A God hidden in the mud


« You really are a hidden God.  » (Is 45:15)

אָכֵן, אַתָּה אֵל מִסְתַּתֵּר

Vere tu es Deus absconditus.

Isaiah calls out to God by a simple « you », in Hebrew « attah ».

This « you » mocks the cynic, the incredulous. It testifies to the immediate proximity of what is revealed, the certainty of the idea.

But this « you » hides more than it reveals itself.

The adjective « hidden » is said mistatar in Hebrew. Esther of the Book of Esther, bears this name, she is « the hidden one » (מִסְתַּתמִסֵר mistatèr). These words come from the verb סַתָר « to hide, protect, shelter ». This word is often found in the Bible, with a wide range of possible meanings: to cover, conceal, eclipse, bury, wrap, bury, blotch, mask, shut in, shut up, hold, drag, veil.

In the substantive form, three main meanings emerge: 1) What is hidden, secret 2) Envelope, cover, veil 3) Protection, retirement, asylum.

It is revealing, I think, that the meaning of a word that means « veil » can have hidden depths, and refer to other words, just as deep, just as veiled.

The verb tsamtsem, related to the concept of tsimtsum, also means « to veil ».

The God who hides and veils himself is also the God who contracts Himself, and makes Himself silent. It is also the God of kenosis, the God who humbles Himself ( the word humble comes from Latin humus, earth, which also gave homo, man).

What is God hiding in His humiliation? What is He hiding in the humus, in the mud-made man?

A Jewish « Kenosis »


How could an Almighty God, creator of the worlds, let himself be put to death by his own creatures? Mystery. To designate this lowering, this humiliation, this annihilation of the divine, Christianity uses the word kenosis, from the Greek verb kenoô, « to empty oneself, to strip oneself, to annihilate oneself ». This word was first used by the Epistle of Paul to the Philippiansi.

But the idea of God’s death is much older. It can be found in the centuries preceding Christianity in quite different forms, it is true, for example among the Greeks with the death of Dionysus killed by the Titans, but also among the Egyptians with the murder of Osiris and his dismemberment by Seth, his own brother.

Among Jews, with the concept of tsimtsum (from the Hebrew צמצום, contraction), there is also this idea of a « God who empties himself ». It is a concept of late appearance since it is due to Isaac Louria in Ari Zal (Safed, 16th century), who uses it to explain a point of Kabbalah :

Before the creation of the worlds, God was everything, everywhere, and nothing was without Him. But when God decided to create the worlds, he had to give them a place so that they could be. God withdrew his original light, or qadoum. In the void thus created, called reshimou (« imprint », from the verb rashama, « write ») a light emanated from God, or néetsal. This emanated light constitutes the olam ha-Atziluth, the world of Emanation. Then are generated the olam haBeryah or world of Creation, the olam haYetzirah or world of Formation and the olam haAssiya or world of Action, – which contains our world. The light emanating from it therefore undergoes several contractions, compressions, or « dissimulations », which are all tsimtsum.

This word comes from the verb צָמַם tsamam, which has a wide spectrum of meaning: « to put an end to, exterminate, silence, annihilate, compress, contract, squeeze, veil, hide, observe closely, define exactly, certify », which is described in Marcus Jastrow’s Dictionary of Targumim Talmud and Midrashic Literature (1926). From this rich range, the word tsimtsum probably brings out the harmonics.

Here are some of them, taken from a Kabbalah lesson by Baruch Shalom Alevi Ashlag. The reason why the emanated Light cascades through the four created worlds, Atziluth, Beryah, Yatzirah and Assiya, is that the « desire to receive » must at each step be increased accordingly. For there can be no divine creation without an equally divine desire to « receive » this creation.

In the beginning, there is an abundance of Light created, emanating from the divine essence. Correlatively there must be an abundance of desire to receive this light. But this desire to receive cannot appear in the world ex nihilo. Desire is itself created. It is called Kli ְכְּלִי , a word whose primary meaning is: « thing done, thing made ». It is also called, less metaphorically, Guf (« the body »). The Kli must « receive », « lock », « hold » the light in him (as the root verb כָּלַא indicates).

Here, a little aside. The Kli can be said to be a piece of furniture, a vase, a garment, a suit, a ship, an instrument or a weapon. Here again, all the harmonics of these various senses can undoubtedly be applied to make the Kli resonate in its role as a receptacle of light, – in its role as a soul, therefore. Sander and Trenel’s dictionary says that Kli comes from the root verb כֶּלֶה (kalah), a close word to ֶכָּלַא (kala’), already mentioned. The verb kalah offers an interesting spectrum of meaning: to be made, completed, ready; to be resolved; to disappear, to miss, to be consumed, to perish, to languish; to finish; to consume, to exterminate.

Believing that words serve as a memorial to millenary experiences, I would think that all these meanings apply in one way or another to kli in its possible relationship with light.

Divine light, falling into the different worlds, spreads and at the same time contracts, folds, or veils itself, to let the desire to be received by the Kli grow, by this receptacle, this desire, this soul or this « body », this Kli which is at the root of the created creature. The Kli, who was previously part of the Light, must now distinguish himself from it in order to receive it better; he must separate himself from it in order to desire it better. He desires it as Or Hokhma (the Light of Wisdom) or Or Haya (the Light of Life), or Or Hassadim (the Light of Mercy). The Kli is therefore determined according to the degree of expansion of the Light and also according to its degree of exit from it.

Wise men commented on these questions as follows: « There is crying in inner dwellings ».

This means that when the Light arrives in the lower worlds, and it does not find a Kli wishing to receive it, it remains « interior », unrevealed, and then « there is crying ». But when she finds a Kli who desires her, she can reveal herself on the outside, and then « vigour and joy are in His place », and everything becomes visible.

i Ph. 2, 6-9 « Lui, de condition divine, ne retint pas jalousement le rang qui l’égalait à Dieu. Mais il s’anéantit (εκένωσεν) lui-même, prenant condition d’esclave, et devenant semblable aux hommes. S’étant comporté comme un homme, il s’humilia plus encore, obéissant jusqu’à la mort, et à la mort sur une croix !  Aussi Dieu l’a-t-il exalté et lui a-t-il donné le Nom qui est au-dessus de tout nom. »

Deus and humus


Christianity offers the opportunity to ask a question that has no place in Judaism or Islam.

Why does such a high, transcendent God, creator of the worlds, king of the universe, stoop so low, dying crucified, under the spitting and mocking of some of his creatures? Why does he humiliate himself by incarnating himself? What does the Deus have to do with humus?

The theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar proposes the idea of « kenosis » in response to these questions. The « kenosis » of the Son (the God nailed to the cross) is linked to another « kenosis », that of the Father (the « descent » of God to man).

Two thousand years ago, Paul of Tarsus had already strongly marked that this idea of kenosis was a « madness » for the Greeks, and a « scandal » for the Jews.

Why is kenosis scandalous to them? Jewish Tradition admits that there is a certain analogy between God and man, since according to Scripture, man is created in the « image » and « likeness » of God.

If man and God have any « similarity », any « resemblance », it is first and foremost the fact of « being ». Scholastics called this similarity relationship the analogy of being (« analogia entis »).

But does the fact of « being » have the same meaning for God and for man? There is a good chance of misunderstanding this word, with its multiple meanings, and its drawer obscurities.

Objections abound on this subject, even within Christianity. Karl Barth points out that Reform theologians formally deny the analogy of being. Since creation is stained by original sin, there can be no analogy between the being of man and the being of God.

The only accepted analogy, according to these same theologians, is the analogia fidei, the analogy of faith. Only faith can bring us closer to the mystery of being. By means of reason, no knowledge of God is possible. Only a gift of grace makes it possible to « know God ». Philosophy and its representations, ideas or images – like the analogy of being – are in this context powerless, useless.

The God of the Reformation is certainly not a God accessible to philosophers.

However, how can we understand this name of God, revealed to Moses: « I am he who is »?

How can we understand « I am », and « He who is », if no « analogy of being » can make us understand its meaning?

If no analogy of being is admissible in the context of the encounter between God and Moses, it means that the word « being » itself is only an empty word, a false image, which does not reflect the infinite difference in nature between being as it is said by God (« I am he who is ») and being as it is lived by man. We use the same word (« to be »), but for things that have nothing to do with each other. We are in the middle of an illusion, in the middle of a mistake.

But then why bother with this question, if the language is perfectly useless? Why read the Torah if the word « to be » is meaningless?

Why would God tell Moses words that would objectively have no meaning for human understanding? Why would God maintain confusion in this way, by playing on the obvious inability of human language? Is this God a « deceitful » God?

If the word « to be » is devoid of any common sense, does it nevertheless have a real meaning, reserved for the initiated?

If each way of being is only a fleeting image, a partial appearance, a transitory phenomenon, where does the ultimate essence of being stand?

God revealed to Moses to be the being who is « the being who is ». By contrast, it is deduced, man is a being who is not « a being who is »; he is a being, undoubtedly, but he is not « the being who is ». Nor is he a being who is not, because then he would be nothing more than a void, and the question would be resolved. This is clearly not the case. What is it then?

The metaphor of being like a « garment » can put us on a track. Serge Bulgakov dares the idea of a God who undresses himself freely from his Glory, while remaining God in himself.

To what extent can this free disregard for God by Himself go? To infinity? Is there a lower limit below which God can no longer « undress », or infinitely « naked »?

Impotence of metaphors…. What does it mean, « to undress », or « to be naked », for God?

In the absence of a precise answer, we borrow from Paul a Greek word, « kenosis », which means « emptying », to enrich a deficient theological vocabulary. « Kenosis » refers to the fact of a naked God, as delivered in Scripture, but does not explain why, the end or the essence of it.

When God says: « I am the one who is », does he then « undress » himself with the Glory of his « being », by this very word? Or is this word still a glorification?

Does he undress from his glorious « Being » to remain humbly gathered in this simple word, which twice uses the word « to be », which is also part of the miserable lexicon of man?

The word that Moses heard on the mountain has no visible equivalent. The « burning bush » was well visible to him, but it was not the visible image of the divine words (« I am he who is »). At the very least, it can be argued that the « burning bush » is perhaps an image of Glory, of which it is precisely a question of seeing if God can decide to undress himself from it.

If Glory is a garment, and God undresses himself, what remains to be « seen »? Or to « hear »? A fortiori, if the being is a garment, and the man undresses himself in it, what remains to be shown or said?

Under the garment of the being, what ultimate nakedness is she lying waiting for? Under the divine Glory, what darkness reigns?

Boring questions, no possible answers. And yet we must continue to wander, in search of new paths, as the darkness thickens here.

Noxious darkness invades the brain as soon as we speak, not of the Divinity that is said, or that reveals itself, but of the one that hides or lowers itself.

« The darkness of the abandonment of the Son has its roots in the darkness of the Father » (Adrienne von Speyr).

These similar darknesses may also, in their darkness, carry an infinitely weak glow. The deeper they are, the deeper you dive in them, the more you drown in them, the more they make you hope to find at the bottom of the sea the glow of the unheard-of, the glow of the unthinkable.

An infinitely weak glow at the bottom of infinitely dark darkness is a good metaphor for the infinite.

Any concept or image that can be formed about divine infinity must be renounced immediately. It is necessary to leave (as if by iteration, in the construction of a mathematical infinity) the place to a new enigma, to a new darkness, always deeper, each provisional concept annihilating itself, each proposed image immediately becoming obscured.

In the absence of being able to say anything positive, therefore, we can only try the negative path, the one that one of the best specialists in the field has called the « dark night ».

It is necessary to hypothesize that God is also incarnated, in his own way, in « night » and « powerlessness ». He can be « night » to himself, reveal himself deep darkness and absolute nakedness under the garment of his Glory; admit to himself « absence » at the heart of his Presence.

These are other ways of defining kenosis, other metaphors.

In the 4th century, Hilaire de Poitiers said that the Word of God has a « disposition to annihilation » which consists in « emptying himself within his power ».

This idea is still based on the raw fact of kenosis, as reported in the biblical text.

Let us return to an index, the only one we have of « annihilation » and « emptiness ». Jesus shouted just before he died: « Elôï, Elôï, lema sabachtani? »

Jesus expresses himself in Aramaic, and this phrase is translated as follows: « My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? »

This cry of agony and dereliction is also a notable, though not obvious, reference to the first verse of David’s Psalm 22, which reads in Hebrew as follows (note the difference with Aramaic):

אֵלִי אֵלִי, לָמָה עֲזַבְתָּנִי

« Eli, Eli, lamah, azabthani? ‘’

The spectators who were watching Christ’s agony on Golgotha made a mockery of Christ’s cry: « And now he is calling Elijah to help him! ».

It can be assumed that the dying person misspoke the words, suffocated by the cross, or that his dying breath was too weak for the crowd to hear him clearly. Another hypothesis is that Aramaic was perhaps not well understood by the Roman soldier? Or was the allusion to the verse in David’s psalms perhaps not obvious to the witnesses present?

All these hypotheses are obviously superfluous, inessential; but they refer to a single question that is essential:

Why this cry of abandonment, in the mouth of the « Messiah »?

The abandoned Son, the Father abandoning. At the supreme moment, extreme loneliness. Absolute failure, total nil. Jesus denied, despised, mocked by Man. And abandoned by God.

All this, from beginning to end, even today, incomprehensible, laughable, scandalous: « Madness for the Greeks, scandal for the Jews. »

This madness and scandal are two thousand years old. What can they still mean, under the lazzis, hatred or indifference, for a civilization of reason, order and « lights »?

A moment without how or why


“Synaptic plasticity” is one of the contemporary metaphors of the plasticity of nature and culture. In the past, deities were also plastic. Ovid or Apuleius poetically described their « metamorphoses ». Among the Greeks and Latins, Zeus or Jupiter could take all forms. The idea of the plasticity of God is therefore not new. But among Christians, this idea is pushed as far as possible, with the paradoxical form of « kenosis ».

Madness for the Greeks, scandal for the Jews: Christ is a man and he is also God.

He is not the God of the Hosts, but the God in his glory, the Lord on the right hand of the Lord, the Messiah of the end times.

Madness, scandal, is that this God in all his Glory is also a God ignored, humiliated, tortured, mocked, crucified as a stateless slave.

Madness, scandal, is an infinite God, eternal, creator of the worlds, reduced to the state of a human wreck, a pantelante, dying on the wood, in the midst of rotten corpses.

Kenosis, from the Greek kenoein (to empty), reflects this strange idea of the descent to earth of a God emptied of himself and his power.

Who can do more can do less. Hegel did not hesitate to use divine kenosis as a metaphor for a kind of philosophical kenosis. Without fear of any celestial lightning, Hegel put the former at the service of the latter.

Kenosis is a free erasure of divinity in favor of human freedom, and this erasure is part of the divine project. This paradoxical idea of kenosis can also illustrate, according to Hegel, the philosophical process of voluntary self-dispossession, the dispossession of subjectivity.

Divine kenosis signalled the possibility of a space and time of transcendental emptiness. Philosophical kenosis now applies to man himself. Man is no longer a fixed substance, he is a disappearing subject.

To make an image, Hegel multiplies the figures of God’s exit from oneself. The German language is rich in possibilities in this field: Ent-zweiung, Ent-fremdung, Ent-aüsserung. These forms of exteriorization, and even alienation, are not to be taken lightly from a God who fills the world, or who envelops the world with his thoughts and his Word.

By philosophically recycling an eminently theological concept, Hegel wants to « bring to light the kenotic essence of modern subjectivity, » comments Malabou.

Hegel is ready to bend any wood, including cross wood, to support his speculation.

But in what way is « modern subjectivity » kenotic? How does it mimic the divine recess? By its own emptiness?

The emergence of the concept of kenosis on the philosophical level indicates that Christ first became a noetic representation. For Hegel, it represents, it embodies a speculative idea, that of « absolute truth ». « If Christ is to be only an excellent individual, even without sin, and only that, the representation of the speculative idea of absolute truth is denied.

The Christ who died on the cross, descended to the bottom of the abyss, represents « the negativity of God relating to himself ».

God denying himself represents the absolute truth of his own negation. Is this not the figure of a « plastic » God, par excellence?

« Plastic » refers to what can take on a shape, but then resist deformation to a certain extent. In the philosophical context, what is more « plastic » than the mind? νοὖς (noûs), in its passive reception state, is « the sleep of the spirit, which, in power, is everything » says Hegel in his Philosophy of the Mind. Plasticity contaminates everything. If the mind is originally plastic, as its epigenesis shows us, then the very concepts it can express must also be plastic in some way. The mind is characterized by its innate ability to receive forms, but also to give forms. He extends this property to his own form, which he can deform, reform, reform, transform, transform, by epigenesis, by work or by any other appropriate operation.

Thinking, by its very nature, takes itself as an object of thought. This « thought of thought », this noesis noêseos, this notic plasticity, is the philosophical translation of what was originally a primordial neurobiological property. Thinking is a kind of living being, a being independent of the one who thinks it, and who in this own life, takes itself for form and for future transformations. Thinking takes itself and expands itself freely. Hegel uses the word Aufhebung, which can be translated as « divestment ». Aufheben combines the senses of Befreien (to liberate) and Ablegen (to get rid of).

This withdrawal movement is reflexive. It can be applied to itself. There is always the possibility of a succession of the succession, a divestiture of the divestiture. But who is the subject of this second degree succession? Who decides to divest himself of his act of divestment, and to do what with it?

In other words, what can be generated by a moment of true freedom? What can we hope, at best? Another moment of pure freedom, with no connection to any of the above? The establishment of a new causal chain, imposing its own determination until another possible free moment “arrives”, a moment without how or why, and where, for reasons that are not reasons, would another moment of pure freedom follow?

In reality that is a mystery.