Visions and Consciousness

« Peter’s Vision » Gordon Wilson

Where is the Garden of Eden?

According to the Talmud, it is either in Palestine, or in Arabia, or in Damascus. i

Where is the Underworld?

In Sion, says Rabbi Ismael’s school. ii

And where is the entrance to the Underworld? Rabbi Jeremiah ben Eleazar said, « Gehenna has three entrances: one in the desert, another in the sea, and the third in Jerusalem. » iii

Gehenna takes its name from Gaihinom, meaning a valley as deep as the Valley of Hinom. But Gehenna has many other names as well: Tomb, Perdition, Abyss, Desolation, Mire, Mire of Death, Land of Below. iv

This last expression is similar to the one used by the Nations: the « Underworld ».

« We speak in Latin of the underworld (inferi) because it is below (infra). Just as in the order of bodies, according to the law of gravity, the lowest are all the heaviest, so in the order of spirits, the lowest are all the saddest. » v

Everyone agrees that the Underworld is a sad place. But is it a geographical place, like being located « under Zion »?

Augustine, for his part, asserts that the Underworld is a spiritual place, not a place « under the earth ».

And he adds that this « spiritual place » is in Heavens.

In Heavens ? But which one?

Augustine indeed distinguishes three different

First Heaven: The corporeal world, which extends over the waters and the earth.

Second Heaven: Everything that is seen by the spirit, and resembles bodies, like the vision of animals that Peter in ecstasy saw coming down to him (Acts, X, 10-12).

Third Heaven: « What the intellectual soul contemplates once it is so separated, distant, cut off from the carnal senses, and so purified that it can see and hear, in an ineffable way, what is in heaven and the very substance of God, as well as the Word of God by whom all things were made, and this in the charity of the Holy Spirit. In this hypothesis, it is not unreasonable to think that it was also in this sojourn that the Apostle was delighted (II Cor., 12:2-4), and that perhaps this is the paradise superior to all the others and, if I may say so, the paradise of paradises. » vii

How can one explain the difference between the second Heaven and the third one ?

One may get an idea of the difference by analyzing two visions of Peter as opposed to Paul’s own famous revelation:

« He felt hungry and wanted to eat something. But while they were preparing food for him, he fell into ecstasy. He saw the sky open and an object, like a large tablecloth tied at the four corners, descending towards the earth. And inside there were all the quadrupeds and reptiles and all the birds of the sky. Then a voice said to him, ‘Come, Peter, kill and eat.’ But Peter answered, ‘Oh no! Lord, for I have never eaten anything that is unclean or impure!’ Again, a second time, the voice spoke to him, ‘What God has cleansed, you do not defile.’ This was repeated three times, and immediately the object was taken up to heaven. (…) As Peter was still reflecting on his vision, the Spirit said to him, ‘Here are men who are looking for you. Go therefore, come down and go with them without hesitation, for I have sent them.» viii

Following the advice, Peter goes to Cornelius’ home, who was a Roman centurion. There he finds a large number of people waiting for him. Then Peter said to them, « You know that it is absolutely forbidden for a Jew to fraternize with a stranger or to enter his house. But God has just shown me that no man is to be called unclean or impure.» ix

This first vision had a very real and concrete effect on Peter. It induced this eyebrowed and law-abiding Jew to somewhat overlook some prohibitions set by the Law, and to fraternize and share food with a group of non-Jews, assembled in their own home.

Peter then had a second vision, in more dramatic circumstances.

Peter had been arrested, put in prison, and about to be executed, on the order of King Herod.

« Suddenly the angel of the Lord came, and the dungeon was flooded with light. The angel struck Peter on the side and raised him up: « Get up! Quickly, » he said. And the chains fell from his hands. »x

Then, « Peter went out and followed him, not realizing that which was done by the angel was real, but he thought he was having a vision.» xi

This was not a vision indeed, but a real event, since Peter was really set free.

Still, there was an element of « vision » in this « reality » : the apparition of the angel and his role in the escape of Peter.

Peter had yet to acknowledge that role.

« Suddenly, the angel left him. Then Peter, returning to consciousness, said, « Now I know for certain that the Lord has sent His angel and has taken me out of the hands of Herod and out of all that the people of the Jews were waiting for.» xii

It was not the reality of his evasion from the prison of Herod that awakened the consciousness of Peter.

He became conscious only when the angel left him.


iAt least that is what Rech Lakich asserts in Aggadoth of the Babylonian Talmud. Erouvin 19a §16. Translated by Arlette Elkaïm-Sartre. Ed. Verdier. 1982, p.264.

iiThe passage « Who has his fire in Zion and his furnace in Jerusalem » (Is. 31:9) shows us this. According to the school of R. Ishmael, His fire in Zion is Gehenna; His furnace in Jerusalem is the entrance to Gehenna. In Aggadoth of the Babylonian Talmud. Erouvin 19a §14. Translation by Arlette Elkaïm-Sartre. Ed. Verdier. 1982, p.263.

iiiAggadoth of the Babylonian Talmud. Erouvin 19a §14. Translated into French by Arlette Elkaïm-Sartre, and my English translation. Ed. Verdier. 1982, p.263.

ivAccording to R. Joshua ben Levi. Ibid. p.264

vS. Augustine. Genesis in the literal sense. Book XII, 34, 66: Desclée de Brouwer. 1972, p.449.

viS. Augustine. Genesis in the literal sense. Book XII, 34, 67. Desclée de Brouwer. 1972, p.449.

viiIbid. Book XII, 34,68; p.451

viiiAct. 10, 10-20

ixAct. 10, 28

xAct, 12.7

xiAct, 12.9

xiiAct, 12, 10-11

Imminence of Disaster

Emmanuel Lévinas, in a short autobiographyi, briefly recounts his childhood in Lithuania and Ukraine, his arrival in Strasbourg in 1923, his university career culminating in a professorship at the Sorbonne in 1973. This « disparate inventory » is dominated, he stresses, « by the presentiment and memory of Nazi horror ».

He then evokes, without any transition, the work of Husserl, whose method, he explains, consists of « respecting the intentions that animate the psyche », and seeing how it appears.

Surprising angel leap. Coagulation of extremes. From one line to the other, an unexpected change of subject – the passage from « Nazi horror » to « phenomenology ». Levinas links the pain of History, the praise of intention and the putting into perspective of what he calls « the unsuspected horizons where the real lies ».

Calm style of thought, through a succession of powerful jolts.

Time abounds in intimate fractures, in a thousand vacillations, constantly « presented » and « represented ». In each of them, the consciousness can decide to display its own will, a desire for rupture, or a refusal.1

From this capacity for rupture, from this refusal of abstraction, from this reflex of negation, from this scathing feeling of imminence, Levinas deduces the existence of beings of consciousness, who tear themselves away from the totality, who do not associate themselves with it, do not encompass it.

From these consciousnesses, from the pluralism of subjectivities and the myriad of experiences – he infers the necessity of the « other », the necessity of the relation of the being with other beings, and with the Other.

Nice ideal.

From the same premises, however, a much more pessimistic lesson could be drawn.

The rupture with the present, the gaping of the imminent, the uprooting from nature, the refusal of the principle, the execution of the impersonal and the negation of the totality do not necessarily lead to the apotheosis of the relation, the revelation of the being in front of the being.

Why would the refusal of the Whole certainly open the way to the Other?

The refusal of the Whole could rather imply a certain, absolute, assured solitude. The observation of Hegelian failure, the flight from totalizations, are not sufficient conditions for a new Exodus. Moreover, if there were a new Exodus, who would be its Moses, and to what Earth, with what people?

A Promised Land, where one could meet Angeli Novi, à la Klee? Or a wounded land, traversed in all directions by angels of Death, furious demons, incubi and succubi, — a land of Hell?

A disputed, bruised, bloodless land, where black clouds, funeral mounds, mass graves, and putrid smells spread out?

Which new prophet will tell us what the future Promised Lands still in the making will be?

For the addicts to phenomenology, the name of one of these putative prophets would be: Intention !…

Following this lesson, we should listen to the « intention » lurking in the depths, we should watch out for the « psyche » at work in ourselves. We must not stop being even more attentive to what could, coming unexpectedly, « appear » in the world, or in our consciousness, at any moment.

We must give consciousness this unique credit: to be able to sense in due time the imminence of disaster.


1« Le temps ne doit pas être vu comme  »image » et approximation d’une éternité immobile, comme mode déficient de la plénitude ontologique. Il articule un mode d’existence où tout est toujours révocable, où rien n’est définitif, mais est à venir – où le présent même n’est pas une simple coïncidence avec soi, mais encore imminence. Ce qui est la situation de la conscience. Avoir conscience, c’est avoir du temps, c’est être en deçà de la nature, dans un certain sens ne pas être encore né. Un tel arrachement n’est pas un moindre être, mais la façon du sujet. Elle est pouvoir de rupture, refus de principes neutres et impersonnels, refus de la totalité hégélienne et de la politique, refus de rythmes ensorceleurs de l’art. » E. Lévinas. Difficile liberté, 1976, p.375

iE. Lévinas. Difficile liberté. Chapitre Signature, 1076

Cosmos Hole

The WISEA J171227.81-232210.7 black hole — several billion times as massive as our sun, exploding in Ophiuchus galaxy cluster,

Claude Lévi-Strauss is a good representative of contemporary thought. He displays its salient characteristics: despair of thought, insignificance of being, erection of non-knowledge as the ultimate « knowledge », universal doubt (doubt of meaning and doubt of doubt itself), all this in a sardonic and cheerful tone. « Let humanity disappear and the earth disappear, nothing will be changed in the march of the cosmos. Hence a final paradox: we are not even sure that this knowledge that reveals our insignificance has any validity. We know that we are nothing or not much, and, knowing this, we no longer even know if this knowledge is one. To think of the universe as immeasurable to thought forces us to question thought itself. We don’t get out of it.”i

What will be the thought of the universe in a thousand or two thousand years from now, who can claim to know it today? And who can think in the languages of the day what will be thought here and there, in the universe, in eight hundred thousand years or in a hundred million centuries? These ages seem distant only because of a lack of imagination.

We are really tired of the old marquis who are tired of dreaming. Post-modern doubt is a paper origami. We yearn for fresh and lively intuitions, for other universes, for horizons with naked orients, for stars without north, and the worn-out metaphors of extra-galactic confines or exo-biological chimeras already bore us with their brash roundness and frank blandness.

To think far away, however, little is enough. We need to change the signs, to swap the senses, and to dream of hurricanes. Everything quickly becomes different then. The thoughts of the day seem like slow caterpillars, far from the butterfly that is sensed, and very unworthy of the pensive eagle, high in the cloud.

It is tempting to believe that thought is immeasurable to the universe, and, diagonally agonistic, line of fire, that it transcends it easily. The humblest thought goes further than the white dwarves stars, and it pierces the fabric of the world with a hole blacker than the whole dark matter.

Any thought that is a little audacious obliges us to question the universe itself, its meaning and its essence. Every thought then cries out: « We are getting out of it immediately », – and not: « we are not getting out of it ».

The whole universe is in itself « insignificant ». By contrast, thought “means”, it has “meaning”, and it gives “meaning”.

If the entire universe ever receives one day some meaning, that meaning will not come from cosmic background noise, the shape of nebulae, or the sanctification of the boson (the so-called « God’s particle »).

If a demiurge created the world, the cosmos has no meaning of its own. Its meaning is obviously to be found elsewhere than in it.

And if the world created itself, by some kind of automatism, how could it give itself its own meaning, suck its own blood? Does the baby child at the breast suck herself?

The cognitive and ontological pessimism of post-modernism is equivalent to its opposite, from the point of view of the free play of radical hypotheses. The pessimism of insignificance has no logical weight of its own.

The existence of human consciousness, the irrefutable manifestation of being, must be placed far above the imperfect dreams of putative multiverse.

Universe, multiverse, it doesn’t matter what they are or how many they are, because in reality « you can’t get out of it ».

Consciousness, in essence, its deepest mystery, is that the deeper you get into it, the more you « come out », — as from an eternal Egypt.

iClaude Lévi-Strauss, De près et de loin. Ed. O. Jacob, Paris, 1988