, the earthly and the spiritual, is a fact. There are like two worlds in man. They must be carefully distinguished, and the Christian must submit to the laws of one and the other. Above all, the existing order must not be called into question, because it is willed by God. xx
God established the social and political order for all men, including the « saints ». Moral discipline must strengthen the bonds between the members of their community, their « Church ». Calvin defines it as a political society and even as a republic of « princes ».
This republic has the vocation to extend to the whole State, if it happens fortunately that the « saints » occupy the power. Thus Calvin urged the pastors of Geneva to demand in 1537 that the entire city make a public profession of faith, following the model of the covenant pact between God and the Jews.
The « saint » is a militant, a soldier who carries « the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation and the spiritual sword ».xxi He must participate in the life of the community, and in the government of the Christian republic if it comes to power.
The republic of the « saints » must compel the godless and the unelected to submit to God’s law, including the use of force and war.
Calvin repeatedly insists on the need for restriction and social control because of man’s wickedness. Submission to the system and repression are necessary to counteract its effects. Tyranny is acceptable, from this perspective, because it serves to maintain society. xxii
Luther also preached obedience to superiors and submission to the prince. Every man is bound to accept his conditions of existence, since they are due to Providence. But unlike Calvin, Luther does not encourage the « saints » to take care of the earthly city, much less to direct it. The saints are first and foremost citizens of the heavenly city.
For Calvin, political reality is an embodiment of God’s will. Hence an extremely conservative vision of politics, strewn with serious contradictions, and also, in germ, a potentially devastating ambiguity for the powers that be.
When a political power is successfully overthrown, should we not also see in it the direct action of the divine will? If everything happens by God’s will, a victorious revolution can and must be considered part of the divine plan.
But then, the « saints » could be led to allow themselves all kinds of revolt against the established order, if they judge inwardly that they are called to do so. The success of their revolt will be the sign justifying seditious acts a posteriori. Are not the chosen few convinced that they are instruments of God? God has marked them, predestined them, « called » them. They carry in their conscience the assurance of the divine will. Their intimate conviction is their only order of mission. Can this mission not go as far as revolt against the tyrant?
Calvinism carries a strong political conservatism, but, if the opportunity arises, it can also open the door to forms of anarchy.
Calvin pushed his political ideas much further than Luther, with uncompromising radicalism that was not devoid of sharp ambiguities. He is a master of equivocation, a flowery and devious casuist. He cautiously seeks to hide from the common eye the inevitable consequences of his dogmatic extremism. He is aware that his harshest, most ruthless theses could not be revealed without danger to the immense crowd of the « damned » and the putative « fallen ».
How could the « fallen » live for a long time in a world that promises them nothing? In the interest of the « chosen ones » themselves, efforts must be made to preserve civil peace. The tragic and definitive nature of their destiny must be concealed from the « fallen ». That is why a rhetoric of ambiguity, « tolerance » and hypocrisy is necessary, in order to safeguard the political and social order for as long as possible.
This order has an implicit structure. It obeys a fundamental idea: men must be « separated » from one another, — not « reunited », as the Papists wish.
Calvin predicts the final « sacrifice » of men on the altar of God. Knowing this perspective, it is certainly not his priority to seek to « reconcile » men.
From this point of view, Calvinism anticipates Hobbes’ authoritarianism and political cynicism. Calvin’s tyranny of the divine is the implacable model of the necessary tyranny of Leviathan.
The Reformation occupies a special place in the history of the West. It called into question the entire classical, pre-modern tradition. It took the opposite side of the humanism of the Renaissance. It affirmed a principle of separation and exclusion, dividing the world into two irreducible camps. It proclaimed the election of a few « chosen ones » and the forfeiture of almost all humanity. It drew a definitive line of demarcation between a few « chosen ones » and the immense mass of the « fallen ».
The theological or philosophical questions stirred up by Luther and Calvin had ancient roots. The themes of freedom and necessity, of reason and faith, had been debated since the dawn of Christianity. But the Reformation suddenly gave them a singularly sharp solution through the addition of several negations (the sola), and through a metaphysics of the cut.
The Reformation articulated a triple « no », a « no » to humanity, a « no » to reason and a « no » to freedom. The individual, separated from every community and every tradition, faces alone the mystery of the Scriptures. Reason is rejected; faith alone is accepted. Freedom is nothing more than alienation before grace and predestination.
The impact of these radical ideas, apparently so far removed from contemporary modernity, was profound, matrix-like, as we shall see.
Harnack said that the essence of Christianity should be sought in its germs, not in what came out of it. The multiplicity of Churches, the diversity of spiritualities and sects must not lead us astray. What is important are the mother ideas.
Protestantism has undeniably multiplied the variations; there are myriads of them. But they share some original seed ideas.
Different moments in the history of religious ideas have contributed to this. The most significant influences come from Paulinism, Gnosticism, Augustinism.
A little less than 2000 years ago, Paul initiated the first controversy in the history of Christianity. The issue for Jewish Christians was whether certain aspects of the Jewish Law should be renounced in order to make faith in the Gospel more accessible to non-Jews. For example, should new converts to Christianity also be circumcised?
In other words, in a more abstract style, what has primacy, faith or Law?
At the conclusion of a debate between himself and Peter, Paul said: « We can agree: to you the Gospel of circumcision, to me the Gospel of the foreskin ».
He set out to preach the faith of Christ to the uncircumcised Gentiles around the Mediterranean. Peter remained in Jerusalem, among the Judeo-Christians, respectful of the Mosaic Law. Paul declared that he would be the apostle of the faith, and that Peter was the apostle of the Law.
This was basically the resurgence of a fundamental duality that existed within Judaism itself, that of the Law and that of the Prophets. On the one hand, the Law separates Israel from the rest of the world. On the other hand, Prophets like Isaiah dream of « gathering all the nations ».
Paul’s doctrine immediately appeared to be « folly to the Greeks and scandal to the Jews ». Emphasizing faith, he also affirmed the predestination of souls, and declined it in its ultimate consequences. Fates are decided even before the foundation of the world. He also claimed a strong conservatism, showing his detachment from politics. xxiii At the height of Nero’s reign, he advocated submission to the tyrant. xxiv
Luther and Calvin mimicked his tone and posture. They borrowed his pessimism, the idea of predestination, the separation of the fallen from the chosen ones, the antinomy of faith and reason from faith and works, and indifference to politics.
If the main themes of Calvinism have their origin in Paul’s thought, it is important to note that the latter remains more complex, diverse, and deeper and. Paul put faith in the pinnacle, but he also placed charity above faithxxv. He affirmed that faith has no use for works, without renouncing them. He was not a pelagian, but he spoke of « the righteous judgment of God, who will render to every man according to his works »xxvi. He recognized the fortunate fate of the chosen ones, but he also implied that salvation must be universal, and that it must be for the whole world. God will have mercy on all. All men have a vocation to be saved. All barriers must be broken down.
Paul also took the side of the weak and the foolish, xxvii and he defended the general interest, putting particular gifts at the service of all. xxviii
In spite of his defiance of reason, Paul reconciled it with faith. xxix He believed in predestination, but defended the prospect of a moral metamorphosis of everyonexxx and he was a prophet of freedom. xxxi
It is difficult to lock all these elements into a coherent system.
Renan and Harnack considered Paul a crypto-gnostic thinker, and even a kind of « Simon the Magician ». He seemed to give in to dualistic forms of thought. And his ideas were pushed to the extreme by some of his followers. The Gnostics, who were flourishing in the dying days of Rome, seized them for their own use.
Gnosis, which appeared in the Greco-Roman world between the 1st and 3 rd centuries, tried to formulate the « philosophy » that was missing from the Gospel. It wanted to Hellenize Christianity, but it also wanted to do this without the Old Testament. It denigrated the God « creator » and « lawgiver » celebrated in the Torah as opposed to the figure of the God « savior » of the Gospel.
The early followers of Jesus were not preoccupied with philosophy. But the new converts, with a culture more Greco-Roman than Semitic, were asking questions, they needed explanations, systems. The Gnostics tried to superimpose on Christianity an outline of theology, a set of dogmas. They undertook to add metaphysics, theogony, cosmology and a philosophy of history.
The name « gnosis » (from the Greek gnosis, knowledge) testifies to their intentions: to attain absolute knowledge, the knowledge of God. Renan notes that the word gnostic (gnosticos) has the same meaning as the word Buddha, « he who knows ». Gnosticism claimed to be the path to the integral knowledge of God, the world and history.
The original Church immediately fought the Gnostic sects, considered « poisonous vegetation ». There was no shortage of points of profound disagreement.xxxii
The Judeo-Christians wanted to preserve the legacy of the Law and the Prophets, which Christ had said he had not come to « abolish » but to « fulfill ». They wanted to maintain their connection with the Hebrew Scriptures. But the Scriptures, because of certain contradictions with the message of Jesus, required at least new interpretations.
Interpretation is always possible, and one does not deprive oneself of it. But a Hellenization of the Jewish Bible, in the philosophical way, was obviously impossible. This is why the Gnostic schools, which in the 2nd century applied the ways of thinking of Greek philosophy, did not want to recognize the Jewish Scriptures and traditions. Instead, they built a philosophical system mixing Greek reason and Eastern mysticism, and focusing on Jesus, the Christ, the Savior of the world.
Some specialists agree on the name of Simon the Magician, as being at the origin of the Gnostic heresy. Who was this Simon? Ernest Renan, with his usual taste for provocation, supported by impeccable references, guesses that Simon the Magician could well be Paul himself. Adolf von Harnack, more cautious, also puts forward this hypothesis but does not settle the question.
Whether or not he was Simon the Magician, Paul divided the early Christians. He influenced the new converts with his anti-Judaism turned against the Law, and he alienated the Judeo-Christians who wanted to « save » the Old Testament. He inspired those who stood against Tradition to universalize the Gospel message. He wanted the « good news » to be proclaimed to all nations, not only to the people of the Old Covenant.
The Gnostic theorists (Menander, Saturnine, Basilides, Valentin the Egyptian, Marcion of Sinope, Carpocrates, Bardesanes) took up and transformed the Pauline ideas.
To salvation by faith or works, the Gnostics substituted salvation by knowledge, salvation by Gnosis. What kind of knowledge is this? Let us summarize. The divine Being is infinite, His nature is inconceivable, far above all human thought. From Him emanate « intermediate » beings (the Aeons). Among them, the Demiurge, creator of the Cosmos. He is an evil being, for Matter is the receptacle of Evil. The material world was created by evil powers, and the mere fact of existing is sinful, since the existence of the world is due to a fallen Spirit.
The God of the Old Testament, creator of the world and its imperfections, is none other than this Demiurge. The Gnostics thus reject the Jewish Bible since it deifies the creator of a « satanic » world.
To this Creator God, to this wicked Demiurge, they oppose the Savior God, the Good God.
It is He who sanctifies and delivers the chosen few, separating their spirit from matter and the world. The vulgar profane is excluded from salvation. Basilides has this characteristic formula: « We are men; the others are only pigs and dogs »xxxiii, and this other one: « I speak for one in a thousand ». xxxiv
Gnosticism is profoundly dualistic. God, the principle of Good, is separated from the world whose Matter is the principle of Evil. The Spirit of God can in no way take part in this material world, which is essentially evil. He could not incarnate himself in human flesh, doomed to evil. We must therefore distinguish the « two natures »: that of Jesus, simply a man, and that of Christ, a divine being. Christ is a pure spirit; his incarnation is only an illusion, a simple appearance (in Greek « dokèsis« , hence the name given to this doctrine: Docetism).
Many Gnostic ideas offer analogies with Calvinism: the domination of Evil over this world, a marked dualism between Good and Evil, the election of a few saints and the forfeiture of all, the impossibility of understanding anything about divine things through reason, revelation reserved for the chosen few.
On the other hand, some ideas of Gnosis are frankly incompatible with Christianity, reformed or not. Thus the idea that the God of the Bible is a « bad God ».
Gnosis was immediately refuted by the Church. Marcion was excommunicated in 144 in Rome. Saint Irenaeus of Lyon attacked the Gnostics in Against Heresies. To their dualism and pessimism, he opposed the unity of the Old and New Testaments and an optimistic vision of the fall of Adam and Eve, redeemed by the sacrifice of Christ.
But in the 3rd century, Gnosticism resumed a second life with Mani, who preached throughout the Middle East. His ideas reached a vast area, from Gaul to China. Manichaeism, influenced by ancient Iranian Mazdeism and Indo-Iranian Zoroastrianism, and imbued with Buddhist elements, embodies an extreme version of Gnosis.
The universe is cut in two, on one side Good and light, on the other side Evil and darkness. Light and darkness have coexisted since the beginning, without mixing. Manichaeism postulates that a universal catastrophe took place at the beginning of the world, and that darkness then entered into the realm of light. The battle of light and darkness is that of good and evil. Satan, the « Prince of Darkness, » stands against God, the God of Light.
Participating in this struggle, the Manichean must help to restore order, to end the confusion. On one side must be the light, on the other the night. Since the soul of every man is woven of light and his body weighed down with matter, the primary objective is to separate one from the other. Once the break is complete, the soul will melt into the great divine light.
The Fathers of the Church endeavored to respond to the theses of the Gnostics and Manicheans.
Clement of Alexandria, a disciple of the Platonic School, argued that Christianity is reconcilable with a rational philosophy, and that faith can go with reason. Christ is the Logos, he embodies the rational law of the world, dispensed for the benefit of all humanity. Universal salvation, operating throughout the history of humanity, is guaranteed by the goodness of God and the responsibility of man.
Tertullian argued that the Gnostic conception of a God who was supposed to be sovereignly powerful, but who remained inactive, passive, « inert », « lethargic », was contradictory, contrary to common sense, and scandalous.
The good God must have an obligation to manifest Himself through His works. He cannot remain hidden, for that would be tantamount to making the good God a « perverse » God, complicit in the cruelty and barbarity of the Demiurge.
If the goodness of the good God does not apply to all, if it does not save men in general, it is because it is imperfect, « defective and small, » which is contradictory. Consequently, universal salvation is certain.
Origen reaffirmed the uniqueness of the divine principle, against the dualism of Marcion, Valentine and Basilides. God is the one power, both creator and savior of the world. All the diversity of the world will be brought back, at the end of time, to the unity of a perfect accord.
The good God is also the righteous God, since in the divine nature one cannot conceive of goodness without justice, nor justice without goodness.
God, good and just, uses no coercion; He preserves the freedom of each spirit, but He does so with such wisdom that all end up contributing to the world’s harmony.
Origen conceived of the universe as « an immense and huge animal », governed by God’s reason, as by a single soul. All spirits are equal. Souls can fail, but they can also grow and progress, and return to God. No soul can fail forever and irretrievably.
Origen emphasized the free will of the soul, and the kinship between human reason and divine nature. At the end of time, the inevitable inequalities and divergences caused by the diversity of intelligences, will be resorbed in a single agreement, in a « common » world.
Origen’s optimism offers an invigorating antidote to the pessimism of modern times. He was the forerunner of a political philosophy of globalization and a political theology of salvation for all.
Among those who attacked Gnosis, St. Augustine occupies a special place because he himself was a victim of the Manichean heresy, as he recounts in his Confessions. After his radical break with Manichaeism and his conversion to Christianity, he tackled the famous question of the existence of evil.
For Gnosis, the principle of evil was at the center. Evil is the Demiurge, the irreconcilable adversary of the God of Salvation.
Augustine purely and simply denied the existence of evil. Evil is nothing but the deprivation of good. Evil is a non-being. Whatever one may think of this assertion, it cannot be denied that it is fundamentally non-dualistic.
Augustine, however, did not remove from his thought any dualistic tendency. He affirmed the irremediable rupture between the elect and the fallen, and emphasized the opposition between the evil which has dominated the world since original sin and the salvation which can come only from God alone.
The first Fathers of the Church therefore immediately rebelled against Gnostic dualism and pessimism, because they threatened the essential message of the Gospel. Harnack believes that the entire history of medieval thought can be interpreted as a « Catholic » attempt to protect oneself against the Gnostic syndrome.
But one could also interpret the end of the Middle Ages as in fact announcing the revenge of Gnosis on Catholicism, a revenge that was to be fully revealed through the successes of the Reformation.
Through it, Gnosis has succeeded in reintroducing acute forms of dualism and irremissible pessimism into Western thought and into modernity as a whole.
Dualism and pessimism, shared by the Reformation and Gnosis, also have a deep, structural relationship with modern times. Eric Voegelin puts it this way: Modern times are a failure of history, they represent a regression, a return to paganism and Gnosis. This is why he proposes to qualify the modern era as « Gnostic ».
Hans Blumenberg, while protesting against this radical thesis, nevertheless confirms it in partxxxv. Modern times are not a « new Gnosis », according to him. They represent « the overcoming of Gnosis, » he proposes. Midern times have assimilated Gnosis, they have dialecticized it and pushed it to its limits.
The pagan regression and the Gnostic temptation had already manifested themselves forcefully from the beginning of Christianity, but were apparently refuted. The Middle Ages had also tried to eradicate Gnosis, which was always resurgent.
If we follow Voegelin, the Reformation partially reintroduced certain Gnostic themes into the framework of reformed Christianity, such as the dualism of good and evil, the pessimism attached to an evil world, and « knowledge » (or « grace ») reserved for the « chosen ones ».
In the reading if Voegelin, the history of modern times would testify to the return in force of a new Gnosis, including in a secularized and mundanized form, — in the philosophies of the Enlightenment, in Hegelianism or in positivism.
But if we can really affirm that modern times are « Gnostic », then we must also recognize that they are in a head-on opposition to original Christianity.
Hans Blumenberg refuses to adopt this clear-cut thesis (of Voegelin). He still wants to « save » modernity, to « legitimize » it. Original Christianity still has a role to play in this legitimized modernity. What role? The answer depends on how one looks at the Reformation. Does the Reformation embody Christian modernity, or is it decidedly nothing more than a new Gnosis?
If the Reformation was influenced by Gnosis, as Voegelin thinks, if it even embodies a new Gnosis, then one could induce the « illegitimacy » of modern times.
Blumenberg refuses this fatal judgment. Modern times have been able to « overcome » Gnosis, he says. As a result, the Reformation and modernity can both be « saved », one with the other. In support of the thesis of « overcoming the Gnosis », Blumenberg asserts two things. On the one hand, modern times have overcome the dualism of the Creator God and the Savior God, and on the other hand, they have promoted a new « quality of consciousness ».
Let us analyze these two arguments.
The dualism of the Creator God and the Savior God was Marcion’s main thesis. For him, the idea of a single God, both creator and savior, was contradictory because if God is the sole creator and all-powerful of the world, He cannot really want the destruction of His own creation. That an « almighty » God needs to save His own creation is illogical. It was more logical that there was a creator God opposing the savior God, and that the latter had to defeat the former. The good God, a « stranger » to the world, could then annihilate a cosmos He had not created, and preach disobedience to a Law He had not given. Redemption was equivalent to enlightening man on the fundamental imposture of the Cosmos and the Law, both due to the evil God. And Gnosis represented and explained the « knowledge » of this imposture.
But the price of the break, the cost of the separation between the « foreign » God and the world, is the loss of metaphysical and cosmic unity, and the destruction of trust in the world, now the place of evil.
Men must then leave behind them the world, a foreign land, a land of evil. They are invited to emigrate to heaven, as in « a beautiful foreign land », by the grace of the good God.
Gnosis promised this salvation to its followers at the price of demonizing the world. It was necessary to radically reject this evil, demonic world.
But Christian thinkers have always denied the Gnostic thesis of the evil world. They still wanted to save the Cosmos, and to maintain a profound unity between the immanence of the world and divine transcendence. The world cannot be only the prison of evil. Evil cannot remain undefeated. Man can and must be responsible for the world. xxxvi
For them God can still be both creator and savior.
Blumenberg says that this solution represents in fact the « first overcoming » of Gnosis by the modern thinkers.
The « second overcoming » of Gnosis took place with the appearance of a new « quality of consciousness », with the awareness of human freedom.
The « chosen one » has the task of testifying to his or her election. He is responsible for the state of the world, he finds himself the bearer of a demand turned towards the future, seeking in action the proof of his grace. He can undertake to assert himself. This is how modernity began. The world can be « bad » or « indifferent », but the « chosen one » asserts himself as free, creative.
Copernicus had shown the true place of humanity, relegated to the confines of the universe. Lost on the margins of the world, men had to invent a role, a mission. Faced with the mute, silent cosmos, they were lost in infinity, their only territory was their own representations. All they had to do was define and express a will, — a will to represent, a will to build, a will to live.
Man was lost in the cosmos, but he could also assert himself without limits, and go beyond a universe that denied him.
The beginning of modern times corresponded to this moment: the individual was to be magnified, in an indifferent world. This was the « second overcoming » of Gnosis, according to Blumenberg.
Did these two « overcoming » really take place? Did the Augustinian moment and the Copernican moment really make it possible to « overcome » Gnosis?
This is doubtful.
By liquidating the Middle Ages, modern times have in fact revived, at a new cost, the old Gnostic dualism and pessimism. Gnosis is more modern than ever: evil is still there, and man is still not free.
It is extremely significant that from the beginning of the modern age the Reformation claimed the ideas of predestination, serfarbitrage, original sin, and condemned mankind to decay and doom, except for the chosen few.
Against Blumenberg’s arguments, it must be affirmed that the Reform does not « overcome » Gnosis. It only « transposes » it.
Augustine himself had not really « overcome » Gnosis. He fought against it vigorously at the end of the Roman Empire. But did he explain the evil? Was he able to convince the following generations, including the future « modern » ones, that evil is only a « non-being »? Luther was once an Augustinian monk. The immense work of Augustine was not enough, it seems, to persuade Luther and Calvin, these two « moderns », of the non-essence of evil.
Augustine had kept from the Manichean influence of dualistic inflections and a turn of thought favoring sharp cuts and absolute oppositions: the dualism of sin and grace, the separation between « men who live according to man » and « men who live according to God », the cut between « heaven from heaven » and earth, the abyss between God and nothingness.
Augustine had been in all the battles of his time, against Pelagius and against Mani, against the Donatists and against the Aryans. These struggles against heresies helped to ensure Catholic dogma. But these very successes could lead to slippery slopes. Some of Augustine’s ideas did not fail to pose serious problems from the point of view of dogma. The quarrels on the merit of works, between pelagians, semi-pelagians and anti-pelagians, or on the question of predestination, bear witness to this. Augustine continued to stir up a latent opposition within the official Church on these questions, because of the extremist conclusions that could be drawn from some of his positions. Harnack summed it up as follows: Over the centuries, « the Church has become more and more secretly opposed to Augustine ». xxxvii
Before Augustine, the Fathers of the Church advocated the morality of popular, stoic, pelagian Christianity, attached to the merit of works, not without rationalist accents. Augustine’s morality is completely at odds with this tradition. It is an anti-Pelagian, fidelistic, elitist morality, reserved for an elite of predestined chosen ones. Although far removed from common sense, this new conception of morality was to see its influence develop and extend to the present day, after having been taken up by the Reformation.
In the 5th century, in the face of Augustine’s doctrine, other trends of thought crossed Christianity, such as neo-Platonism or Stoicism, which could have imposed themselves then.
But Augustine favored the victory of a radical conception, highly improbable and very unpopular. It can be summed up in one sentence: only a few predestined chosen ones will be saved. As for the « mass », it is lost forever: massa perditionis.
Until then Christians had had a rather optimistic view of human nature and a reasonable hope for themselves. There was no reason to sink into despair. The word « gospel » is translated from the Greek as « Good News ».
Augustine quite accentuated the Pauline pessimism and made it more rigorous. Evil was the lever of all human action. Men had no enemies but themselves. Everything that was not God was sin. In God alone was good. It was necessary to surrender unconditionally to God, and to submit entirely to the Church.
Before Augustine, people oscillated between the fear of punishment and the unreasoned hope of salvation. People relied on free will and on their own merits to save their souls.
Augustine asserted that sin is inherent in man. The fall of Adam is the source of damnation for all. For the chosen few, there is the infinitesimal hope of grace.
The Church took up some of these conceptions. The Christian, convinced that he was a sinner, had to renounce his own strength for his salvation, and keep trust in the grace of the merciful God.
But on the questions of the merit of works, election and predestination, the Church was less assured. One could not deduce the idea of predestination from the words of Jesus. It was first of all a Pauline idea, not a Christic one. On this point Augustine had thus innovated in relation to the evangelical tradition, pushing Paul’s views to their extreme consequences. Hence the strong opposition within the Church, especially on the part of the monastic orders.
Departing from the Christianity of the « Good News », Augustine had inflected Catholic dogma in a generally pessimistic sense for the mass of sinners. He had never completely overcome the Manicheism of his youth. His doctrine of sin always contained a latent Gnostic element. The very structure of his thought was, as has been noted, dualistic, in the Manichean manner (God and the fall, sin and grace, the two « Cities »). Harnack sums up Augustine’s Gnosticism in a lapidary formula: « Augustine is a second Marcion ».
Clarifying this link between Augustine and Gnosis, Hans Blumenbergxxxviii compared the Augustinian dogma of universal fault to Marcion’s belief in the « wickedness » of the Old Testament legislator. The doctrine of absolute predestination and the few chosen ones is borrowed from St. Paul, and is perfectly compatible with the gnosis of the corruption of the world.
Augustine had criticized in his writings the Gnostic and Manichean dualism and supported the principle of the unity of all creation in God. But he introduced another form of dualism: the separation of the elect and the outcast, which implies a divine responsibility for evil. Predestination gives God an initial role in cosmic corruption.
This is why Blumenberg admits that Augustine did not « overcome » Gnosis, but only « transposed » it. He sketched the figure of an almighty and hidden God, with absolute and incomprehensible sovereignty. And Gnosis continued to appear in Augustinism, under the species of the irremediable rupture between the elect and the fallen, in the abysmal darkness of the divine plan.
Augustinism did not contribute little to establishing in Christianity the « terror » of a divine order of Gnostic structure. The invention of purgatoryxxxix in the early Middle Ages was an attempt to calm the panic of uncertain, potentially damned souls. It was not until a certain return of reason, at the height of medieval scholasticism, that Gnosis was intellectually refuted. This refutation was, moreover, far from being definitive. Its multiple subsequent resurgences, in other forms, to the present day, bear witness to this. xl
The original fault, the eternal guilt of man, the resignation before the predestination to good or evil, affecting each individual, the annulment of all individual responsibility in the state of the world, the denial of reason, the renunciation of transforming by action a fundamentally fallen reality, these are all new heads constantly pushing back on the Gnostic Hydra, decidedly not defeated.
Paul and Augustine had one thing in common with Marcion and Mani: a taste for dualism.
Augustine, for his part, conceived a synthesis of Gnosticism, Neo-Platonism, and Paulinism intertwined with original Christianity. Through his own Gnosticism, « not outmoded » but « transposed », and through the affirmation of predestination, he was undoubtedly one of the precursors of the Reformation.
In fact, the Reformation could itself be considered as a modern « transposition » of Gnosis. Calvin’s work has been assimilated to a « Gnostic Koran » by E. Voegelin.xli Luther or Calvin were not second or third Marcion. But, just as Augustine « transposed » Gnostic ideas at the time of the crisis of the Roman Empire, Luther and Calvin ensured the « transposition » of Augustinism and Gnosticism into early modern times.
In conclusion, it is necessary to understand the depth of the influence of the mother ideas contained in the Lutheran sola. These ideas were then widely received by « modernity », under the species of nominalism, determinism and individualism.
(To be continued).
iCf. H. Blumenberg. The Legitimacy of Modern Times. 1999
iiSee E. Troeltsch. Protestantism and modernity. 1911
iii« The idea of predestination, the guiding axis of the only effective system produced by the Reformation ». Ernst Troeltsch. Calvinism and Lutheranism (1909)
ivQuoted by Lucien Febvre, in Martin Luther, un destin, 1928. Foreword to the 2nd edition, 1944
v« The Lutheran saint, in his quest for the invisible kingdom of heaven, turns away from politics and abandons the kingdom of the earth, in Luther’s own words, to whomever he takes it. Calvin’s secular commitment, his concern for organization, prompts him to « take » the kingdom of the earth and transform it. » Michael Walzer. The revolution of the saints. Paris, 1987
vi« Lutheranism tolerates the world through the cross, suffering and martyrdom; Calvinism masters this world for the glory of God through unremitting toil. » Ernst Troeltsch. Calvinismand Lutheranism, 1909
vii« Lutheranism remained confined to its country of origin, Germany, and Scandinavia. Calvinism has acquired a worldwide status. » Ernst Troeltsch. Calvinismand Lutheranism, 1909.
viii« If one wanted to have one, in that very thing one would hurt evangelical freedom, one would renounce the principle of the Reformation, one would violate the law of the State. J.J. Rousseau. Letters written from the mountains.
xviiThe Christian Institution, II,3,5. Chapter 2 of Book II has the title: « That man is now stripped of the free will of the freewill and miserably subject to all evil.
xviii« God puts the sword and the power in the hands of those whom it pleases Him to set over others. Lessons from the book of Daniel’s prophecies, Geneva, 1569
xix« It must be enough for us that they preside. For they have not ascended to this high degree by their own virtue: but they have been put there by the hand of the Lord. « Commentary on the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans, XIII, 1
xx« It is not for us to inquire into what right and title a prince has to rule… and whether he has that of rightful succession and inheritance. Sermons on the First Epistle to Timothy, Sermon 46, vol. LIII
xxxvi Five years after turning away from Manichaeism and a year after his baptism, Augustine wrote De libero arbitrio, Of free will. In it, freedom of will is described as a means for God to punish man with the evils of the world. God modifies the initially perfect world to make it an instrument of justice exercised over man, justice rightly exercised since man is free and responsible.
xxxviiiH. Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of Modern Times. 2nd part. Theological Absolutism and Man’s Self-affirmation.
xxxixCf. Jacques Le Goff, La naissance du purgatoire.
xlOne thinks of the manifestly Gnostic texts of C.G. Jung, Seven Sermons to the Dead in Symbolic Life, Psychology and Religious Life, and ofHenry Corbin, Heavenly Earth and Body of Resurrection: from Mazdean Iran to Shî’ite Islam.
xliCf. Eric Voegelin, The New Science of Politics. « The Reformation clearly marked a period in Western history: that of a successful invasion of Western institutions by the Gnostic movements. (…) Calvin’s work can be considered as the first Koran deliberately Gnostic. »
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