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. »
The Greek word logos means « reason » or « discourse, speech ».
In Plato’s philosophy, the Logos is the Principle and the Word. It is also the Whole of all the Intelligible, as well as the link between the divine powers, and what founds their unity. Finally, it is the « intermediary » between man and God.
For Philo of Alexandria, a Neo-Platonist Jew, the Logos takes two forms. In God, the Logos is the divine Intelligence, the Eternal Thought, the Thoughtful Thought. In its second form, the Logos resides in the world, it is the Thought in action, the Thought realized outside God.
Written shortly after Philo’s active years, the Gospel of John says that « in the beginning » there was the Logos who was God, and the Logos who was with God i. There was also the Logos who was made fleshii.
Does this mean that there are three instances of the Logos? The Logos who is God, the Logos who is with Him and the Logos who became flesh?
In Christian theology, there is only one Logos. Yet the three divine ‘instances’ of the Logos quoted by John have also been personified as Father, Son, Spirit.
For the structuralist philosopher, it is possible to sum up these difficult theses in a pragmatic way. The Logos comes in three forms or aspects: Being, Thinking, Speaking. That what is, that what thinks and that what speaks. These three forms are, moreover, fundamental states, from which everything derives, and with which anybody can find an analogy pointing to the fundamental human condition (existence, intelligence, expression).
Philo, who is both a Jew and a Neoplatonist, goes quite far with the theory of the Logos, despite the inherent difficulty of reconciling the unity of God and the multiplication of His ‘instances’ (that the Kabbalah, much later on, called ‘sefirot‘). For Philo, the Logos is the totality of God’s Ideas. These Ideas act “like seals, which when approached to the wax produce countless imprints without being affected in any way, always remaining the same.”iii
All things that exist in the universe derive from an Idea, a « seal ». The Logos is the general seal whose imprint is the entire universe.iv
Philo’s Logos is not « personified ». The Logos is the Organ of God (both His Reason and His Word) playing a role in the Creation. Philo multiplies metaphors, analogies, drawing from divine, human and natural images. The Logos is creation, engendering, speech, conception, or flow, radiation, dilatation. Using a political image, God « reigns », the Logos « governs ».
Philo’s thinking about the Logos is complex and confusing. A 19th century commentator judged that « a tremendous confusion is at the basis of Philo’s system »v. Allegedly, Philo seems to mix up Logos (Word), Pneuma (Spirit), Sophia (Wisdom) and Epistemus (Knowledge).
Wisdom seems to play the same role in relation to the Logos as the thinking Thought (Spirit) of God plays in relation to the world of the Intelligible. Wisdom is the deep source of this world of the Intelligible, and at the same time it is identical with it.
There is no logical quirk in this paradox. Everything comes from the nature of the divine Spirit, in which no distinction can be made between « container » and « content ».
The Logos is thus both the Author of the Law and the Law itself, the spirit and the letter of its content. The Logos is the Law, and the Logos is also its enunciator, its revelator.vi
The Logos is, in the universe, the Divine brought back to unity. He is also the intermediary between this unity and God. Everything which constitutes the Logos is divine, and everything which is divine, apart from the essence of God, is the Logos.
These ideas, as has been said, have been sometimes described as a « philosophical hodgepodge »; they seem to demonstrate a « lack of rigor »vii on the part of Philo, according to certain harsh judgments.
However, what strikes me is that Philo and John, at about the same historical period, the one immediately preceding the destruction of the Second Temple of Jerusalem, and independently of each other, specified the contours of a theophany of the Logos, with clear differences but also deep common structures.
What is even more striking is that, over the centuries, the Logos of the Stoics, the Platonic Noos, the Biblical Angel of the Eternal, the Word of YHVH, the Judeo-Alexandrine Logos, or the ‘Word made flesh‘, the Messiah of the first Christian Church, have succeeded one another. All these figures offer their analogies and differences.
As already said, the main difficulty, however, for a thinker like Philo, was to reconcile the fundamental unity of God, the founding dogma of Judaism, and His multiple, divine emanations, such as the Law (the Torah), or His Wisdom (Hokhma).
On a more philosophical level, the difficulty was to think a Thought that exists as a Being, that also unfolds as a living, free, creative entity, and that finally ´reveals´ herself as the Word — in the world.
There would certainly be an easy (negative) solution to this problem, a solution that « modern » and « nominalist » thinkers, cut off from these philosophical roots, would willingly employ: it would be to simply send the Logos and the Noos, the Angel and the incarnate Wisdom, the Torah and the Gospel back into the dustbin of empty abstractions, of idealistic chimera.
I do not opt for such an easy solution. It seems to me contrary to all the clues accumulated by History.
I believe that the Spirit, as it manifests itself at a very modest level in each one of us, does not come from biochemical mechanisms, from synaptic connections. I believe it is precisely the opposite.
Our brain multiplies cellular and neuronal networks, in order to try to grasp, to capture at our own level, what the Spirit can let us see of its true, inner nature, its fundamental essence.
The brain, the human body, the peoples of different nations and, as such, the whole of humanity are, in their own unique way, immense collective ´antennae´, whose primary mission is to capture the diffuse signs of a creative Intelligence, and build a consciousness out of it.
The greatest human geniuses do not find their founding ideas at the unexpected crossroads of a few synapses, or thanks to haphazard ionic exchanges. Rather, they are « inspired » by a web of thoughtful Thoughts, in which all living things have been immersed since the beginning.
As a clue, I propose this image : When I think, I think that I am; then I think that this thought is part of a Thought that lives, and endless becomes; and I think of this Thought, which never stops thinking, never ceases to think, eternally, the Thought that continues « to be », and that never stops being without thinking, and that never stops thinking without being.
Can God have an ‘image’ or a ‘shadow’? According to the Torah, the answer to this question is doubly positive. The idea that God can have an ‘image’ is recorded in Genesis. The text associates ‘image’ (‘tselem‘) and ‘likeness’ (‘demut‘) with Genesis 1:26: בְּצַלְמֵנוּ כִּדְמוּתֵנוּ , b-tsalmenou ki-demutenou (‘in our image and likeness’), and repeats the word ‘image’ in Genesis 1:27 in two other ways: בְּצַלְמוֹ b-tsalmou (‘in his image’) and בְּצֶם אֱלֹהִים b-tselem elohim (‘in the image of Elohim’).
As for the fact that God may also have a ‘shadow’, this is alluded to in a verse from Exodusi, which quotes the name Betsalel, which literally means ‘in the shadow of God’1. The word צֵל tsel means ‘shadow’. This word has the same root as the word צֶלֶם tselem, which we have just seen means ‘image’. Moreover, tselem also has as its primary meaning: ‘shadow, darkness’, as in this verse: ‘Yes, man walks in darkness’, or ‘he passes like a shadow’ii.
One could therefore, theoretically, question the usual translation of Gen 1:26, and translate it as follows: « Let us make man in our shadow », or « in our darkness ». What is important here is, above all, to see that in Hebrew ‘image’, ‘shadow’ and ‘darkness’ have the same root (צֵל ).
This lexical fact seems highly significant, and when these words are used in relation to God, it is obvious that they cry out: « Interpret us! ».
Philo, the Jewish and Hellenophone philosopher from Alexandria, proposes this interpretation: « The shadow of God is the Logos. Just as God is the model of His image, which is here called shadow, so the image becomes the model of other things, as is showed at the beginning of the Law (Gen. 1:27) (…) The image was reproduced after God and man after the image, who thus took the role of model.”iii
Philo, through the use of the Greek word logos, through the role of mediator and model that the Logos plays between God and man, seems to prefigure in some way the Christian thesis of the existence of the divine Logos, as introduced by John: « In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God.”iv
Man is therefore only the shadow of a shadow, the image of an image, or the dream of a dream. For the word shadow can evoke a dream, according to Philo. He quotes the verse: « God will make himself known to him in a vision, that is, in a shadow, and not in all light » (Num. 12:6).
In the original Hebrew of this verse, we read not ‘shadow’ (tsal), but ‘dream’ (halom). Philo, in his commentary, therefore changed the word ‘dream’ for ‘shadow’. But what is important for us is that Philo establishes that the words ‘vision’, ‘dream’ and ‘shadow’ have similar connotations.
The text, a little further on, reveals a clear opposition between these words (‘vision’, ‘dream’) and the words ‘face-to-face’, ‘appearance’, ‘without riddles’, and ‘image’.
« Listen carefully to my words. If he were only your prophet, I, the Lord, would manifest myself to him in a vision, I would speak with him in a dream. But no: Moses is my servant; he is the most devoted of all my household. I speak to him face to face, in a clear apparition and without riddles; it is the very image of God that he contemplates. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant, against Moses? » v
God manifests Himself to a simple prophet in ambiguous and fragile ways, through a vision (ba-mar’ah בַבַּמַּרְאָה ) or a dream (ba–halom בַּחֲלוֹם ).
But to Moses, God appears ‘face to face’ (pêh el-pêh), ‘in a clear appearance and without riddles’ (v-mar’êh v-lo b-hidot וּמַרְאֶה וְלֹא בְחִידֹת ). In short, Moses contemplates ‘the image of God himself’ (temounah תְּמוּנָה).
Note here the curious repetition of the word mar’ah מַּרְאָה, ‘vision’, with a complete change in its meaning from negative to positive… God says in verse 6: « If he were only your prophet, I, the Lord, would manifest Myself to him in a vision (ba-mar’ah בַּמַּרְאָה ) ». And it is the same word (מַרְאֶה), with another vocalization, which he uses in verse 8: « I speak to him face to face, in a clear apparition (ou-mar’êh וּמַרְאֶה ) ». The online version of Sefarim translates the same word as ‘vision’ in verse 6 and ‘clear appearance’ in verse 8. The ‘vision’ is reserved for the simple prophets, and the ‘clear appearance’ for Moses.
How can this be explained?
Verse 6 says: ba-mar’ah, ‘in a vision’. Verse 8 says: ou-mar’eh, ‘and a vision’. In the first case God manifests himself ‘in‘ a vision. In the second case, God speaks with Moses, not ‘through’ a vision, but making Himself as « a vision ».
Moses has the great privilege of seeing God face to face, he sees the image of God. This image is not simply an image, or a ‘shadow’, because it ‘speaks’, and it is the very Logos of God, according to Philo.
Rashi is somewhat consistent with Philo’s point of view, it seems to me. He comments on this delicate passage as follows: « A vision and not in riddles. ‘Vision’ here means ‘clarity of speech’. I explain my words clearly to him and I don’t hide them in riddles like the ones Ye’hezqèl talks about: ‘Propose a riddle…’. (Ye’hezqèl 17, 2). I might have thought that the ‘vision’ is that of the shekhina. So it is written: ‘You cannot see my face’ (Shemoth 33:20) (Sifri). And he will contemplate the image of Hashem. It is the vision from behind, as it is written: ‘You will see me from behind’ (Shimot 33:23) (Sifri). »
If God only manifests Himself ‘in a vision’, it is because He does not ‘speak’. The important thing is not the vision, the image or the shadow of God, but His word, His Logos, the fact that God « speaks ». Read: פֶּה אֶל-פֶּה אֲדַבֶ-בּוֹ, וּמַרְאֶה pêh al-pêh adaber bo, ou-mar’êh: ‘I speak to him face to face, – a vision’.
It is necessary to understand: ‘I speak to him and I make him see clearly my word (my Logos, my Dabar)’…
Philo, a Hellenophone, probably gives the word Logos some Platonic connotations, which are not a priori present in the Hebrew word Dabar (דָּבָר). But Philo makes the strong gesture of identifying the Logos, the Image (of God) and Dabar.
Philo is also a contemporary of Jesus, whom his disciple John will call a few years later Logos and « Image » of God.
Between the Dabar of Moses and the Logos as Philo, John and Rashi understand it, how can we not see continuities and differences?
The Spirit (or the Word) is more or less incarnated. As in the ‘image’ and the ‘clear appearance’ of the Logos. Or as in being the Logos itself.
1In Hebrew, tsal means « shadow » and Tsalel : « shadow of God »
Not only prophets have visions. Poets also are « seers ». Thus, Henri Michaux. He has gone up to the « silent theater of the heights (…) towards the beyond that appears, disappears and reappears.”i
But what did Michaux really « see »?
The afterlife is not within everyone’s reach. One needs calm eyes, gentle nerves. Rare are the direct witnesses, those who have seen the beyond of the world, the infinite, acute, nascent, initial abyss, rising straight up beyond the heavens, effortlessly eluding all known peaks.
The effort is above all in coming back. The memory is overwhelmed. Intelligence wavers in its doubt. Faith is blind. Returning, whoever has seen it recognizes it here and there, in obscure verses, heard silences, allusive sentences.
In the middle of a page, a word, an echo perhaps, an infinitesimal resonance.
« Perhaps the heavens are opening up.”ii This is not a hypothesis, it is an observation. « An Auguste Presence came to the destitute.” The following question is not formal:
Michaux, who knows the weight of words, finally gives up and multiplies the « suspension points », as many points as it takes to equal the last line.
Perhaps they are more suitable than ‘unzipping’?
The poet takes the risk of words. He tries to say what he may not have seen, what he may have sensed. He embarks on a narrow path, in the Paris of the avenues, the city of lights. He calls for his help, the skilful writer, words in capital letters:
Capital letters, again, this is a serious matter. Michaux found his mistress in vision, without mescaline, — and he asks questions:
« To whom does the supernatural appear?
Commonly to children, not at all brilliant, far from the cities, from the walls. Not very enviable, one would not distinguish them, neither too studious, nor very pious, without any special quality, from a modest environment, knowing especially the discomfort, in a small lost village. They are not liars.”viii
But the appearance does not stop there. The vision is only a step. There is the rest. The healing, which strikes the crowds, and even the devious clergymen:
« And who heals? In whom does the supernatural healing take place? »
We are no longer in the realm of convention. Already in their afterlife.
« In a multi-religious country, while many pious people pray in vain near the tomb of a Catholic monk, as they themselves are, a Shiite woman who knows nothing about the Christian religion is healed in the moment (but does not convert). She had confidence and a faith as one should have it, overwhelming, a rare, exceptional treasure.”ix
Michaux wonders: « In whom exactly did she have faith? Secret.”x
Can « modern » people help to see things clearly?
« What about scientists?
One day perhaps, taking the embarrassing problem from another angle, science will find in the brain, thanks to a more precise location of a point in the organism that controls a self-healing function (under the effect of intense emotion), and will in turn approach the miracle with its own means and will even want to produce it coldly, in some cases replacing in its own way the exaltation of faith. Spoiling here, improving there in the unexpected, opening the door to new mysteries.”xi
Miracle, exaltation, unexpected, mystery: all the words point to still other questions. There is never an end to it. It’s better this way. The victories (in this case putative) of science would be, in this matter, pyrrhic. Or a miracle point nested at the bottom of the pineal gland. What if it is? Why does this point activate? Under the effect of an « intense emotion »? But where does this emotion come from? What creates it, what gives it its energy? The body is not an island. The soul is linked to the body, a little, and to the beyond, even more so, if we believe the « daughter of the mountain ».
Not that she said anything later. She discouraged questions. She avoided declarations of faith. Her silence still speaks.
The most remote historical traces of the appearance of monotheistic feeling date back to the time of Amenophis IV, born around 1364 BC. This Egyptian pharaoh, worshipper of the unique God Aten, took the name of Akhenaten, as a sign of the religious revolution he initiated in the Nile valley. The abbreviated fate of his monotheistic « heresy » is known.
Around two centuries later, monotheism reappeared in history with the strange figure of Melchisedech (in Hebrew מַלְכֵּי־צֶדֶק ), high priest of El-Elyon (‘God the Most High’) and king of Salem. It was Melchisedech who gave his blessing to Abram (Abraham), when Abram came to pay him homage and tribute.i
Coming long after Akhenaten, neither Melchisedech nor Abraham obviously « invented » monotheism. The monotheistic idea had already penetrated the consciousness of peoples for several centuries. But they can be credited with having embodied the first « archived » trace of it in the biblical text.
The pure, hard, monotheistic idea has an austere beauty, a shimmering, icy or burning one, depending on the point of view. Taken philosophically, it is the intuition of the One mingled with the idea of the Whole. This simplicity of conception and abstraction reduced to the essential have something restful and consoling about them. Without doubt, the mineral lines of the deserts helped to overshadow the confused and abundant vegetal multiplicity of animism or polytheism, which had blossomed in less severe, greener, landscapes.
A simple idea, monotheism has a revolutionary power. The idea of a single God inevitably leads to the idea of a universal God, which can disturb acquired habits, hinder power interests. In principle, the idea of the « universal » may also have as an unintended consequence the crush of more « local » cultures and traditions.
But Abraham and Moses were able to combine the idea of a single, transcendent, « universal » God with the idea of a « tribal », « national » God, committed to a “chosen” people as « Lord of Hosts », Yahweh Tsabaoth.
The covenant of a “universal” God with a particular, « chosen » people may seem a priori an oxymoron. The election of Israel seems to contradict the universal vocation of a God who transcends human divisions. There is one possible explanation, however. This seemingly contradictory idea was, according to all appearances, the very condition for its deployment and epigenesis, as witnessed in history. It was necessary for a specific people – rather than any particular people – to embody and defend the idea, before it was finally accepted and defended in the rest of the nations.
The monotheistic idea also leads, by an almost natural derivation, to the idea of a personal God, a God to whom man may speak and say « you », a God who also speaks, hears and answers, who may appear or remain silent, present all His glory, or remain desperately absent. The idea of a “personal” God, through its anthropomorphism, is opposed to that of an abstract God, an inconceivable, perpendicular, inalienable principle, transcending everything that the human mind can conceive. What could be more anthropomorphic, in fact, than the concept of « person »? Isn’t this concept, therefore, fundamentally at odds with the essence of a God who is absolutely « Other »?
When, within Judaism, a young village carpenter and rabbi, a good orator and versed in the Scriptures, appeared in Galilee two thousand years ago, Abrahamic monotheism took a seemingly new direction. The One God could also, according to Rabbi Yehoshua of Nazareth, become incarnate freely, « otherwise », through a new understanding of His revelation, His Essence, His Spirit.
But to be fair, from ancient times, other people of different lore had already been thinking about the idea of a Deity with multiple manifestations – without contradiction.
The Indian grammarian Yāska reports in his Nirukta, which is the oldest treatise on the language of the Veda, that according to the original Vedic authors, the deity could be represented by three gods, Savitri, Agni and Vâyu. Savitri means « producer » or « Father ». His symbol is the Sun. Agni, his « Son », has the Fire as his symbol. Vâyu is the Spirit, with Wind as its symbol.
The oldest historically recorded form in which the idea of the divine trinity appears is therefore based on an analogy, term by term, between the material world (the Sun, Fire and Wind) and the metaphysical world (the Father, Son and Spirit).
The Sanskritist Émile Burnouf reports that when the Vedic priest pours clarified butter on Fire (Agni), “Agni” then takes the name of « Anointed One » (in Sanskrit: akta).
Note that « Anointed » is translated in Hebrew as mashia’h, meaning « messiah ».
Agni, the Fire who became the Anointed One, becomes, at the moment of the « anointing », the very mediator of the sacrifice, the one who embodies its ultimate meaning.
Burnouf noted the structural analogy of the Vedic sacrifice with the figure of the Christic sacrifice. « The center from which all the great religions of the earth have radiated is therefore the theory of Agni, of which Christ Jesus was the most perfect incarnation.”ii
Agni, – universal paradigm, « mother idea »? Agni is for the Aryas the principle of all life. All the movements of inanimate things proceed from heat, and heat proceeds from the Sun, which is the « Universal Engine », but also the « Celestial Traveller ». During the Vedic sacrifice, a sacred fire is lit which is the image of the universal agent of Life, and by extension, the image of Thought, the symbol of the Spirit.
Long after the first Vedic prayers had been chanted to Savitri, Agni, Vâyu, some (Judeo-)Christians believers said in their turn and in their own way, even before the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem had occurred: « I believe in the Father, the Son and the Spirit ».
However this Trinitarian formula was admittedly not “Jewish”, since Judaism presented itself as fiercely monotheistic.
But from the point of view of its formal structure, we can say with some level of credibility that it was partly the result of Zoroastrian, Avestic and, more originally, Vedic influences.
In yet another cultural area, the Chinese, the ancient Trinitarian intuition of the divine is also proven. The highest gods of the Tao form a trinity, the « Three Pure Ones » (Sān Qīng , 三清 ).
The first member of the supreme triad is called the Celestial Venerable of the Original Beginning (元始天尊 Yuanshi Tianzun). This God has other names that it is interesting to list: Supreme God Emperor of Jade (玉皇上帝 Yuhuang Shangdi), Great God Emperor of Jade (玉皇大帝 Yuhuang Dadi), or Celestial Treasure (天寶 Tianbao) and finally God of Mystery (玄帝 Xuandi), which is an abbreviation of Supreme God Celestial Mystery (玄天上帝 Xuantian Shangdi).
From these various names it can be deduced that this God is at the « beginning », that He is at the « origin », that He is « supreme », that He is « mystery ».
By analogy with the Christian trinitarian system, this first God of the Taoist trinity could appear as the « Father » God.
The second member of the supreme triad, the Venerable Heavenly One of the Spiritual Treasure (靈寶天尊 Lingbao Tianzun), is also called Lord of the Way (道君 Daojun).
In Christianity, God the « Son » said of Himself that He is « the Way, the Truth, the Life ». The analogy of the « Son » with the « Lord of the Way » is obvious.
The third God of the supreme triad is the Venerated Heavenly One of the Divine Treasure (神寶天尊 Shenbao Tianzun). He is also called the Most High Patriarch Prince or the Old Lord of Supreme Height (太上老君 Taishang Laojun), better known as the Old Child (老子 Laozi).
In Christian symbolism, the Holy Spirit is represented by a dove, flying through the air. The analogy allows for a certain approximation of the Holy Spirit with the Lord of Supreme Height.
Vedism, Taoism and Christianity share, as can be seen, the intuition of a supreme and unique divine entity which diffracts into three representationsiii.
iii In my opinion, it may be possible to also find a possible equivalent to this trinitarian intuition in Judaism, with the Eternal (YHVH), the Torah and the Shekhinah. The Torah is « divine ». It is said that the Torah existed before the world was even created. And the Torah was also able to « incarnate » itself in some specific way. The Zohar ‘Hadach (Shir haShirim 74b) teaches that there are 600,000 letters in the Torah. If we do an exact count, we find that the Torah actually contains 304,805 letters. In any case, it is certain that the divine Torah has allowed itself to « incarnate » in a « certain number » of Hebrew letters… The Shekhinah also incarnates the divine « presence ». A single divine entity, therefore, and three representations.
The fables that people tell each other, the myths they construct for themselves, the stories that clothe their memory, help them to build their supposed identity, and enable them to distinguish themselves from other peoples.
Through the magic of words, « barbarians », « idolaters », « savages » and « infidels » appear in the imaginations of some peoples.
But with the hindsight of history and anthropology, we sometimes find strange similarities, disturbing analogies, between peoples who are so diverse, so distant, separated from each other by a priori ostracisms.
Many peoples resemble each other in that they all believe that they only are « unique », « special ». They believe that they are the only people in the world who are who they are, who believe in what they believe, who think what they think.
We can apply this observation to the religious fact.
The « monotheistic » religion, for example, has not appeared in a single culture, a single people. If the primacy of monotheistic worship is often associated with the ancient religion of the Hebrews, it is because we often forget that another form of monotheism was invented in Egypt by Amenophis IV (Akhenaten), several centuries before Abraham. Moses himself, according to Freud, but also according to the recent conclusions of some of the best informed Egyptologists, would have been, in his first life, a defrocked priest of the God Aten, and would have taken advantage of the Exodus to claim the laws and symbols of what was to define Judaism.
The idea of monotheism, far from being reserved for the Nile valley or the foothills of the Sinai, appeared in other cultures, in Vedic India or in the Avesta of ancient Iran.
In Max Müller’s Essay on the History of Religion (1879), which devotes a chapter to the study of the Zend Avesta, but also in Martin Haug’s Essays on the Sacred Language, Scriptures and Religion of the Parsis (Bombay, 1862), one finds curious and striking similarities between certain avestic formulas and biblical formulas.
In the Zend Avesta, we read that Zarathustra asked Ahura Mazda to reveal his hidden names. The God accepted and gave him twenty of them.
The first of these names is Ahmi, « I am ».
The fourth is Asha-Vahista, « the best purity ».
The sixth means « I am Wisdom ».
The eighth translates into « I am Knowledge ».
The twelfth is Ahura, « the Living One ».
The twentieth is Mazdao, which means: « I am He who is ».
It is easy to see that these formulas are taken up as they are in different passages of the Bible. Is it pure chance, an unexpected meeting of great minds or a deliberate borrowing? The most notable equivalence of formulation is undoubtedly « I am He who is », taken up word for word in the text of Exodus (Ex. 3:14).
Max Müller concludes: « We find a perfect identity between certain articles of the Zoroastrian religion and some important doctrines of Mosaism and Christianity.”
It is also instructive to note the analogies between the conception of Genesis in the Bible and the ideas that prevailed among the Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians or Indians about « Creation ».
Thus, in the first verse of Genesis (« In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth »), the verb « to create » is translated from the Hebrew בָּרַא, which does not mean « to create » in the sense of « to draw out of nothing », but rather in the sense of « to cut, carve, sculpt, flatten, polish », from a pre-existing substance. Similarly, the Sanskrit verb tvaksh, which is used to describe the creation of the world in the Vedic context, means « to shape, to arrange », as does the Greek poiein, which will be used in the Septuagint version.
Some proper nouns, too, evoke borrowings across language barriers. The name Asmodeus, the evil spirit found in the biblical book of Tobit, was certainly borrowed from Persia. It comes from the parsi, Eshem-dev , which is the demon of lust, and which is itself borrowed from the demon Aeshma-daeva, mentioned several times in the Zend Avesta.
Another curious coincidence: Zoroaster was born in Arran (in avestic Airayana Vaêga, « Seed of the Aryan »), a place identified as Haran in Chaldea, the region of departure of the Hebrew people. Haran also became, much later, the capital of Sabaism (a Judeo-Christian current attested in the Koran).
In the 3rd century BC, the famous translation of the Bible into Greek (Septuagint) was carried out in Alexandria. In the same city, at the same time, the text of the Zend Avesta was also translated into Greek. This proves that at that time there was a lively intellectual exchange between Iran, Babylonia and Judeo-Hellenistic Egypt.
It seems obvious that several millennia earlier, a continuous stream of influences and exchanges already bathed peoples and cultures, circulating ideas, images and myths between India, Persia, Mesopotamia, Judea and Egypt.
And the very names of these countries, if they mean so much to us, it is probably because, by contrast, the cultures of earlier, « pre-historic » ages have left precisely little trace. But it is easy to imagine that the thinkers, prophets and magi of the Palaeolithic also had an intuition of the Whole and the One.
In Egypt, two Coptic churches suffered suicide attacks during Palm Sunday in April 2017. This Christian feast, a week before Easter, recalls the day when Jesus, riding on a donkey, entered Jerusalem, welcomed by jubilant inhabitants, brandishing branches and palms as a sign of enthusiasm. Jesus was arrested shortly afterwards and crucified.
Jihadists came to Tanta and Alexandria. They blew themselves up in the midst of the crowd of the faithful. The globalized jihad preferably chooses weak targets, and seeks to provoke hatred and rage, to inflame resentment between peoples, to set religions against each other.
The policies of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, who had just been re-elected, undoubtedly had something to do with Daech’s radicalisation in that country. But many other, more distant, deeper causes contributed to this umpteenth attack.
The New York Times wrote an ambiguous and somewhat hypocritical editorial after the attack, an excerpt of which reads as follows: « The struggle against terrorism is not a ‘war’ that can be won if only the right strategy is found. It is an ongoing struggle against enormously complex and shifting forces that feed on despair, resentment and hatred, and have the means in a connected world to spread their venom far and wide.”i
For the columnist of the New York Times, « jihad » is not a « war » that could be won, for example, with a « good strategy ». It is not a « war », it is a continuous « struggle » against forces of « enormous complexity » that are constantly shifting and feeding on « despair, resentment and hatred ».
Not a word in the article, however, to attempt to shed light on this ‘complexity’ or to delve deeper into the origin of this ‘despair’, ‘resentment’ and ‘hatred’. The New York Times merely warns readers not to give in to despair, panic or hatred themselves. Not a word about the policies of the Western powers in this part of the world for more than a century. Not a word about the responsibility of countries like England or France for sharing the spoils of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War.
Not a word about decolonization, after the Second World War, or the consequences of the Cold War. The self-serving involvement of powers such as the United States and the USSR is not analyzed.
Nor, of course, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The collapse of Libya, facilitated by a coalition of Western countries, does not lend itself to any analysis either.
The New York Times cannot give a history lesson, and recapitulate all the woes of the world in each of its editorials. But the focus of this particular article on the « despair », « hatred » and « resentment » of the jihadists deserves at least the beginnings of an explanation.
Writing about these subjects is difficult, but it is not « extraordinarily complex ». Even a Donald Trump, in the midst of an election campaign, and with known success, was able to address some aspects of it through tweets, and to point to the direct responsibility of the Bushes, father and son, in this never-ending « fight ».
The White House spokesman had to apologize publicly for stating that even Hitler did not use chemical weapons during the Second World War. This statement, both fanciful and outrageous, was supposed to underline the seriousness of Assad’s crimes and to justify an increase in the bombing of Syria by the United States, increasing the general confusion and making it even more difficult to perceive a possible political outcome in that part of the world.
In a few centuries, perhaps, the distant descendants of the Western voters in whose name these policies were implemented will analyze the responsibilities and judge the strategies deployed in the Middle East throughout the last century, after the launch of the « Great Game » deployed for the greater good of the British Empire.
Today, this Empire is no more. The few crumbs that remain, like Gibraltar, could prove embarrassing to the British ultra-nationalists who dream of Brexit, and who are trying to regain the glory of yesteryear in splendid independence.
Let us try a little utopia. Tomorrow, or in a few centuries’ time, people may decide to put an end to the « long » history and its heavy consequences. All we have to do is look back to the depths of the past, to see the layering of plans, the differentiation of ages. Tomorrow, the entire modern era will be nothing more than an outdated and abolished moment of a bygone past, and an exorbitant testimony to the folly of mankind.
Islam has only thirteen centuries of existence, Christianity twenty centuries and Mosaic Judaism about thirty-two centuries.
Egypt, by contrast, is not lacking in memory. From the top of the pyramids, well over forty centuries contemplate the suburbs of Cairo. Two thousand years before the appearance of Judaism, Ancient Egypt already possessed a very elaborate religion, in which the essential question was not that of « monotheism » and « polytheism », but rather the profound dialectic of the One (the Creator, the original God), and the Multiple (the myriad of His manifestations, of His names).
In the Texts of the sarcophagi, which are among the oldest written texts of humanity, we read that the Creator God declared: « I have not commanded (humanity) to do evil (jzft); their hearts have disobeyed my words.”ii
The Egyptologist Erik Hornung gives this interpretation: Human beings are responsible for this evil. They are also responsible for their birth, and for the darkness that allows evil to enter their hearts.
The gods of Egypt can be terrifying, unpredictable, but unlike men, they do not want evil. Even Set, the murderer of Osiris, was not the symbol of absolute evil, but only the necessary executor of the world order.
« The battle, the constant confrontation, the confusion, and the questioning of the established order, actions in which Set engaged, are necessary characteristics of the existing world and of the limited disorder that is essential to a living order. Gods and men must, however, see to it that disorder never comes to overthrow justice and order; this is the meaning of their common obligation towards Maat.»iii
The concept of Maat in ancient Egypt represents the order of the world, the right measure of things. It is the initial and final harmony, the fundamental state willed by the Creator God. « Like the wounded and perpetually healed ‘eye of Horus’, Maat symbolizes this primary state of the world.”iv
The Egyptians considered Maat to be a substance that makes the whole world « live », that makes the living and the dead, gods and men « live ». The Texts of the Sarcophagi say that the gods « live on Maat« .
The idea of Maat is symbolized by a seated goddess wearing the hieroglyph of an ostrich feather on her head. Pharaoh Ramses II is represented offering this symbolic image of Maat to the God Ptah.
Maat‘s offering has a strong charge of meaning. What the God Ptah wants is to be known in the hearts of men, because it is there that the divine work of creation can acquire its true meaning.
Maat emanated from the Creator God at the time of creation. But it is through men that Maat must return to God. In the Egyptian religion, Maat represents the original « link » or « covenant » between God and man. It is this « link », this « covenant », that must be made to live with Maat.
If men turn away from this « covenant », if men remain silent, if they show indifference towards Maat, then they fall into the « non-existent », – according to the ancient Egyptian religion. This silence, this indifference, only testifies to their nothingness.
The Coptic bodies horribly torn apart by the explosions in Alexandria and Tanta are like the dismembered body of Osiris.
By the strength of her spirit, by the power of her « magic », Isis allowed the resurrection of Osiris. Similarly, the Palms announce Easter and the resurrection of God.
What could be the current global metaphor that would be equivalent to the « resurrection » of Osiris or the « resurrection » celebrated at Easter?
What current word could fill the absence of meaning, the abysmal absurdity, the violence of hatred, in this world?
Egyptian blood flowed again in the Nile Delta, and bodies were violently dismembered.
Where is the Isis who will come to resurrect them?
The ancient Greeks were not content with their twelve principal gods and a host of minor gods. They also worshipped an « Unknown God » (Agnostos Theos, Ἄγνωστος Θεός ).
Paul of Tarsus, in his efforts to evangelise, was aware of this and decided to take advantage of it. He made a speech on the Agora of Athens:
« Athenians, in every respect you are, I see, the most religious of men. Walking through your city and considering your sacred monuments, I found an altar with the inscription: « To the unknown god ». Well, what you worship without knowing it, I have come to tell you. »i
He had little success, however, with the Athenians. Perhaps his rhetoric was not sufficiently sharp. The tradition of the « unknown God » was, it is true, already very old, and known far beyond Greece. For example, in India, in the texts of the Vedas, some two thousand years before Paul discovered it in Athens.
The Vedic priests prayed to a God whom they called « Which? », which was a very grammatical solution to signifying their ignorance, and a subtle way of opening wide the doors of the possible.
The God « Which » alone represented all the known and unknown gods with a single interrogative pronoun. Remarkable economy of means. Strong evocative power, subsuming all possible gods, real or imaginary, gods of all ages, peoples, cultures.
The Vedic priests used to repeat as a refrain: « To which God shall we offer the holocaust? », which may be in a way equivalent to saying: « To the God ‘Which’, we shall we offer the holocaust…”ii
The Vedas made of this « question » a repeated invocation, and a litany simultaneously addressed to the one God, the only Sovereign of the universe, the only life-giving God, the only God above all gods, and indeed « blessed » by them all.
« In the beginning appears the golden seed of light.
He alone was the sovereign-born of the world.
He fills the earth and the sky.
– To which God shall we offer the holocaust?
He who gives life and strength,
him whose blessing all the gods themselves invoke,
immortality and death are only its shadow!
– To which God shall we offer the holocaust?
He whose powerful gaze stretched out over these waters,
There are several monotheistic religions that claim to know and state the name of the God they claim as their God. But if this God is indeed the one, supreme God, then is not His Name also essentially One? And this Name must be far above all the names given by men, it obviously transcends them. But many religions, too self-assured, do not hesitate to multiply the names « revealed », and to this unique God they give not one name, but three, ten, thirteen, ninety-nine or a thousand.
A God whose « reign », « power » and « glory » fill heaven and earth, no doubt the epithets and attributes can be multiplied, giving rise to the multiplicity of His putative names.
It seems to me that in the Veda, the idea of God, the idea of a God as being too elusive in the nets of language, perhaps comes closest to its essence when named as a question.
We will say again, no doubt, long into the distant future, and beyond the millennia, with the Vedas: Which God?
A French, self-styled “philosopher”, Michel Onfray, affirmed recently that « the Judeo-Christian civilisation is in a terminal phase.”i
His statement is ruthless, definitive, without appeal: « Judeo-Christianity has reigned for almost two millennia. An honourable length of time for a civilisation. The civilization that will replace it will also be replaced. A question of time. The ship is sinking: we still have to sink with elegance »ii.
Onfray uses the metaphor of « sinking ». The ship “sinks”. This is not, I think, a good image to depict « decadence ». The sinking is sudden, rapid, terminal. Decadence is long, soft, indecisive, and sometimes it even generates rebirths.
It is precisely the possible rebirth of our civilization that deserves reflection. History is teeming with « decadent » periods. Rebirths are rarer, but possible, and merit attention.
A century ago, Oswald Spengler famously glossed over The Decline of the West, a two-volume book published in 1918 and 1922.
In the previous century, Nietzsche had powerfully erupted against the « decadence » of Western culture. He had a piercing vision, and according to him, Euripides was the first to detect the premises of this, with the « decadence of the Greek tragedy », which was a sign of what was to follow.
The metaphor of decadence, as we can see, easily flourishes under the pen of « thinkers ».
But what seems more interesting to me, assuming that decadence is effective, is what may happen afterwards. After the darkening of the misleading suns, is a new dawn conceivable? After the general collapse, what renewal is possible? Where to find the forces, the energy, the resources, the ideas, to invent another world?
Onfray, a convinced atheist, and aggressively anti-Christian, thinks on this subject that Islam has a role to play. « Islam is strong with a planetary army made up of countless believers ready to die for their religion, for God and his Prophet.”iii
Alongside this strength, what Jesus represents is only « a fable for children », says Onfray.
In Moscow, when I lived there, on assignment for UNESCO, I sometimes met real tough Russians, of the kind FSB or ex-KGB, who spoke directly : » You Westerners, you are like children.”
Is Russia herself decadent? I don’t know. What is certain is that Russians are proud of their history and geography. They stopped the Mongol invasions, beat Napoleon, resisted at Stalingrad, and hunted Hitler down in his bunker. And their country covers eleven time zones, giving meaning to the political and philosophical utopia of a « Eurasia » of which Russia would be the soul.
The West, condemned by Mr. Onfray to its impending demise, also has some occasions for pride. It has a number of inventions, several masterpieces, and social and political institutions, which are apparently healthier and more « democratic » than elsewhere. And yet, decadence is on the horizon, says Mr. Onfray.
That may be possible. There are some worrying signs. But the world is changing fast, and it is shrinking rapidly, as we all know. The metaphor of decadence, because it is a metaphor, is not very original. What is most lacking today is not to shed crocodile tears over the past, but to propose new ideas, a new breath of fresh air, not for the benefit of the « West », but on a whole human scale. The world needs a « great narrative », a global vision, and a credible utopia, for urgent global issues, such as that of a world union of governments, and finances fair taxation, on a global scale. “Childish dreams” as would say FSB guys?
Planet Earth is overpopulated, in a state of accelerated compression. Massive urbanization, climate change, and the phenomenal impoverishment of the world’s fauna and flora deserve a reflection of planetary scope.
The challenges are also economic and social. The 4th industrial revolution has begun. Massive unemployment due to the ubiquitous applications of artificial intelligence, to large-scale robotization, to deficient or misguided policies based without shame on misinformation or systematic lies, to sidereal inequalities: all the components of a global civil war are there, in potency.
Unless an astounding, superior, unheard of idea emerges, bearing a common vision for Humankind as a whole.
Yesterday, socialism, communism, the idea of equality, fraternity or solidarity could make the « masses » dream for a few decades. On the other hand, conservatism, individualism, capitalism, entrepreneurial freedom, have played their cards in the world liar’s poker.
What does the future hold? More and more conservatism, capitalism and individualism? Or openly fascist forms of social control? We know today more than yesterday the limits, the deviations, the diversions and excesses of the old ideals.
Threats are rising on all sides. The old ideologies have failed. What can be done?
Humanity must become aware of its nature and its strength. It must become aware of its destiny. Humanity has a vocation for ultra-humanity, surpassing itself in a new synthesis, a new emergence, a mutation of world civilization.
General unemployment, for example, could be excellent news: it signals the assured end of the current model, the establishment of a universal income, and the end of predatory capitalism. Billions of unemployed and increasingly educated people cannot be ignored. They will not let themselves starve at the doors of banks and ultra-rich ghettos. There is bound to be a reaction.
The immense and global massa damnata, created by a lawless capitalism, will necessarily regain « common » control over the world’s wealth, which is immense but now monopolized by the 0.01%, and will find a way to distribute it equitably in order to provide a human income for all.
The enormous amounts of time freed up by the « end of work » will then be able to be mobilized to do everything that machines, algorithms and capital cannot do: better educate, care for people, freely invent, really create, humanely socialize, sustainably develop, obviously love.
The promiscuity of religions, races and peoples will impose – by force – a new ultra-human, meta-philosophical, meta-religious civilization.
Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, will have to move together to a higher level of understanding of their respective doctrines, to reach their essential and already common core, the unique core of what still stands as the “mystery” of the universe.
All this will happen in the coming decades. Let there be no doubt about it. Not that men will become wiser. But the osmotic pressure of necessity will make the eyes open, make the scales fall off, will circumcise the minds.
iMichel Onfray.Décadence. De Jésus au 11 septembre, vie et mort de l’Occident. Flammarion. 2017
Aristotle says that happiness lies in contemplationi. Contemplation is for man the highest possible activity. It allows him to reach an otherwise unreachable level of consciousness, by fully mobilizing the resources of his own « noos ».
Greek philosophy places the « noos » or “noûs” (νοῦς ) well above the « logos » (λόγος), just as it privileges intuition over reason.
The νοῦς represents the faculty of vision, contemplation, – of the mind.
The word contemplation comes from the Latin templum, which originally means « the square space delimited by the augur in the sky and on earth, within which he collects and interprets omens ».ii
By extension, the templum can mean the entire sky (templa caeli, literally: « the temples of the sky »), but also the infernal regions, or the plains of the sea.
« To contemplate » initially means, therefore, « to look at the sky », — in order to watch for signs of the divine will.
Christianity has not hesitated to value the idea of contemplation, even though it is borrowed from Greek and Latin « paganism ». S. Augustine proposed a classification of the degrees of growth and consciousness of the soul. In a scale of seven levels, he places contemplation at the pinnacleiii.
Degree 1: The soul « animates » (plants).
Degree 2 : The soul « feels and perceives » (animals).
Degree 3 : The soul produces « knowledge, reason and the arts » (men).
Degree 4: The soul gains access to the « Virtus » (virtue, moral sense).
Degree 5: The soul obtains « Tranquillitas » (a state of consciousness in which death is no longer feared).
Degree 6: The soul reaches the « Ingressio » (« the approach »).
Degree 7 : The soul surrenders to the « Contemplatio » (the final « vision »).
Ingressio implies an appetite for knowledge and understanding of higher realities. The soul directs its gaze upwards, and from then on, nothing agitates it or distracts it from this search. It is taken by an appetite to understand what is true and sublime (Appetitio intellegendi ea quae vere summeque sunt).
At the very top of this ladder of consciousness is « contemplation », that is, the « vision of the divine ».
Modern thought is rather incapable of accounting for this « contemplation » or « vision ». But this does not prevent some “modern” thinkers from being somewhat titillated by the general idea of contemplation.
For example, Gilles Deleuze said a few words about contemplation in one of his courses, -though in a rather clumsy style, which I am rendering here as faithfully as possible: « This is exactly what Plotinus tells us: everything rejoices, everything rejoices in itself, and it rejoices in itself because it contemplates the other. You see, – not because it rejoices in itself. Everything rejoices because it contemplates the other. Everything is a contemplation, and that is what makes everything happy. That is to say, joy is full contemplation. Joy rejoices in itself as its contemplation is filled. And of course it is not itself that joy contemplates. As joy contemplates the other thing, it fills itself up. The thing fills with itself as it contemplates the other thing. And he [Plotinus] says: and not only animals, not only souls, but you and I, we are self-filled contemplations. We are small joys.”iv
“Self-filled contemplations »? Small joys »? Is that it?
Deleuze is far more modest in his ambition than any past auguries, or Augustine! Quite shy of ever contemplating the divine!
From this, I infer that ´modernity´ is not well equipped, no doubt, to take up the thread of a meditation that has continuously obsessed seers since the dawn of humanity.
The shamans of the Palaeolithic, in the cave of the Pont d’Arc, known as the Chauvet cave, painted inspired metaphors by the glow of trembling torches. From which imagined vision, from which cervical lobe, did their inspiration come from?
The prophets of the Aurignacian « contemplated » under their fingers the appearance of « ideas » with a life of their own… They also saw the power that they had received, – to create worlds, and to share them, beyond tenths of millennia.
These ideas, these worlds, come now to move us, forty thousand years later.
How many “images” our own “modernity”, how many contemporary “ideas”, I ask, will still « move » humanity in forty thousand years from now?
There are five elements (Earth, Water, Fire, Air, Ether), and the human body has five parts that correspond to them. Between the feet and the knees is the level of the Earth. Between the knees and the anus is the level of Water. Between the anus and the heart, that of Fire. Between the heart and the eyebrows, that of Air. Between the eyebrows and the top of the skull, the Ether reigns.
That is not all. These five elements and these five parts of the body have divine correspondences.
Brahman rules the Earth, Viṣṇu Water, Rudra the Fire, Iṥvara Air and Ṥiva Ether.
What does this tight network of disparate relationships imply about the mutual relationships of these five Gods?
Iṥvara is the « Supreme Lord », but it is only one of Brahman‘s manifestations. If Brahman is the ultimate cosmic reality, why is it found between the feet and the knees, rather than at the top of the skull?
These questions are interesting, but they do not touch the essence of the problem. Symbolic systems have their own logic, which is an overall logic. It aims to grasp a Whole, to grasp a meaning of a higher order. What is important is to understand the general movement of symbolic thought, to catch its essential aim.
For example, let us consider the symbolism of the number 3 in the Vedic texts, – the symbolism of the triad.
« Three are the worlds, three are the Vedas, three are the functions of the Rite, all three are ‘three’. Three are the Fires of Sacrifice, three are the natural qualities. And all these triads are based on the three phonemes of the syllable AUṀ. Whoever knows this triad, to which we must add the nasal resonance, knows that on which the entire universe is woven. That which is truth and supreme reality.”i
The idea of the triad, which may appear a priori as nothing more than a systemic tic, refers in the Veda to a deeper idea, that of trinity.
The most apparent divine trinity in the Veda is that of Brahman, the Creator, Viṣṇu, the Protector and Ṥiva, the Destroyer.
Here is a brief theological-poetical interpretation, in which we will note the symphonic interpenetration of multiple levels of interpretation:
« Those who desire deliverance meditate on the Whole, the Brahman, the syllable AUṀ. In phoneme A, the first part of the syllable, Earth, Fire, Rig Veda, the exclamation « Bhūr » and Brahman, the creator, are born and will dissolve. In phoneme U, second part of the syllable, Space, Air, Yajur-Veda, the exclamation « Bhuvaḥ » and Viṣṇu, the Protector, are born and will dissolve. In the phoneme Ṁ are born and will dissolve Heaven, Light, Sama-Veda, the exclamation « Suvar » and Ṥiva, the Lord.”ii
In a unique, single syllable, the Word, the Vedas, the Worlds, the Gods are woven from the same knots, three times knotted.
Why three, and not two, four, five or six?
Two would be too simple, a metaphor for combat or the couple. Four forms two couples. Five is a false complexity and is only the addition of a couple and a triad. Six represents a couple of triads.
The idea of Three is the first simple idea, which comes after the idea of One, – the One from which everything comes, but about which nothing can be said. Three, in its complex simplicity, constitutes a kind of fundamental paradigm, combining the idea of unity and that of duality in a higher unity.
Long after the Vedas, Christianity also proposed a Trinity, that of the Creator God, the Word and the Spirit. It might be stimulating to try to see possible analogies between the Word and Viṣṇu, or between the Spirit and Ṥiva, but where would this ultimately lead us? To the conclusion that all religions come together?
It also seems very interesting to turn to the uncompromising monotheism(s), which apparently refuse any « association » with the idea of the One. Judaism, as we know, proclaims that God is One. But rabbinism and Kabbalah have not hesitated to multiply divine attributes or emanations.
The God of Genesis is a creator, in a way analogous to the Brahman. But the Bible also announces a God of Mercy, which recalls Viṣṇu, and it also proclaims the name of Yahweh Sabbaoth, the Lord of Hosts, which could well correspond to Ṥiva, the Lord Destroyer.
One could multiply comparable examples and use them to make the hypothesis that rather recent religions, such as Judaism or Christianity, owe much to the experience of previous millennia. Anyone concerned with paleo-anthropology knows that the depths of humanity’s times possess even greater secrets.
But the important point I would like to stress here is not, as such, the symbol of the triad or the Trinitarian image.
They are, in the end, in the face of the mystery itself, only images, metaphors.
The important thing is not the metaphor, but what it leads us to seek.
Perhaps another triadic metaphor will help us to understand the very nature of this search:
« AUṀ is the bow, the mind is the arrow, and the Brahman is the target.”iii
More than two millennia B.C., in the middle of the Bronze Age, so-called « Indo-Aryan » peoples were settled in Bactria, between present-day Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. They left traces of a civilisation known as the Oxus civilisation (-2200, -1700). Then they migrated southwards, branching off to the left, towards the Indus plains, or to the right, towards the high plateau of Iran.
These migrant peoples, who had long shared a common culture, then began to differentiate themselves, linguistically and religiously, without losing their fundamental intuitions. This is evidenced by the analogies and differences between their respective languages, Sanskrit and Zend, and their religions, the religion of the Vedas and that of Zend-Avesta.
In the Vedic cult, the sacrifice of the Soma, composed of clarified butter, fermented juice and decoctions of hallucinogenic plants, plays an essential role. The Vedic Soma has its close equivalent in Haoma, in Zend-Avesta. The two words are in fact the same, if we take into account that the Zend language of the ancient Persians puts an aspirated h where the Sanskrit puts an s.
Soma and Haoma have a deep meaning. These liquids are transformed by fire during the sacrifice, and then rise towards the sky. Water, milk, clarified butter are symbols of the cosmic cycles. At the same time, the juice of hallucinogenic plants and their emanations contribute to ecstasy, trance and divination, revealing an intimate link between the chemistry of nature, the powers of the brain and the insight into divine realities.
The divine names are very close, in the Avesta and the Veda. For example, the solar God is called Mitra in Sanskrit and Mithra in Avesta. The symbolism linked to Mitra/Mithra is not limited to identification with the sun. It is the whole cosmic cycle that is targeted.
An Avestic prayer says: « In Mithra, in the rich pastures, I want to sacrifice through Haoma.”i
Mithra, the divine « Sun », reigns over the « pastures » that designate all the expanses of Heaven, and the entire Cosmos. In the celestial « pastures », the clouds are the « cows of the Sun ». They provide the milk of Heaven, the water that makes plants grow and that waters all life on earth. Water, milk and Soma, all liquid, have their common origin in the solar, celestial cows.
The Soma and Haoma cults are inspired by this cycle. The components of the sacred liquid (water, clarified butter, vegetable juices) are carefully mixed in a sacred vase, the samoudra. But the contents of the vase only take on their full meaning through the divine word, the sacred hymn.
« Mortar, vase, Haoma, as well as the words coming out of Ahura-Mazda‘s mouth, these are my best weapons.”ii
Soma and Haoma are destined for the Altar Fire. Fire gives a life of its own to everything it burns. It reveals the nature of things, illuminates them from within by its light, its incandescence.
« Listen to the soul of the earth; contemplate the rays of Fire with devotion.”iii
Fire originally comes from the earth, and its role is to make the link with Heaven, as says the Yaçna.iv
« The earth has won the victory, because it has lit the flame that repels evil.”v
Nothing naturalistic in these images. These ancient religions were not idolatrous, as they were made to believe, with a myopia mixed with profound ignorance. They were penetrated by a cosmic spirituality.
« In the midst of those who honor your flame, I will stand in the way of Truth « vi said the officiant during the sacrifice.
The Fire is stirred by the Wind (which is called Vāyou in Avestic as in Sanskrit). Vāyou is not a simple breath, a breeze, it is the Holy Spirit, the treasure of wisdom.
» Vāyou raises up pure light and directs it against the dark ones.”vii
Water, Fire, Wind are means of mediation, means to link up with the one God, the « Living » God that the Avesta calls Ahura Mazda.
« In the pure light of Heaven, Ahura Mazda exists. »viii
The name of Ahura (the « Living »), calls the supreme Lord. This name is identical to the Sanskrit Asura (we have already seen the equivalence h/s). The root of Asura is asu, “life”.
The Avestic word mazda means « wise ».
« It is you, Ahura Mazda (« the Living Wise One »), whom I have recognized as the primordial principle, the father of the Good Spirit, the source of truth, the author of existence, living eternally in your works.”ix
Clearly, the « Living » is infinitely above all its creatures.
« All luminous bodies, the stars and the Sun, messenger of the day, move in your honor, O Wise One, living and true. »x
I call attention to the alliance of the three words, « wise », « living » and « true », to define the supreme God.
The Vedic priest as well as the Avestic priest addressed God in this way more than four thousand years ago: « To you, O Living and True One, we consecrate this living flame, pure and powerful, the support of the world.”xi
I like to think that the use of these three attributes (« Wise », « Living » and « True »), already defining the essence of the supreme God more than four thousand years ago, is the oldest proven trace of an original theology of monotheism.
It is important to stress that this theology of Life, Wisdom and Truth of a supreme God, unique in His supremacy, precedes the tradition of Abrahamic monotheism by more than a thousand years.
Four millennia later, at the beginning of the 21st century, the world landscape of religions offers us at least three monotheisms, particularly assertorical: Judaism, Christianity, Islam…
« Monotheisms! Monotheisms! », – I would wish wish to apostrophe them, – « A little modesty! Consider with attention and respect the depth of the times that preceded the late emergence of your own dogmas!”
The hidden roots and ancient visions of primeval and deep humanity still show to whoever will see them, our essential, unfailing unity and our unique origin…
The world would have been created about 6000 years ago, according to Jewish tradition. However, modern science estimates that the Big Bang took place 13.8 billion years ago. These both claims seem contradictory. But it is easy to retort that the biblical years could just be metaphors. Moreover, the alleged age of the Big Bang is itself questionable. Our universe may have had earlier forms of existence, impossible to observe from our present position in space-time, because the cosmological horizon forms an impenetrable barrier.
Science has its own intrinsic limits. It can definitely not go beyond the walls of the small cosmological jar in which we are enclosed, apparently. What about the meta-cosmic oceans which undoubtedly exist beyond the horizons perceived by current science?
For those who nevertheless seek to contemplate the possibility of origins, there are other ways of meditation and reflection. Among these is the exploration of the depth of the human soul, which in a sense goes beyond the dimensions of the cosmological field.
When Abraham decided to emigrate from Ur in Chaldea, around the 12th century BC, it was already more than two thousand years that Egypt observed a religion turned towards the hope of life after death. Ancient Egyptians worshiped a unique God, Sovereign of the Universe, Creator of the world, Guardian of all creation. Archaeological traces of funerary rites testify to this, which have been discovered in Upper Egypt, and which date from the 4th millennium BC.
But can we go even further back into the past of mankind?
Can we question the traces of prehistoric religions in order to excavate what is meta-historical, and even meta-cosmic?
In the caves of Chou-Kou-Tien, or Zhoukoudian according to the Pinyin transcription, 42km from Beijing, archaeologists (including Pierre Teilhard de Chardin) discovered the remains of hominids in 1926. They were given the name Sinanthropus pekinensis, then Homo erectus pekinensis. Dating is estimated at 780,000 years. These hominids mastered hunting, tool making and fire. They managed to live for hundreds of thousands of years and to face successive periods of glaciation and warming. The successive geological strata that contain their remains and those of animals from those distant times bear witness to this.
The geological earth is like a memorial and trans-generational Noah’s Ark.
Skulls have been found at the Chou-Kou-Tien site, but none of the other bones of the human skeleton. According to some interpretations, these are therefore the remains of cannibal feasts, carried out for religious purposes.
“The bodies had been decapitated after death, buried until they had decomposed, and the heads were then carefully preserved for ritual purposes, doubtless, as in Borneo today, because in them it was supposed that soul’substance resided having the properties of a vitalizing agent. As the skulls show signs of injuries they may have been those of victims who had been killed and their crania broken open in order to extract the brain for sacramental consumption. If this were so, probably they represent the remains of cannibal feasts, organized cannibalism in that case having been an established feature of the cult of the dead in the Mid-Pleistocene in North China in which the cutting off and preservation of the head, skull or scalp was a prominent feature during or after the sacred meal, either to extract its soul substance or as a trophy.”i
This theory takes on more weight if we consider a number of other discoveries in other parts of the world.
In the caves of Ofnet in Bavaria, 33 prehistoric skulls have been discovered, arranged « like eggs in a basket », as one of the discoverers put it. Of these skulls, 27 of them were covered in red ochre and facing west. It has been established that the skulls were detached from the bodies with the help of carved flints.
The manner in which the skulls were detached from the skeleton and the traces of trepanation suggest that the brains were ritually extracted and probably consumed during funeral meals, as a sign of « communion » with the dead.
This cannibalism would therefore not be directed against enemy hordes. Moreover, on the same site, 20 children’s skeletons adorned with snail shells, 9 women’s skeletons with deer tooth necklaces, and 4 adult men’s skeletons were found. This reinforces the idea of funeral ceremonies.
In Jericho, 7 skulls were found whose features had been cast in plaster and then carefully decorated with shells (cowries and bivalves representing the eyelids, vertical slits simulating the pupil of the eye).ii
In Switzerland, in the Musterian Caves of Drachenloch, a set of bear heads looking to the east has been found, and in Styria, in Drachenhöhle, a Musterian pit with 50 bear femurs also looking to the east.
Similar traces of ritual burial have been found in Moustier (Dordogne), La Chapelle-aux-Saints (Corrèze) and La Ferrassie (Dordogne).iii
It can be deduced from these and many other similar facts, that in the Palaeolithic, for probably a million years, and perhaps more, the cult of the dead was observed according to ritual forms, involving forms of religious belief. Certain revealing details (presence of tools and food near the buried bodies) allow us to infer that hominids in the Palaeolithic believed in survival after death.
In these caves and caverns, in China or Europe, Palaeolithic men buried their dead with a mixture of veneration, respect, but also fear and anxiety for their passage into another world.
From this we can deduce that, for at least a million years, humanity has been addressing an essential question: what does death mean for the living? How can man live with the thought of death?
For a thousand times a thousand years these questions have been stirring the minds of men. Today’s religions, which appeared very late, what sort of answers do they bring ?
From a little distanced point of view, they bring among other things divisions and reciprocal hatreds, among peoples packed into the narrow anthropological space that constitutes our cosmic vessel.
None of today’s religions can reasonably claim the monopoly of truth, the unveiling of mystery. It is time to return to a deeper, more original intuition.
All religions should take as their sacred duty the will to ally themselves together, to face in common the mystery that surpasses them entirely, encompasses them, and transcends them.
iE.O. James, Prehistoric Religion, (1873), Barnes and Nobles, New York, 1957, p.18
iiKinyar. Antiquity, vol 27, 1953, quoted by E.O. James, Prehistoric Religion, (1873), Barnes and Nobles, New York, 1957
iiiE.O. James, Prehistoric Religion, (1873), Barnes and Nobles, New York, 1957
The high antiquity of the Zend language, contemporary to the language of the Vedas, is well established. Eugène Burnoufi even considers that it presents certain characteristics of anteriority, which the vocal system testifies to. But this thesis remains controversial. Avestic science was still in its infancy in the 19th century. It was necessary to use conjectures. For example, Burnouf tried to explain the supposed meaning of the name Zarathustra, not without taking risks. According to him, zarath means « yellow » in zend, and uchtra, « camel ». The name of Zarathustra, the founder of Zoroastrianism, would thus mean: « He who has yellow camels »?
Burnouf, with all his young science, thus contradicts Aristotle who, in his Treatise on Magic, says that the word Ζωροάστρην (Zoroaster) means « who sacrifices to the stars ».
It seems that Aristotle was right. Indeed, the old Persian word Uchtra can be related to the Indo-European word ashtar, which gave « astre » in French and « star » in English. And zarath can mean « golden ». Zarathustra would then mean « golden star », which is perhaps more appropriate to the founder of a thriving religion.
These questions of names are not so essential. Whether he is the happy owner of yellow camels, or the incarnation of a star shining like gold, Zoroaster is above all the mythical author of the Zend Avesta, of which the Vendidad and the Yaçna are part.
The name Vendidad is a contraction of Vîdaêvo dâta, « given against demons (dêvas) ».
The Yaçna (« sacrifice with prayers ») is a collection of Avestic prayers.
Here is an extract, quite significant.
« As a worshipper of Mazda [Wisdom], a sectarian of Zoroaster, an enemy of the devils [demons], an observer of the precepts of Ahura [the « Lord »], I pay homage to him who is given here, given against the devils, and to Zoroaster, pure, master of purity, and to the yazna [sacrifice], and to the prayer that makes favorable, and to the blessing of the masters, and to the days, and the hours, and the months, and the seasons, and the years, and to the yazna, and to the prayer that makes favorable, and to the blessing!”
This prayer is addressed to the Lord, Ahura. But it is also addressed to the prayer itself.
In a repetitive, self-referential way, it is a prayer to the yaçna, a ‘prayer praying the prayer’, an invocation to the invocation, a blessing of the blessing. A homage from mediation to mediation.
This stylistic formula, « prayer to prayer », is interesting to analyze.
Let us note from the outset that the Zend Avesta clearly recognises the existence of a supreme God, to whom every prayer is addressed.
« I pray and invoke the great Ormuzd [= Ahura Mazda, the « Lord of Wisdom »], brilliant, radiant with light, very perfect, very excellent, very pure, very strong, very intelligent, who is purest, above all that which is holy, who thinks only of the good, who is a source of pleasure, who gives gifts, who is strong and active, who nourishes, who is sovereignly absorbed in excellence.”ii
But Avestic prayer can also be addressed not only to the supreme God, but also to the mediation that make it possible to reach Him, like the sacred Book itself: « I pray and invoke the Vendidad given to Zoroaster, holy, pure and great.”iii
The prayer is addressed to God and all his manifestations, of which the Book (the Vendidad) is a part.
« I invoke and celebrate you Fire, son of Ormuzd, with all the fires.
I invoke and celebrate the excellent, pure and perfect Word that the Vendidad gave to Zoroaster, the sublime, pure and ancient Law of the Mazdeans.”
It is important to note that it is the Sacred Book (the Vendidad) that gives the divine Word to Zoroaster, and not the other way round. The Zend Avesta sees this Book as sacred and divine, and recognizes it as an actor of divine revelation.
It is tempting to compare this divine status of the Book in the Zend Avesta with the divine status of the Torah in Judaism and the Koran in Islam.
The divine status of sacred texts (Zend Avesta, Torah, Koran) in these monotheisms incites to consider a link between the affirmation of the absolute transcendence of a supreme God and the need for mediation between the divine and the human, – a mediation which must itself be « divine ».
It is interesting to underline, by contrast, the human origin of evangelical testimonies in Christianity. The Gospels were written by men, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John. The Gospels are not divine emanations, but human testimonies. They are therefore not of the same essence as the Torah (« revealed » to Moses), or the Koran (« dictated » to Muhammad, who was otherwise illiterate) or the Zend Avesta (« given » to Zoroaster).
In Christianity, on the other hand, it is Christ himself who embodies divine mediation in his person. He, the Anointed One, Christ, the Messiah, incarnates the divine Word, the Verb.
Following this line of thought, one would have to conclude that Christianity is not a « religion of the Book », as the oversimplified formula that usually encompasses the three monotheisms under the same expression would suggest.
This formula certainly suits Judaism and Islam, as it does Zend Avesta. But Christianity is not a religion of the « Book », it is a religion of the « Word ».
iEugène Burnouf, Commentaire sur le Yaçna, l’un des livres religieux des Parses. Ouvrage contenant le texte zend. 1833
Quite early in history, the idea of a « universal religion » appeared in various civilisations – despite the usual obstacles posed by tradition and the vested interests of priests and princes.
This idea did not fit easily into the old frames of thought, nor into the representations of the world built by tribal, national religions, or, a fortiori, by exclusive, elitist sects, reserved for privileged initiates or a chosen few.
But, for example, five centuries before the Prophet Muhammad, the Persian prophet Mani already affirmed out of the blues that he was the « seal of the prophets ». It was therefore up to him to found and preach a new, universal religion. Manichaeism then had its hour of glory. Augustine, who embraced it for a time, testifies to its expansion and success in the territories controlled by Rome at the time, and to its lasting hold on the spirits.
Manichaeism promoted a dualist system of thought, centred on the eternal struggle between Good and Evil; it is not certain that these ideas have disappeared today.
Before Mani, the first Christians also saw themselves as bearers of a really universal message. They no longer saw themselves as Jews — or Gentiles. They thought of themselves as a third kind of man (« triton genos« , « tertium genus« ), « trans-humans » ahead of the times. They saw themselves as the promoters of a new wisdom, « barbaric » from the Greek point of view, « scandalous » for the Jews, – transcending the power of the Law and of Reason.
Christians were not to be a nation among nations, but « a nation built out of nations » according to the formula of Aphrahat, a Persian sage of the 4th century.
Contrary to the usual dichotomies, that of the Greeks against the Barbarians, or that of the Jews against the Goyim, the Christians thus thought that they embodied a new type of « nation », a « nation » that was not « national », but purely spiritual, a « nation » that would be like a soul in the body of the world (or according to another image, the « salt of the earth »i).
The idea of a really « universal » religion then rubbed shoulders, it is important to say, with positions that were absolutely contrary, exclusive, and even antagonistic to the last degree, like those of the Essenes.
A text found in Qumran, near the Dead Sea, advocates hatred against all those who are not members of the sect, while insisting on the importance that this « hatred » must remain secret. The member of the Essene sect « must hide the teaching of the Law from men of falsity (anshei ha-‘arel), but must announce true knowledge and right judgment to those who have chosen the way. (…) Eternal hatred in a spirit of secrecy for men of perdition! (sin’at ‘olam ‘im anshei shahat be-ruah hasher!)ii « .
G. Stroumsa comments: « The peaceful conduct of the Essenes towards the surrounding world now appears to have been nothing more than a mask hiding a bellicose theology. »
This attitude is still found today in the « taqqiya » of the Shi’ites, for example.
It should be added that the idea of « holy war » was also part of Essene eschatology, as can be seen in the « War Scroll » (War Scroll, 1QM), preserved in Jerusalem, which is also known as the scroll of « The War of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness ».
Philo of Alexandria, steeped in Greek culture, considered that the Essenes had a « barbaric philosophy », and « that they were in a sense, the Brahmins of the Jews, an elite among the elite. »
Clearch of Soles, a peripatetic philosopher of the 4th century BC, a disciple of Aristotle, had also seriously considered that the Jews were descended from Brahmins, and that their wisdom was a « legitimate inheritance » from India. This idea spread widely, and was apparently accepted by the Jews of that time, as evidenced by the fact that Philo of Alexandriaiii and Flavius Josephusiv naturally referred to it.
The « barbaric philosophy » of the Essenes and the « barbaric wisdom » of the early Christians have one thing in common: they both point to ideas emanating from a more distant East, that of Persia, Oxus and even, ultimately, the Indus.
Among oriental ideas, one is particularly powerful. That of the double of the soul, or the double soul, depending on the point of view.
The text of the Rule of the Community, found in Qumran, gives an indication: « He created man to rule the world, and assigned to him two spirits with which he must walk until the time when He will return: the spirit of truth and the spirit of lie (ruah ha-emet ve ruah ha-avel).”v
There is broad agreement among researchers to detect an Iranian influence in this anthropology. Shaul Shaked writes: « It is conceivable that contacts between Jews and Iranians led to the formulation of a Jewish theology, which, while following traditional Jewish motifs, came to resemble closely the Iranian worldview. »
G. Stroumsa further notes that such duality in the soul is found in the rabbinic idea of the two basic instincts of good and evil present in the human soul (yetser ha-ra’, yetser ha-tov)vi.
This conception has been widely disseminated since ancient times. Far from being reserved for the Gnostics and Manicheans, who seem to have found their most ancient sources in ancient Persia, it had, as we can see, penetrated Jewish thought in several ways.
But it also aroused strong opposition. Christians, in particular, held different views.
Augustine asserts that there can be no « spirit of evil », since all souls come from God.vii In his Counter Faustus, he argues: « As they say that every living being has two souls, one from the light, the other from the darkness, is it not clear that the good soul leaves at the moment of death, while the evil soul remains?”viii
Origen has yet another interpretation: every soul is assisted by two angels, an angel of righteousness and an angel of iniquityix. There are not two opposing souls, but rather a higher soul and another in a lower position.
Manichaeism itself varied on this delicate issue. It presented two different conceptions of the dualism inherent in the soul. The horizontal conception put the two souls, one good and one bad, in conflict. The other conception, vertical, put the soul in relation to its celestial counterpart, its ‘guardian angel’. The guardian angel of Mani, the Paraclete (« the intercessor angel »), the Holy Spirit are all possible figures of this twin, divine soul.
This conception of a celestial Spirit forming a « couple » (suzugia) with each soul was theorised by Tatian the Syrian in the 2nd century AD, as Erik Peterson notes.
Stroumsa points out that « this conception, which was already widespread in Iran, clearly reflects shamanistic forms of thought, according to which the soul can come and go outside the individual under certain conditions.”x
The idea of the soul of Osiris or Horus floating above the body of the dead God, the angels of the Jewish tradition, the Greek « daimon », the split souls of the Gnostics, the Manicheans, or the Iranians, or, even more ancient, the experiences of the shamans, by their profound analogies, testify to the existence of « anthropological constants », of which the comparative study of ancient religions gives a glimpse.
All these traditions converge in this: the soul is not only a principle of life, attached to an earthly body, which would be destined to disappear after death.
It is also attached to a higher, spiritual principle that guards and guides it.
Science has recently taken a step in this direction, foreseen for several millennia, by demonstrating that man’s « spirit » is not only located in the brain itself, but that it is also « diffused » all around him, in the emotional, symbolic, imaginary and social spheres.
Perhaps one day we will be able to objectify in a tangible way this intuition, so ancient, and so « universal ». In the meantime, let us conclude that it is difficult to be satisfied with a narrowly materialistic, mechanical description of the world.
The poet was guided in his long quest by Virgil, then by Beatrice, to the threshold of the Empyrean. The supreme vision, he has not yet seen it, however. What appears to him then, in the shape of a white rose, is the « holy militia that Christ espoused in his blood ». And in this great flower, plunges, like a swarm of bees, another army of angels, flying and singing the glory of him who sets them ablaze with love. And all these angels « had faces of bright flame, and wings of gold, and the rest so white that no snow comes to this end ».i
Dante marveled at the « triple light », divine, penetrating, which shines « like a star » in this quiet kingdom, – and he thought back on all the road he had already traveled, from the human to the divine, from time to eternity, from corruption to justice, and on what still awaits him…
« I, who had come to the divine
from the human, from time to eternity,
and from Florence to the just and healthy people,
of what astonishment I should be filled with! »
Mute with stupor, indeed, Dante sees « eyes, inviting to love, shining with the light of another and their own laughter ». He also sees with a single glance « the general shape of Paradise ». He turns to Beatrice, to question her, but she is no longer there! In her place, an old man, dressed in glory.
« Where is she? « asks Dante at once. The old man replies that Beatrice has brought him down in her place, to bring Dante’s desire « to an end ».
But, adds the old man, – who is, in reality, St. Bernard:
« If you look at the third row
from the highest tier, you will see her again.
on the throne won by her merits. »
Dante looks up and sees her, « who made herself a crown of eternal rays reflected in her. »
Beatrice was at an immeasurable distance from Dante; she was very high, far beyond the reach of a mortal eye, – but it was like nothing, « for her image came down to me unmixed ».
From his abyss of remoteness, Dante addresses Beatrice:
« O lady, in whom my hope comes alive,
and who suffered for my salvation
to leave in Hell the trace of your footsteps,
of so many things I have seen
by your power and kindness,
I recognize grace and virtue.
You pulled me from bondage to freedom
by all these ways, by all these modes
that you had the power to use.
Preserve in me your magnificence,
that my soul, which thou hast healed,
is untied from my body by pleasing you. »
The tone is high, the prayer urgent, the love burning. The poet already despairs of his misfortune. He has just been abandoned by his lover at the very moment when he thought he was reaching Paradise, in her company.
What happens then? Three verses say it, – « the most pathetic verses that literature has ever given us », according to J.L. Borgèsii.
« Cosi orai; e quella, si lontana
come parrea, sorrise e riguaradommi ;
poi si torno a l’etterna fontana. »
« I prayed like this, and so far away
that she seemed, she smiled and looked at me ;
then she turned back to the eternal fountain. »
Beatrice smiles at Dante one last time, then turns her back on him to devote herself to the divine vision.
Borgès was so moved by these verses, that he collected comments about them from various authors. For Francesco Torraca: « Last glance, last smile but a sure promise ». Luigi Pietrobono, in the same vein: « She smiles to tell Dante that her prayer has been answered; she looks at him to prove once again the love she has for him. «
Ozanam goes in another direction and considers these verses to be a modest description of « Beatrice’s apotheosis ». But Borgès is not satisfied. He wants to go further. It is really a question for Dante, he says, to let us glimpse the « nightmares of delight ».
The « nightmare », in the Empyrean, on the threshold of ultimate happiness? What a strange idea, that this Borgesean incision!
At this point, a little biographical reminder is perhaps necessary.
One day, in a street in Florence, Beatrice de Folco Portinari did not respond to a greeting from Dante. Did she only love him? It must be thought that she did not. She had already married Bardi. And shortly after this incident she died, at the age of twenty-four.
Dante had always loved her, but in vain.
And now he had found her again, a little later, in his long literary quest. He even thought he had found her again forever, before the eternity of Paradise opening up to him, in his close company.
Suddenly, « horror »… Beatrice smiles at him but turns around and prefers the eternal fountain of light.
Francesco De Sanctis, for his part, had commented on this passage as follows: « When Beatrice walks away, Dante does not let a complaint escape; all earthly residue has been burnt in him and destroyed. »
But this interpretation is false, says Borgès. Nothing has been destroyed, and all the « horror » of the situation is contained in the expression: « so far away that she seemed ».
The smile seems close, like the last glance, but Beatrice is in fact so far away that she becomes forever inaccessible, once again sending Dante back to his solitude.
I would like to propose yet another interpretation, which has nothing romantic about it, but rather aims at metaphysics. Dante’s love for Beatrice, however high it may be, is only a metaphor, it seems to me. Beatrice died in 1290, and Dante wrote The Divine Comedy from 1307 to 1321. The last pages, the very ones that are commented on here, were therefore written more than thirty years after the death of the beloved.
For Dante, the Beatrice in The Divine Comedy is a figure, an image, a trope, a vision at last, which refers not to the memory of a certain Florentine of the Middle Ages, but to his own soul.
Dante is not guided by the appearance of an imaginary and inaccessible Beatrice, descended from the Empyrean, but by his soul, which brings her back to life and is inspired by her.
Dante’s soul, at the end of his quest, is already burning with divine fire. Suddenly, he sees her moving away. She separates from him. She leaves him! But Dante is not dead. He has crossed Hell, Purgatory and here he is in the Empyrean. He is alive, like Aeneas, Orpheus, and other explorers of the beyond. Not being dead, Dante’s soul is still united to his body. And yet she rises, on the advice of Saint Bernard.
Like Dante’s, from now on my words will be « short compared to what I remember ».
O how little is enough to say! How the look afterwards laughs! I myself was bound in the night to this eternal view, and « for this flight my wing was too weak ». My wing, yes, but not my soul.
O Dante! Hail to thee through the ages. You have given me the strength to say again, in veiled words, what you proclaim in incandescent verses! Your « high fantasy » has lost none of its power! You have propelled my desire through the ages like a wheel wider than any world!
In a short dialogue, Hermes addresses his son Tati to summarize some ancient, and quite essential ideas. We learn that man is made up of separate envelopes, body, mind, soul, reason, intelligence. As he gradually emerges from these envelopes, man is called upon to « know » better and better. His final vocation is « apotheosis », a word that must be taken literally i.e. to go « above the gods ».
– The energy of God is in His will. And God wants the universe to be. As Father, as Good, He wants the existence of that which is not yet. This existence of beings, there is God, there is the Father, there is the Good, it is no other thing. The world, the sun, the stars participate in the existence of beings. But they are not, however, for the living the cause of their life, or the origin of the Good. Their action is the necessary effect of the will of the Good, without which nothing could exist or become.
[My comment: Hermes does not believe in the immanence of the divine in the world. The divine is absolutely transcendent, and only His Will, whose effect can be observed through the existence of His creation, bears witness to this transcendent remoteness.]
It must be recognized that the vision of the Good is above our strength. The eyes of our intelligence cannot yet contemplate its incorruptible and incomprehensible beauty. You will see it a little, perhaps, when you at least know that you can say nothing about it. For true knowledge is found in the silence and rest of every sensation. Whoever achieves it can no longer think of anything else, nor look at anything, nor hear anything, nor even move his body. There is no more sensation or movement for him.
[My comment: There are two kinds of spirits. Those who have « seen » the Good, but cannot say anything about it, and those who have not « seen » it, but who will perhaps one day see it, under certain conditions. Hermes belongs to the first group. He can only express himself by allusion. He cannot say anything about it, which is already a lot …].
– The splendor that inundates all his thought and his soul tears man from the bonds of the body and transforms him entirely into divine essence. The human soul reaches the apotheosis when he has contemplated this beauty of Good.
– What do you mean by « apotheosis », Father?
[My comment: Tat’s question is not a lexicographical one. He is waiting for a full description of the phenomenon. The word « apotheosis » is not a neologism, a word invented by Hermes. The word was used, for example, previously by Strabo to describe the death of Diomedes, which he also describes as « apotheosis », but in a sense that seems to transcend the reality of his « death ». « Some authors add to the subject of Diomedes that here he had begun to dig a canal leading to the sea, but having been called back to his homeland he was surprised by death and left this and many other useful undertakings unfinished. This is a first version about his death; another makes him stay until the end and die in Daunie; a third, purely fabulous, and which I have already had occasion to recall, speaks of his mysterious disappearance in one of the islands that bear his name; finally, one can look at this claim of the Henetians to place in their country, if not death, at least the apotheosis of the hero, as a fourth version…. « (Strabo, Geogr. VI, 3,9)].
– Every unfulfilled soul, my son, is subject to successive changes. The blinded soul, knowing nothing of beings, neither their nature nor the Good, is enveloped in bodily passions. The unfortunate soul, unaware of herself, is enslaved to foreign and abject bodies. She carries the burden of the body. Instead of commanding, she obeys. This is the evil of the soul. On the contrary, the good of the soul is knowledge. He who knows is good, and already divine.
[My comment: The body is a veil whose envelope prevents access to knowledge. In the body, the soul is enslaved. Not only can she not ‘see’, but she cannot ‘know’. She can only know her slavery, her enslavement. Which is already a lot, because it is the beginning of her liberation].
– Beings have sensations because they cannot exist without them; but knowledge is very different from sensation. Sensation is an influence that one undergoes. Knowledge is the end of a search, and the desire to search is a divine gift. For all knowledge is incorporeal.
[My comment: The sensation is imposed from the outside. Knowledge is first and foremost a desire for knowledge. To know is first of all a desire to know. But where does this desire come from, if one has no knowledge of what one can desire? « The desire to seek is a divine gift ». But isn’t it unfair to those who are deprived of the grace of this desire? No, this desire is in everyone, in latent form. The desire to know only asks to be born. It only needs to be set in motion, and it grows stronger with every step].
– All knowledge is a form, which grasps the intelligence, just as the intelligence uses the body. Thus both use a body, either intellectual or material. Everything comes down to this combination of opposites, form and matter, and it cannot be otherwise.
[My comment: Form and matter can be considered, as Hermes does, as a « combination of opposites ». One could also say « alliance of opposites », to mean that their whole is more than the sum of their parts. There is also the idea that intellectual representations can be described as having a « body », which itself is endowed with a spirit and perhaps a soul. This leads us to imagine a whole ascending hierarchy, of souls and spirits, up to a supreme root, of all souls and spirits. Two thousand years after these ideas began to be formulated, the Jewish Kabbalah of the European Middle Ages took up exactly the same ideas ].
– What is this material God?
– The world is beautiful but it is not good, because it is material and passive. It is the first of the ‘passive’, but the second of the beings, and is not self-sufficient. It is born, though it is always, but it is in birth, and it becomes perpetual. Becoming is a change in quality and quantity – like any material movement.
[My comment: Here the influence of Gnosis is revealed. The world is beautiful, but it is not good. The assertions of Genesis are therefore contradicted head-on: ‘And God saw that it was good.’ (Cf. Gen. 1:4, Gen. 1:10, Gen. 1:12, Gen. 1:25). The first chapter of Genesis even concludes as follows: ‘And God saw everything that He had made, and it was very good.’ (Gen. 1:31). But this Gnosis can be interpreted. The world is not « good », admittedly, but it does not necessarily mean that it is « bad » either. If it is not « good » it is because it is always « becoming », it is always being « born ». Besides, one can argue that ‘Only God is good’, as Jesus said. This Gnosticism is therefore not incompatible with an interpretation of Creation as a living process, as an eschatological aim].
– The world is the first of the living. Man is second only to the world, and first among mortals. Not only is man not good, but he is evil, being mortal. Nor is the world not good, since it is mobile; but being immortal, it is not evil. Man, being both mobile and mortal, is evil. »
[My comment: Here, the vision of Gnosis becomes even more precise. The world is not evil, but Man is. The difference between the world and Man is that the world is always born, it is always alive and reborn, whereas Man is mortal. The only possibility, however, of escaping this fundamental evil is resurrection. If it is possible, then Man is also reborn, again, he escapes death, – and evil].
– It is necessary to understand how man’s soul is constituted: intelligence is in reason, reason in the soul, the soul in the mind, the mind in the body. The spirit, penetrating through veins, arteries and blood, moves the animal and carries it, so to speak. The soul infuses the spirit. Reason is at the bottom of the soul. And it is Intelligence that makes reason live.
[My comment: Man is a kind of metaphysical onion, containing deep down within him, in his inner core, a divine principle, – Intelligence, which is another name for Divine Wisdom.]
– God does not ignore man; on the contrary, He knows him and wants to be known by him. The only salvation of man is in the knowledge of God; this is the way of ascent to Olympus; only by this alone does the soul become good, not sometimes good, sometimes bad, but necessarily good.
[My comment: The ascent to Olympus is another metaphor for apotheosis].
“Contemplate, my son, the soul of the child; the separation is not yet complete; the body is small and has not yet received full development. It is beautiful to see the child, not yet sullied by the passions of the body, still almost attached to the soul of the world. But when the body has developed and holds her [the soul] in its mass, separation is accomplished, oblivion occurs in her, she ceases to participate in the beautiful and the good.”
[My comment: the loss of innocence of the soul begins from the first days of her apprenticeship in the body she has inherited. This loss of innocence can also be interpreted as the first steps in the long « ascent » that still awaits her].
« The same thing happens to those who come out of their body. The soul enters into herself, the spirit withdraws into the blood, the soul into the spirit. But the Intelligence, purified and freed from its envelopes, divine by nature, takes a body of fire and travels through space, abandoning the soul to its tribulations. »
[My comment: These words are a striking summary of the highest wisdom attained over tens of thousands of years by shamans, visionaries, prophets, poets, all over the world. They must be taken for what they are: a naked revelation, destined only to those souls predisposed, by their abysmal and primordial desire, to understand what it is all about].
– What do you mean, O Father? Does intelligence separate from the soul and the soul from the spirit, since you said that the soul is the envelope of intelligence and the spirit is the envelope of the soul?
[My comment: Tat listens to his father very well, and he remains faithful to logic itself. His question is a request for clarification. The difference between the spirit and the soul and the difference between the soul and the intelligence may need to be explained more clearly. But how to explain “intelligence” to those who cannot imagine the power of its infinite possibilities? Hermes knows this difficulty well. He will try another way of explanation].
– It is necessary, my son, that the listener follow the thought of the speaker and associate himself with it; the ear must be finer than the voice. This system of envelopes exists in the earthly body. The naked intelligence could not be established in a material body, and that body could not contain such immortality or carry such virtue. The intelligence takes the soul as its envelope; the soul, which is divine itself, is enveloped in spirit, and the spirit is poured into the animal. »
[My comment: The key expression here is « naked intelligence ». What is revealed in these words is that even intelligence, in its highest, most divine form, can still remain « veiled ». Nothing can be said about this here, for the moment. We are only alluding to the fact that the process of ascension, of apotheosis, is certainly not finished, but that it is itself susceptible to other, even more radical forms of spiritual nakedness, unclothing].
– When the intelligence leaves the earthly body, it immediately takes its tunic of fire, which it could not keep when it inhabited this earthly body; for the earth cannot withstand fire, of which a single spark would be enough to burn it. This is why water surrounds the earth and forms a rampart that protects it from the flame of fire. But intelligence, the most subtle of divine thoughts, has the most subtle of elements, fire, as its body. It takes it as an instrument of its creative action.
[My comment: One of the garments of intelligence, described here under the metaphor of the « tunic of fire », is a way of describing one of its essential attributes: creative ability. But there are certainly many others. Other metaphors, other « garments » would be needed to try to account for them].
– The universal intelligence uses all the elements, that of man only the earthly elements. Deprived of fire, it cannot build divine works, subject as it is to the conditions of humanity. Human souls, not all of them, but pious souls, are « demonic » and « divine ».
[My comment: The idea that the soul is « demonic » is an idea that Plato communicated to us through the speech of Diotima in the Symposium. There can be found also another fundamental idea, to which I have been attached all my life – the idea of metaxu].
– Once separated from the body, and after having sustained the struggle of piety, which consists in knowing God and harming no one, such a soul becomes all intelligence. But the unholy soul remains in its own essence and punishes herself by seeking to enter into an earthly body, a human body, for another body cannot receive a human soul, it cannot fall into the body of an animal without reason; a divine law preserves the human soul from such a fall.
[My comment: Here we find the idea of metempsychosis. Since ages, these ideas circulated from the Far East to Greece].
– The punishment of the soul is quite different. When the intelligence has become a « daimon », and by God’s command has taken on a body of fire, she [the intelligence] enters the ungodly soul and is scourged with the whip of its sins. The unholy soul then rushes into murder, insults, blasphemy, violence of all kinds and all human wickedness. But by entering the pious soul, the intelligence leads her to the light of knowledge. Such a soul is never satiated with hymns and blessings for all men.
[My comment: A distinction must therefore be made between light, knowledge and the « light of knowledge ». The latter form of consciousness is the possible source of a meta-apotheosis, – for the moment, this word is a neologism, which I propose, because here it is very necessary].
– This is the universal order, the consequence of unity. Intelligence penetrates all the elements. For nothing is more divine and more powerful than intelligence. She unites Gods with men and men with Gods. It is the intelligence that is the good « daimon« ; the blessed soul is full of her, the unhappy soul is empty of her.
[My comment: intelligence is the « metaxu » par excellence. The Hebrews gave it the name neshamah. But what a name is, it is its essence that we must try to understand].
– The soul without intelligence could neither speak nor act. Often intelligence leaves the soul, and in this state the soul sees nothing, hears nothing, and looks like an animal without reason. Such is the power of intelligence. But it does not support the vicious soul and leaves it attached to the body, which drags it down. Such a soul, my son, has no intelligence, and in this condition a man can no longer be called a man. For man is a divine animal which must be compared, not to other terrestrial animals, but to those in heaven, who are called Gods.
[My comment: Aristotle said that « man is an animal who has reason (logos) ». We can see that Hermes rises several notches above Aristotle in his intuition of what man is, in essence. Aristotle is the first of the moderns. Plato is the last of the Ancients. But in these difficult matters, the Ancients have infinitely more to teach us, with their million years of experience, than the Moderns, really out of their depths in these matters].
– Or rather, let’s not be afraid to tell the truth, the real man is above them, or at least equal to them. For none of the heavenly Gods leaves his sphere to come to earth, while man ascends into heaven and measures it. He knows what is above and what is below; he knows everything accurately, and what is better is that he does not need to leave the earth in order to ascend. Such is the greatness of his condition. Thus, dare we say that man is a mortal God and that a heavenly God is an immortal man. All things will be governed by the world and by man, and above all is the One.
My comment : There is a strikingly equivalent intuition in the Veda. In the Veda, Puruṣa, devanāgarī : पुरुष, means « man, person, hero, vital principle, spirit » but also and foremost : « the Soul of the Universe »…
Towards the end of the 15th century, Marsilius Ficinus summed up the whole of « ancient theology » in six emblematic names: Hermes Trismegistus, Orpheus, Aglaophemus, Pythagoras, Philolaos, and Plato. In his mind, these characters formed one and the same ‘sect of initiates’, transmitting knowledge, wisdom and secrets to each other.
The first link in this long chain of initiation was Hermes Trismegistus, « three times very great », of whom Plato himself is only a distant disciple.
Well after Plato, in the 2nd century AD, the Corpus Hermeticum appeared, supposedly bringing back the essence of this ancient knowledge. The first Book of the Corpus is called after Poimandres, a Greek name meaning « the shepherd of man ».
In this Book, Hermes tells of his encounter with Poimandres:
« Who are you then?
– I am Poimandres (the « shepherd of man »), the Sovereign Intelligence. I know what you desire, and I am with you everywhere.”
Poimandres then enlightens the mind of Hermes, who expresses himself in the first person to recount his vision: « I am living an indefinable spectacle. Everything became a soft and pleasant light that charmed my sight. Soon afterwards, a frightful and horrible darkness descended in a sinuous form; it seemed to me as if this darkness was changing into some kind of damp and troubled nature, exhaling a smoke like fire and a kind of gloomy noise. Then there came out an inarticulate cry which seemed to be the voice of light.”
« Have you understood what this vision means? » asks Poimandres. « This light is me, the Intelligence, – your God, who precedes the wet nature out of darkness. The luminous Word that emanates from Intelligence is the Son of God.
– What do you mean, I replied.
– Learn this: what you see and hear in you is the Word, the word of the Lord; intelligence is the Father God. They are not separated from one another, for the union is their life.
– I thank you, I replied.
– Understand the light, he said, and know it. »
We can deduce from the words of Poimandres that « vision » is only a glimpse of the mystery, not its end. Understanding is not knowing, and knowing is not understanding. This is an essential principle of Gnosis.
At the time when the Corpus Hermeticum was composed, the Roman Empire reached its apogee. The Pax romana reigned from Brittany (England) to Egypt, from Tingitan Mauritania to Mesopotamia. The emperor was considered a god. Marcus Aurelius had to fight against the Barbarians on the Danube front, but the invasions and serious crises of the 3rd century had not begun.
Christianity was still only a ‘superstition’ (superstitio illicita) among many others. The cult of Mithra dominated in the Roman armies, and the influence of the Eastern and Gnostic cults was significant. Hermeticism took its place in this effervescence.
Hermetic formulas undoubtedly originated several centuries earlier, and thus well before the Gospel of John, written at the end of the 1st century AD.
But as transcribed in the Poimandres, these formulas are striking in the simplicity and ease with which they seem to prefigure (or repeat?) some of the formulas of the Gospel of John. According to John, Christ is the Word of God, His Logos. Christ is the Son of God, and he is also « One » with Him. Would John have been sensitive to any hermetic influence? Or was it the opposite, the hermeticism of Poimandres mimicking Christian ideas?
Hermetic formulas do not copy the Johannine metaphors, nor do they duplicate them in any way. Under the apparent analogy, significant discrepancies emerge.
Hermeticism, however heraldable it may be to certain aspects of Christian theology, is certainly distinguished from it by other features, which belong only to it, and which clearly refer to Gnosis – from which Christianity very early wanted to distance itself, without, moreover, totally escaping its philosophical attraction.
Poïmandres says, for example, that the Sovereign of the world shows the image of his divinity to the « inferior nature ». Nature falls in love with this image, an image that is none other than man. Man too, seeing in the water the reflection of his own form, falls in love with his own nature (or with himself?) and wants to possess it. Nature and man are therefore closely united by mutual love.
Poïmandres explains: « This is why man, alone among all the beings living on earth, is double, mortal in body and immortal in essence. Immortal and sovereign of all things, he is subject to the destiny that governs what is mortal; superior to the harmony of the world, he is captive in his bonds; male and female like his father, and superior to sleep he is dominated by sleep.”
Then comes man’s ascent among the powers and towards God. By uniting with man, nature successively generates seven « men » (male and female), who receive their soul and intelligence from « life » and « light », in the form of air and fire.
This succession of « men » is an allegory of the necessary evolution of human nature. Various human natures must succeed one another through the historical ages.
Man must finally reach the stage where he/she strips him/herself of all the harmonies and beauties of the world. With only his/her own power left, he/she reaches an « eighth nature ».
In this eighth stage the « powers » reign, « ascending » towards God, to be reborn in Him.
Poimandres concluded his speech to Hermes with the following words: « This is the final good of those who possess Gnosis, – to become God. What are you waiting for now? You have learned everything, you only have to show the way to men, so that through you God may save the human race.”
Then began the mission of Hermes among Humankind: « And I began to preach to men the beauty of religion and Gnosis: peoples, men born of the earth, immersed in the drunkenness, sleep and ignorance of God, shake off your sensual torpor, wake up from your foolishness! Why, O men born of the earth, do you surrender yourselves to death, when you are allowed to obtain immortality? Come back to yourselves, you who walk in error, who languish in ignorance; depart from the dark light, take part in immortality by renouncing corruption ».
Who was Hermes Trismegistus really? A syncretic entity? A Ptolemaic myth? A pagan Christ? A Gnostic philosopher? A theological-political creation?
Through his ideas, Hermes Trismegistus embodied the fusion of two cultures, Greek and Egyptian. He is both the god Hermes of the Greeks, messenger of the gods and conductor of souls (psychopompos), and the god Thoth of ancient Egypt, who invented hieroglyphics and helped Isis to gather the scattered members of Osiris.
I stand by the interpretation of Marsilius Ficinus. Hermes is the first of the « ancient theologians ».
One lends only to the rich. In the 4th century B.C., Hecateus of Abatea had written that Thot-Hermes was the inventor of writing, astronomy and the lyre.
Artapan, in the 2nd century BC, even saw in him a figure of Moses.
Hermes in fact spoke, like Moses, with God. He too was given the mission of guiding mankind towards the Promised Land, the land that has a name: the knowledge of immortality.
The Song of songs, at the core of the Hebraic Bible, has accustomed the faithful, in Judaism and in Christianity, to the idea that the celebration of love, with human words and not without quite crude images, could also be a metaphor for the Love between the soul and God.
However, this very idea can also be found in the Veda, – with an anteriority of at least one thousand years over the Bible. This incites us to consider why, for so many millennia, persisted the metaphor of human love as applied to the union of the human soul with the Divinity.
The Veda is the oldest text, conserved for the benefit of mankind, that testifies to the idea of the Divinity’s love for the human soul, – as improbable as it may be thought, considering the nothingness of the latter.
« 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 strikes the ground with its two wings, so I strike your soul, be my lover and do not depart from me! As the sun on the same day surrounds heaven and earth, so do 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, in love, be consumed with passion for me!”i
A comparative anthropology of the depths is possible. Its main advantage is that it allows us to give some relativity to much later, idiosyncratic and ‘provincial’ assertions, and above all to confirm the fruitfulness of research into the very essence of common human intuition.
This research is one of the bases of the Future Dream, whose’ absence crushed, wounded modernity suffers so much from.
The intuition of mystery has touched humanity from the earliest ages. Eight hundred thousand years ago, men carried out religious rites accompanying the death of their loved ones, in a cave near Beijing, at Chou Kou Tien. Skulls were found there, placed in a circle and painted in red ochre. They bear witness to the fact that almost a million years ago, men believed that death was a passage.
Fascination with other worlds, a sense of mystery, confrontation with the weakness of life and the rigor of death, seem to be part of the human genetic heritage, since the dawn of time, inhabiting the unconscious, sculpting cultures, knotting myths, informing languages.
The idea of the power of the divine is an extremely ancient idea, as old as humanity itself. It is equally obvious that the minds of men all over the world have, since extremely ancient times, turned towards forms of animism, religions of immanence or even religions of ecstasy and transcendent trance, long before being able to speculate and refine « theological » questions such as the formal opposition between « polytheism » and « monotheism ».
Brains and cultures, minds and languages, were not yet mature.
Animism, shamanism, polytheism, monotheism, and the religions of the immanence try to designate what cannot be said. In the high period, the time of human dawn, all these religions in -isms obviously came together in a single intuition, a single vision: the absolute weakness of man, the irremediable fleetingness of his life, and the infinite greatness and power of the unknown.
Feeling, guessing, fearing, worshipping, revering, this power was one and multiple. Innumerable names throughout the world have tried to express this power, without ever reaching its intrinsic unity.
This is why the assertion of the monotheisms that « God is One » is both a door that has been open for millions of years and at the same time, in a certain way, is also a saying that closes our understanding of the very nature of the « mystery », our understanding of how this « mystery » has taken root in the heart of the human soul, since Homo knew himself to be a sapiens…
In the 17th century, Ralph Cudworth was already tackling the « great prejudice » that all primitive and ancient religions had been polytheistic, and that only « a small, insignificant handful of Jews »i had developed the idea of a single God.
A « small insignificant handful of Jews »? Compared to the Nations, number is not always the best indicator. Another way to put the question is: was the idea of the One God invented by the Jews? If so, when and why? If not, who invented it, and for how long was it there around the world?
If we analyse the available sources, it would seem that this idea appeared very early among the nations, perhaps even before the so-called « historical » times. But it must be recognized that the Jews brought the idea to its incandescence, and above all that they « published » it, and « democratized » it, making it the essential idea of their people. Elsewhere, and for millennia, the idea was present, but reserved in a way to an elite.
Greek polytheism, the Sibylline oracles, Zoroastrianism, the Chaldean religion, Orphism, all these « ancient » religions distinguished a radical difference between multiple born and mortal gods, and a Single God, not created and existing by Himself. The Orphic cabal had a great secret, a mystery reserved for the initiated, namely: « God is the Whole ».
Cudworth deduced from the testimonies of Clement of Alexandria, Plutarch, Iamblichus, Horapollo, or Damascius, that it was indisputably clear that Orpheus and all the other Greek pagans knew a single universal deity who was « the One », and « the Whole ». But this knowledge was secret, reserved for the initiated.
Clement of Alexandria wrote that « All the barbarian and Greek theologians had kept the principles of reality secret and had only transmitted the truth in the form of enigmas, symbols, allegories, metaphors and other tropes and similar figures. « ii And Clement made a comparison between the Egyptians and the Hebrews in this respect: « The Egyptians represented the truly secret Logos, which they kept deep in the sanctuary of truth, by what they called ‘Adyta’, and the Hebrews by the curtain in the Temple. As far as concealment is concerned, the secrets of the Hebrews and those of the Egyptians are very similar.”iii
Hieroglyphics (as sacred writing) and allegories (the meaning of symbols and images) were used to transmit the secret arcana of the Egyptian religion to those who were worthy of it, to the most qualified priests and to those chosen to succeed the king.
The « hieroglyphic science » was entirely responsible for expressing the mysteries of theology and religion in such a way that they remained hidden from the profane crowd. The highest of these mysteries was that of the revelation of « the One and Universal Divinity, the Creator of the whole world, » Cudworth added.
Plutarch noted several times in his famous work, On Isis and Osiris, that the Egyptians called their supreme God « the First God » and considered him a « dark and hidden God ».
Cudworth points out that Horapollo tells us that the Egyptians knew a Pantokrator (Universal Sovereign) and a Kosmokrator (Cosmic Sovereign), and that the Egyptian notion of ‘God’ referred to a « spirit that spreads throughout the world, and penetrates into all things to the deepest depths.
The « divine Iamblichus » made similar analyses in his De Mysteriis Aegyptiorum.
Finally, Damascius, in his Treatise on First Principles, wrote that the Egyptian philosophers said that there is a single principle of all things, which is revered under the name of ‘invisible darkness’. This « invisible darkness » is an allegory of this supreme deity, namely that it is inconceivable.
This supreme deity has the name « Ammon », which means « that which is hidden », as explained by Manetho of Sebennytos.
Cudworth, to whom we owe this compilation of quotations, deduced that « among the Egyptians, Ammon was not only the name of the supreme Deity, but also the name of the hidden, invisible and corporeal Deity ».
Cudworth concludes that long before Moses, himself of Egyptian culture, and brought up in the knowledge of ‘Egyptian wisdom’, the Egyptians were already worshipping a Supreme God, conceived as invisible, hidden, outside the world and independent of it.
The One (to Hen, in Greek) is the invisible origin of all things and he manifests himself, or rather « hides » himself in the Whole (to Pan, in Greek).
The same anthropological descent towards the mysterious depths of belief can be undertaken systematically, notably with the oldest texts we have, those of Zend Avesta, the Vedas and their commentaries on Upaniṣad.
« Beyond the senses is the mind, higher than the mind is the essence, above the essence is the great Self, higher than the great [Self] is the unmanifested.
But beyond the unmanifested is Man, the Puruṣa, passing through all and without sign in truth. By knowing Him, the human being is liberated and attains immortality.
His form does not exist to be seen, no one can see it through the eye. Through the heart, through the intelligence, through the mind He is apprehended – those who know Him become immortal. (…)
Not even by speech, not even by the mind can He be reached, not even by the eye. How can He be perceived other than by saying: « He is »?
And by saying « He is » (in Sanskrit asti), He can be perceived in two ways according to His true nature. And by saying « He is », for the one who perceives Him, His true nature is established.
When all the desires established in one’s heart are liberated, then the mortal becomes immortal, he reaches here the Brahman.”iv
The Zohar also affirms: « The Holy One blessed be He has a hidden aspect and a revealed aspect. »
Aren’t these not « two ways » of perceiving the true nature of « He is »? Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhyn affirms: « The essence of the En-Sof (Infinite) is hidden more than any secret; it must not be named by any name, not even the Tetragrammaton, not even the end of the smallest letter, the Yod.” v
So what do all these names of God mean in the purest monotheism?
« R. ‘Abba bar Mamel says: The Holy One blessed be He says to Moshe: Do you want to know my Name? I name Myself after my deeds. Sometimes my name is El Shadday, Tsebaoth, Elohim, YHVY. When I judge creatures my name is Elohim, when I fight the wicked I am called Tsebaoth, when I suspend the faults of men I am El Shadday and when I take pity on the worlds I am YHVH. This Name is the attribute of mercy, as it is said: « YHVY, YHVH, merciful and compassionate God » (Ex. 34:6). Likewise: ‘Ehyeh, asher ‘Ehyeh (I am who I am) (Ex. 3:14) – I name myself after my deeds.”vi
These are very wise words, which invite us to ask ourselves what was the name of YHVH, 800,000 years ago, at Chou Kou Tien, when He saw the sorrow of these men and women, a small group of Homo sapiens in affliction and grief, assembled at the bottom of a cave.
iRalph Cudworth, True Intellectual System of the Universe (1678), quoted in Jan Assmann, Moïse l’Égyptien, 2001, p.138
More than thousand years before the Gospel of John, the Veda was already considering the Word as having a life of its own, a divine essence. The Vedic Word was a Divine Person. The Vedic Word was a prefiguration of the Psalms of David where, as in the Veda, Wisdom is personified as a female figure associated with the One God.
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 does not hear it. She has opened her body to him as she did to her husband, a loving woman in rich attire.”i
The Word, or Wisdom, or Vāc, is like the loving Sulamite of the Song of songs.
Towards the end of the 19th century, Europe believed it dominated the world, through its techniques, empires and colonies. But the poet Mallarmé was already feeling desperate for the crisis of the mind. He noted, bitterly, that “mankind had not created new myths”, and that, for the field that most concerned him, “the dramatic art of our time, vast, sublime, almost religious, is yet to be found.”i
Mallarmé said he was in search of the « pure myth », of « the Figure that None is” (la Figure que Nul n’est ). He believed it was possible to find such a myth, by summoning « the immortal, innate delicacies and magnificences which are unbeknownst to all in the contest of a mute assistance.”ii
He took as his theoretical model, as a perfect paradigm, for this improbable and yet to be found myth, the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, and its obscure depth.
Mallarmé saw in Orpheus the creative power, solar energy, and « the idea of the morning with its short-lived beauty ». He recalled that the name Orpheus comes from the Sanskrit Ribhu, the « sun », a name that the Vedas often use to describe the divine, in its various forms. Eurydice, whose name is close to that of Europe, or Euryphassa, means, according to Mallarmé, « the vast gush of dawn in the sky ». The serpent that bites Eurydice and kills her is nothing more than the serpent of darkness that puts an end to the twilight.
The descent from Orpheus to the Underworld is therefore an image of the passage from day to night. “The pilgrimage of Orpheus represents the journey that, during the hours of the night, the Sun passed by to accomplish, in order to bring back, in the morning, the Dawn, whose disappearance it causes by its dazzling splendour.”iii
In this interpretation, the myth of Orpheus probably originally refers to the voyage of Ra in the sacred boat, celebrated by ancient Egypt.
But it must also be recognized that the myth of Orpheus is not meteorological, and that it says something other than the dissolution of the dawn by the morning ray.
Isn’t Orpheus the poet par excellence, in charge of the mystery itself? Mallarmé knows it well, who saw no higher task than poetry.
« Poetry is the expression, through human language brought back to its essential rhythm, of the mysterious meaning of the aspects of existence: it endows our stay with authenticity and is the only spiritual task.”iv
Mallarmé had a religious soul. He had a great dream, that of finding the origin of the Dream. This is evidenced by this text published after his death in an obituary:
« The Theatre is the confrontation of the Dream with the crowd and the disclosure of the Book, which drew its origin and is restored there. I believe that it will remain the great Human Festival; and what is dying is its counterfeiting and lying.”v
Incorrigible optimist, I also believe in the great Human Festival yet to be seen, but we may have to wait. Before its lights and beams, how many more dark periods will humanity have to endure?
What is striking about Mallarmé’s formula is that it establishes in its cryptic way, it seems to me, and this long before Freud’s iconoclastic theories, a hidden link between Egypt and Israel, between Akhenaten and Moses.
I am incited to see in Moses a man of the great World Theatre, a man who admirably and courageously confronted the « crowd », to impose his Dream (and finally to make Akhenaten’s One God live) and deliver his Book.
But, by contrast, it also brings to light the flagrant absence of a Myth today.
Admittedly, some religions, including the three monotheisms, and Buddhism, hold the upper hand from the point of view of international agit-prop, but it would no doubt be an insult to them to consider them as pure « myths ». Having no taste for vain martyrdom, I will not go looking for any leads in this direction, refusing in advance to confront the zealots and other guardians of the sacred dens.
If the myth of Orpheus prefigures in its own way the descent into the Christic underworld, if Akhenaten is the tutelary figure of the Mosaic God, they are also proof by induction of the power of ideas through the ages.
One key question remains: What myth does the whole of modernity, globalized modernity, strangled in a cramped and overpopulated, violent and oh so unequal planet, now need?
The bottom line is that modern religions (which have lost almost all connection with the original meaning of ancient religions) are part of the problem much more than the solution.
Ancient peoples knew that the Gods have many names, but that the mystery remains unique – and this long before Moses decided to export to the Sinai, with the success we know, the « counter-religion » that Akhenaten had failed to impose in Egypt.
A new world myth, tomorrow, will have to put an end to common hatred, general exclusion, and the idolatry of difference. It will also have to go beyond what Jan Assmann calls the « Mosaic Distinction »vi.
The new world myth, tomorrow, will have to blossom into a World Dream, for everyone to see, to hear, to taste, to feel, to smell, – and to imagine.
The World Dream will not be renewed dreams of modern Babel towers, but the Dream of an Adamic ziggurat, – ochre of consciousness, red with human humus. Red, not of blood, but of the flesh and the breathe of the primal Adam.
For the future of Mankind may well be hidden, like a remembrance of its lost paradise, in a new World Garden.
The Veda is about knowledge and vision. The Sanskrit word veda has for its root विद् vid-, as does the Latin word video (“I see”). This is why it is not untimely to say that the Ṛṣi have ‘seen’ the Veda. However, seeing is not enough, we must also hear. « Let us praise the voice, the immortal part of the soul » says Kālidāsa.
In the Veda, the word ‘word’ (vāc) is feminine. And the ‘spirit’ is masculine. This means both can along together and unite intimately, as in this verse from the Satabatha-Brāhmana: “For the spirit and the word, when harnessed together, carry the Sacrifice to the Gods.”i
This Vedic formula combines in the same sentence the Spirit, the Word and the Divine.
A Christian may think of this alliance of words as a kind of Trinity, two thousand years before the Holy Spirit came to the Verb sent by the Lord.
Could it be that some deep, anthropological constant, worthy of being observed, is here revealing itself, in times of profundity?
In Biblical Hebrew, the word « to descend » (יָרַד yarad) offers a curiously vast range of meanings, including distant semantic universes that are brought closer together, some very simple, everyday ones and others touching on very high notions, including the idea of theophany.
The primary meaning of the verb yarad is “to go from top to bottom”:
« She went down to the fountain » (Gen 24:16)
« My beloved went down to his garden. « (Ct 6,2)
« Abram went down to Egypt. « (Gen 12:10)
« Moses came down from Mount Sinai. « (Ex 34:29)
But the idea of a « descent » invites various metaphors. Here are some examples:
« He will come down like rain on the cut grass. « (Ps 72:10)
« Those who go down into the peat. « (Pr 1,12)
« Let them go down alive into the sheol. « (Ps 55:16)
Some of the metaphors associated with “yarada” broaden the meaning, while keeping the general idea.
« The day was going down. « (Jg 19:11)
« They all burst (yoréd, יֹרֵד בַּבֶּכִי) into tears. « (Is 15:3)
« Those who sail (yoredéi, יוֹרְדֵי הַיָּם) on the sea. « (Ps 107:23)
A second group of meanings is formed around meanings such as: « to fall, to perish, to be ruined ».
« You, you will always fall further and further down. « (Deut 28:43)
The Ritual speaks of a sacrifice that « goes up » and « goes down », that is to say that it varies according to the fortune or virtue of the person offering it.
A third group of meanings, built around the Hiphil form of the verb, increases the strength and intensity of the meaning: « To bring down, to humiliate, to precipitate ».
Finally there is the particular group of meanings associated with apparitions of God, the theophanies.
« The Lord will come down (yéréd YHVH, יֵרֵד יְהוָה )to Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. « (Ex 19:11)
« The mountain of Sinai was all steamy because the Lord had come down (yarad יָרַד )there in the midst of the flame (ba-éch בָּאֵשׁ). « (Ex 19:18).
« When Moses had entered, the pillar of cloud descended (yéréd יֵרֵד) and stopped at the entrance of the Tent and God spoke with Moses. « (Ex 33:9)
« The Lord of Hosts will come down to do battle on Mount Zion and its heights. »(Is 31:4)
« The Lord came down to earth to see the city and the tower. « (Gen 11:5)
A theophany is obviously an extraordinary phenomenon. Witnesses who are able to report a godly vision and translate it into convincing words can sometimes contradict themselves, increasing the doubt of the skeptics. But they also strengthen the faith of those who see hidden meanings beyond words.
Let us take the example of a curious verse:
« He parted the heavens and came down; dark clouds were under His feet. » (2S 22,10)
A good Cartesian might object: if God comes down with a thick mist under His feet, how can one see Him from below?
Several answers to this rather naive objection are possible. The phenomenon can be observed from several angles. Or the expression « dark clouds » may be open to interpretation. It may mean that God is indeed descending, but with a kind of reticence. Another verse is an allegory of the cloud or mist:
« Ah, may you tear the heavens apart and come down! « (Is 63:19).
Theophany is sometimes followed by considerable physical effects or, conversely, very subtle consequences.
In the catastrophic genre: « You went down, and the mountains staggered. « (Is 64:2)
In a more subtle genre, there is the dream, like those of Jacob and Moses.
« The divine messengers went up and down this ladder. « (Gen 28:12). There is the idea of a continuous, processional link between the top and the bottom.
God thus addresses Moses in this way:
« I will come down and speak to you and I will take away part of the spirit that is on you and put it on them. « (Num 11:17)
Is Moses threatened with a possible lobotomy? Should part of his mind be removed to benefit his co-religionists?
Philo offers this reassuring comment:
« Don’t think that the removal was done by entrenchment or separation. It’s like fire: one would light a thousand torches in it, but it remains equal to itself and does not diminish in the least. This is also the nature of science. »i
There is a more important issue. Why does God, who in principle is abundantly endowed with it, need to take some of the spirit of Moses and distribute it like at auction?
God takes a little of Moses’ spirit because Moses possesses a unique spirit, without equal. God recognizes this uniqueness and wants others to benefit from it. God wants to multiply (to clone?) part of Moses’ spirit, to share it with the Hebrews.
This is a kind of « communion ».
God has « come down » to distribute to the people what is unique in Moses.
The semantic analysis of the word yarad projects, as one can see, a wide spectrum of meaning.
This word may mean « fall », « decay », « humiliation », but also the « appearance » of God in glory on the mountain or in the clouds, or may convey the intimate operation of a « communion », linking spirit to spirit.
Thus, the idea of a theophany, expressed in the form of God’s « descent » is not, by construction, immune from possible contamination or slippage, coming from more ordinary, much more human acceptances.
From this observation, of a purely semantic nature, a lesson can be drawn about an aspect of the deepest nature of the divine.
Originally, the Greek word Logos had two rather simple, distinct meanings: ‘word’ and ‘reason’.
With Plato, the concept of Logos began its extraordinary destiny. The Logos became a Principle. By extension, it was also to represent the whole of intelligible things and ideas, as well as the link that connects all the divine powers, and what founds their unity. Finally, it was to become the Intermediary between man and God.
The Neo-Platonists took up the concept and its rich harvest.
Philo of Alexandria, for example, several centuries after Plato, made the Logos an essential attribute of the God of Israel. In God, the Logos was to incarnate the divine Intelligence, the eternal Thought, the Thought in its eternal potency, the Thought that always thinks, the Thought that can think everything, anything, forever.
For Philo, the Logos could also take a second form, which resided not in God, but in the real world. The Logos was then the Thought in act, the Thought which is realized outside God.
Shortly after Philo, John in turn gave his vision of the Logos, in its Christian interpretation. The Gospel of John says that “in the beginning” the Logos was with God and the Logos was God. And the Logos became “flesh”.
Does this mean that there are three instances of the Logos? The Logos who is God, the Logos who is with Him and the Logos who becomes flesh? Are these verbal nuances, poetic metaphors, or metaphysical realities?
In Philo’s theology, the Logos is double: Intelligence in potency, and also Intelligence in act.
In Christian theology, one may say that there are three kind of Logos, who personify themselves respectively as Father, Son, Spirit.
For the philosopher who always seeks for structures, it is possible to discern a general outline in these various interpretations.
The Logos comes out in three ways, according to what it “is”, to what it “thinks” and to what it “says”.
In theory, Being, Thinking and Saying do converge. But who knows?
These three states are also fundamental states of the human being. And Philo goes quite far in his ternary theory of the Logos, in spite of the putative difficulty that monotheism opposes when one wants to reconcile the unity of God and the multiplication of His appearances.
One way of overcoming this difficulty is to posit that the Logos is the set of all ideas which are ‘living’ in God. All the things that exist in the universe are deemed to derive from an original “idea”, from a « seal ». The Logos is the general seal whose imprint is on the whole universe.i
Divine ideas “act like seals, which when they are brought close to the wax, produce countless imprints without themselves being affected in any way, always remaining the same.”ii
Unlike the Logos of John, the Logos of Philo is not a divine person. It is only the ‘Organ’ of God. It is both His Reason and His Word, — which are manifested in His Creation.
Philo multiplies metaphors, analogies, images, applying them to the divine, human and natural realms. The Logos is creation, word, conception, flow, radiation, dilatation. According to yet another image, the Logos governs, as God reigns.
Philo’s thought about the Logos is quite complex. A 19th century commentatoriii judged that a tremendous confusion was in fact at the basis of Philo’s system, because he indiscriminately mixed up Logos (Word), Pneuma (Spirit), Sophia (Wisdom) and Episteme (Knowledge).
All the difficulty comes down to a simple question: what can one really infer a priori from the nature of the divine Spirit?
Difficult to stay.
Maybe one could start by saying that, in the divine Spirit, no distinction can really be made between what « contains » and what is « contained ».
Consequently, for instance for Philo, the Logos is at the same time the Author of the Law and the Law itself, the Spirit and the Letter.iv
The Logos is the Law, and is also the One who announces it, who reveals it.
The Wisdom of God is the source of the Logos, and it is also the Logos itself. In the same way, the Spirit of God is the source of all the intelligible beings, and it is also their total sum.
Everything which constitutes the Logos is divine, and everything which is divine, apart from the essence of God, is the Logos.
The Logos is, in all the universe, the image of the divine brought to unity. He is also the intermediary between this unity and God.
These difficult ideas have in fact been described by some hasty commentators as a « philosophical hodgepodge », adding that they showed a « lack of rigor »v on Philo’s part.
But, in my opinion, other conclusions may emerge.
On the one hand, Philo and John, independently of each other, and at about the same time in History, about two thousand years ago, just before the destruction of the Second Temple, clarified the contours of a “theophany” of the Logos, with some clear differences but also deep common structures.
On the other hand, what is still striking today is the extraordinary resilience of the concept of Logos, throughout history.
The Logos of the Stoics, the Platonic Noos, the Angel of the Eternal, the Word of YHVH, the Judeo-Alexandrine Logos, the Word made flesh, the Messiah of the first Christian Church, all these noetic figures are more similar in their absolute analogies than in their relative differences.
For the various sectarians of monotheism, however, the main difficulty lies in reconciling the idea of the unity of God with the reality of his multiple emanations, such as the Law (the Torah), or His Wisdom (Ḥokhma).
On a more philosophical level, the real difficulty is to think a Thought that exists as an absolute Being, but which also unfolds as a living, free, creative Being, in the Universe, and which finally reveals itself as the revealed Word, in the world.
Today, the « moderns » willingly deny the existence of the Logos, or of the Noos.
The Spirit, as it manifests itself in each one of us, is said by the “moderns” to arise only from biochemical mechanisms, synaptic connections, epigenetic processes, in the midst of glial cells.
The brain would multiply cellular and neuronal networks, and even « viral » ones. By their proliferation, the mechanical miracle of the Spirit coming to consciousness would appear.
But it is only a relative miracle, since we are assured that the “singularity” is close. And tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, it is affirmed, we will pass from deep learning AI to the synthesis of artificial consciousness…
However, another line of research seems possible, in theory.
It is a hypothesis that Kant already put forward, in a slightly provocative way.
“Our body is only the fundamental phenomenon to which, in its present state (in life), the entire power of sensibility and thus all thought is related. Separation from the body is the end of this sensitive use of one’s faculty of knowledge and the beginning of intellectual use. The body would therefore not be the cause of thought, but a merely restrictive condition of thought, and, consequently, it should be considered, without doubt, as an instrument of the sensible and animal end, but, by that very fact, as an obstacle to pure and spiritual life.”vi
Pursuing this line of research, purely intuitive it is true, one could conjecture that the brain, the human body, but also all peoples and Humanity as a whole could figure, in their own way, as immense metaphysical antennas, singular or collective, whose primary mission would be to capture the minute and diffuse signs of a supra-worldly Wisdom, of a creative Intelligence.
The greatest human geniuses would not find their ideas simply by the grace of unexpected crossings of some of their synapses, assisted by ionic exchanges. They would also be somehow « inspired » by the emanations of immense clouds of thinking thoughts, in which all living things are mysteriously immersed from the beginning.
In this hypothesis, who is really thinking then? Just synapses? Or the infinite, eternal choir of wise beings? Who will tell?
Who will say who really thinks, when I think, and when I think that I am?
I am thinking a thought that is born, that lives, and that becomes. I am thinking that thought, which never ceases to let itself think, – and from there, intuitively, I pass to the thought of a thought that would immediately precede and dispense with all thoughts; a thought that would never dispense with thinking, eternally.
Who will say why I pass to this very thought, immediate, eternal? Another shot of ionised synapses, by chance excited, finding their way among a hundred billion neurons (approximately), and twice as many glial cells?