Searching for Our Human Face: Liturgy of the Wilderness

by Brian C. Moore, Ph.D.


To many modern people, the difference between one god and another is literally nominal. At one time, people believed in Zeus and Odin. It is mere historical accident that today some proclaim Allah or the monotheism of Judaism. As for the confused notions surrounding the Trinity in Christianity, well, it usually amounts to a practical subordinationism; but no matter, theological quibbles about unreal entities are nugatory … and so on. The idea that theological differences could actually pertain to reality is so exotic that it never threatens the urbane slumbering of the enlightened. Because of this, most people do not make the effort to think deeply about God. Among religious people, devotional sentiments are indifferent to, or openly hostile towards intellectual efforts to speak about God. Often, a kind of Biblical positivism assumes that there is no need to struggle. The answers to human questioning are rendered manifest in Scripture with a self-evidence that fits egalitarian criteria. This certitude is frequently linked to contempt for speculation, despite Paul’s declaration that even after the Incarnation, we see in a mirror darkly.

Anyway, some such hiatus between theological acumen and supposed practical spirituality helps explain the generally poor quality of Christian thought. There are exceptions and there is certainly hunger on the part of people for wisdom beyond pious platitudes. But Wisdom makes demands contrary to modern proclivities. As Catherine Pickstock points out in After Writing, the old Latin rite was wiser in its circling, it’s cagey repetition, it’s dancing perambulation that approached the divine through half-steps and reversals. Cheap, instrumental reason is efficient. It wants “the bottom line,” will not tarry with a truth long enough for a secret to be borne upon a still, small breeze. Nominalism partakes in this preference for a univocal sameness devoid of complex rituals of loving approach. Just as sex without courtship loses the revelatory power of fleshly union, so does the modern grasp at the real miss the dramatic interpretive nexus that gives to nature a message bearing power. “I see in the expectation of immediacy the nominalist drive to draw all things into simple, that is, unmediated identity” (Kenneth Schmitz, The Recovery of Wonder, p. 108).

In The Lost World of Genesis One, John H. Walton effectively demonstrates the underlying liturgical subtext in which the creation story is told. It is not so much that elemental actors are called forth from nothing, as an extant pool of potentially dramatic figures remains indeterminate until summoned by the divine voice to play a particular role. The naming is functional and sacerdotal all at once. This reading of Hebraic consciousness is consistent with much of the ancient world. The temple recapitulates the heavens and the earth, whilst the universe is itself a cosmic temple. The “it is good” of Genesis anticipates an order of praise. The beginning of Genesis inaugurates preparations for celebratory existence. In this respect, I would argue that Genesis is less a completed creation than the initiation of a seminal process, or, if you like, it’s longer historical narrative evinces a protology oriented towards eschatology. (Cf. Warren Gage’s The Gospel of Genesis.)

The movement towards eschatology is far from simple. Mark S. Smith presents a highly complex reading of Israelite religious experience in The Memoirs of God. Here, a mélange of diverse theological interpretation, sometimes polytheist in nature, slowly builds into the familiar Old Testament corpus. I am aware of counter-histories; defense of an original pristine monotheism followed by derogation. The weight of contemporary scholarship is against it. I am still fond of the traditionalist bias in these matters. The claim that much in nineteenth century historical criticism (and by implication, current historical criticism) is beset by epistemological assumptions that systematically distort and rule out traditional readings seems valid to me. Though even acknowledging all that, there is still too much merit in the work of historians to dismiss all their scholarship with such summary objections.

Even if one were to grant a hypothetical golden age of pure monotheism, the biblical record, when parsed with a keen eye for multiple palimpsests, indicates a varied, cross-purposed, and competitive experience that is taken up into the warp and woof of scriptural tapestry. Take for instance that obscure episode in Exodus 4:24-26 that follows directly after God has commissioned Moses to lead Israel from bondage in Egypt. Without explanation, we are told that the Lord meets Moses in a lodging place on the way and seeks to kill him. Then Zipporah takes a flint and cuts off the foreskin of Gershom, Moses’ son, and touches the feet of her husband, declaring, “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me!” This action mollifies the murderous intentions of the God. I am reminded of Dostoevsky, whose epilepsy induced prolonged periods of hypergraphia. He would write many versions of his long novels. Traces of past versions would haunt the final text, ghosts of renounced possibilities lending a dangerous dynamism to the received rendition, as if a discarded narrative might win free and alter the rest of the story.

Thus, a more complex, conjectural, perhaps uncomfortable indeterminacy must be endured, though this is all rather superficial. More deeply, the Spirit guides us beyond source conundrums regarding historical provenance, or, better, faith embraces history, but discerns and explores a truth that transcends positivist historiography. The latter lacks the wit to read the symbols (Léon Bloy!) Indeed, it doesn’t know that there are symbols. The experience of revelation does not traduce into a simple univocal truth as a certain kind of fundamentalist/traditionalist imagines. Prophets touch borders, cross boundaries, but enigmas remain. Revelation is the opposite of the reduction of divine mystery to a set of decontextualized propositional truths.

Consider, for example, the message of Ezra and Nehemiah, as expounded in Mary Douglas’s In the Wilderness. (Now, I know a certain sort will swiftly rule her out as practicing sociology, not proper theological exegesis. I say, live with her thought a while. Allow yourself to be challenged, before you preemptively silence her.) What Douglass discovers is not a single story of evident piety confronted by worldly backsliding, but two competing theological narratives. On the one side, pious rectitude desires a homogenous purity that is threatened by the acceptance of Canaanite brides. This is the story embedded in Ezra and Nehemiah. Exiles return to find a Jewish remnant that has married into the surrounding culture. Isn’t this the message of Solomon and his wives spread thin and introduced into the populace at large? But this is only one side. Douglas discerns a different stance cleverly deployed in the book of Numbers. Rather than holy zeal, the returnees exhibit a hard-hearted xenophobia. Are they not forgetting the lesson of Rahab? The former ideology may be inclined to forget that the mission of Israel was not centripetal, but for the salvation of nations . . .

Who is this Bloy?
Bloy?
Yes, Bloy!
Ah, a vagabond, a scoundrel, a prophet. This is Bloy:

There is no human being on earth capable of declaring with certitude who he is. No one knows what he has come into this world to do, what his acts correspond to, his sentiments, his ideas, or what his real name is, his enduring Name in the register of Light … History is an immense liturgical text where iotas and dots are worth no less than the entire verse or chapters, but the importance of one and the other is indeterminable, and profoundly hidden.

A saint may indeed have a profound experience of God. This is partly what it means to be a saint. Nonetheless, a saint is not metaphysically closer to God than other men. That they often see further and better and more clearly does not automatically mean that their dictums overrule our own experience and our own obligation to seek the truth. Often, what passes for humility before saintly precedent is sloth, and dullness, and a desire for perplexity to be dealt with by others. Gregory of Nyssa, who is prescient when it comes to elucidating a dynamic eternity, also believed that resurrected bodies would be perfect spheres. Some patristics imagined all would be resurrected as males because woman was a deficient male. You may have that heaven, by the way … When there is a dispute between Isaac of Nineveh and other saints over the nature of hell, a Traditionalist may attempt to exorcize some of Isaac’s teaching or contextualize it so that conflict is minimized or fundamental disagreement denied. Such attempts are more evasive than compelling. What is one to do with it? Many fall back on the weight of tradition as guiding light. One should not blithely dismiss such with jejune disdain. Neither should one assume that truth is simply a matter of consensus, even when that consensus is construed as a kind of “holy plebiscite.” Remember it was once Athanasius against the world.

It is not really a matter of numbers, but of insight.

Back to Mark S. Smith: the point is it doesn’t really matter if there was or was not a primordial monotheism so far as the biblical text is concerned, for the text is undoubtedly a message of monotheism that bears the marks and traces of a struggle to articulate God. While the sacred history may appear otherwise, it was never simply a case of adherence to or rejection of a clearly manifest divine reality. We falsify human experience when we turn scriptural witness into a simplistic morality tale in which the Good was evident and obviously understood and therefore easily affirmed or culpably rejected. Consider Job. Set in the far, pre-Abrahamic past, it is obviously a late, post-exilic work of Jewish wisdom literature. Why set it in the distant past? Probably many reasons, but here is one—to subtly say what could not be overtly stated.

Who are Job’s counselors? Perhaps the pious epigone of the authors of Judges, those whose sense of justice unproblematically discerned divine pleasure and displeasure in earthly fortunes. The writer of Job sensed that not only was such summary clarity false, but that the correlative assumptions about God were implicated in the consciousness that could make such judgments. God was more mysterious, much more ungraspable than a form of traditional piety assumed. And yet, Job itself is insufficient. The sublime mystery of Creation was overwhelming, true, but there was a deeper, more intimate truth that awaited Christ and the Cross, where Job is more fully answered.

(Go to “Dreaming the Depths”)

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10 Responses to Searching for Our Human Face: Liturgy of the Wilderness

  1. tgbelt says:

    Best thing I’ve read in quite a while. I’m just going to keep saying ‘Thank you’, Brian, for the gift, and thank God for a journey (yours) out of which comes such refreshing and challenging conversation.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Andrew says:

    Completely unrelated to this post but have you seen this Father Aidan: http://www.pravoslavie.ru/english/80649.htm
    An interview with Fr Irenei which probably indirectly mentions your and other website’s discussion of heaven and hell. Father Irenei has an interesting take: there is little patristic evidence for the hell is heaven experienced differently theory, and yet if we think of hell and judgement as being ‘cruel’ then we just aren’t getting that the Church ‘doesn’t see these realities as cruel’.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Thank you, Andrew, for bringing this article to my attention. I shall immediately tweet it.

      Like

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Andrew, having now read the interview, I simply want to note that there are many Orthodox who disagree with Archimandrite Irenei’s understanding of the the inspiration and authority of the Fathers. Many criticisms might be advanced. For one it effectively silences the voices of the Fathers. No longer are we allowed to hear them in their own distinctive voices but we may only hear them as they agree with our present understanding of the Orthodox Faith. In practice what this means is that we are no longer permitted to engage in theological argument and disputation. There is only the appeal to authority, which of course immediately shuts down conversation and debate. But who speaks authoritatively and infallibly for the Church in Orthodoxy? Catholics at least have a Pope. You and I both know, I suspect, who functions as “the Pope” in some circles of contemporary Orthodoxy.

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      • Andrew says:

        Thank you Father Aidan. I’m grateful for Fr Irenei’s honesty even if I find it his interpretation impossible to accept. I’m coming to see that his take has more in common with the experience of many perhaps most saints over the past thousand years (or perhaps more so those saints who engaged in theological discussion). Honesty I don’t see how different it Is from a Calvinist mindset, that is, accepting theology that presents God as difficult to love and yet somehow loving Him anyway, despite this theology. Really, how different is Calvin’s predestination from St John of Damascus’s? Fr Irenei’s experience is a complete mystery to me but I admire him for his honest reflection.

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  3. AR says:

    Brian, I’ve been introduced to nominalism and positivism on a freshman level but I never feel I’ve got a grasp on them when I see them mentioned. It makes holes in my understanding of such essays as this! Would ‘The Recovery of Wonder’ help or do you recommend another book?

    I think I’ve read this post ten times now. I feel like there’s an essay standing behind each sentence, but to my surprise I actually enjoy this condensed method of presentation. It’s a less cumbersome and more psychic text than I ever thought I’d be able to make use of. Must you go through a terribly detailed thought process to write like this? Or is it the deft generalizing, tightened up, of someone who’s read a lot of stuff?

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    • brian says:

      Alana,

      I don’t do any of this. My cat writes this stuff . . .

      The Recovery of Wonder has the virtue of being relatively brief. I met Dr. Schmitz when I was in graduate school. (He was a guest speaker.) He’s a wonderful fellow and I think he would help get a handle on the problem with nominalism.

      No, it’s not a detailed thought process. I’ve read a lot and brooded upon these matters. I’m really more of an associative thinker than someone who plots out linear connections. Something reminds me of something else and I’m like a chef playing with ingredients; alternatively, I get a few images or a musical sense of themes interacting with one another. Sometimes it works and sometimes I have the feeling it’s more of a melange than anything else.

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  4. tgbelt says:

    Brian,

    As I’ve recently been reading through Mark Smith’s The Early History of God, I couldn’t help but think about the modern insistence upon the Hellenistic corruption of an otherwise pure biblical faith, i.e., the idea that unadulterated Semitic monotheism (which, as it goes, viewed God as relational, involved, changing, responding, etc.) got corrupted by a foreign, Greek worldview (in which God was timeless, static and unfeeling), and that such foreign influence was a bad thing and we should get back to the pure biblical (etc) God. But if Mark Smith is right, there really is not such thing? What of the influence of ancient Canaanite worship/beliefs upon the evolution of Israel’s understanding of Yahweh (if Smith is right) or the influence of Zoroastrianism upon Exilic Israel and their theological evolution and reassessment of things? Where exactly is this pure biblical Hebraisitc monotheism untouched by pagan influences? Was there ever a biblical view of things which was not always a creative engaging of surrounding worldviews?

    Tom

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    • brian says:

      Thoughtful questions, Tom.
      I think the pure, isolated hypothesis is and always has been unrealistic.
      Creative engagement is unavoidable. Even an enclave mentality (like the Essenes qumran community, for example) which identifies the truth with a very narrow and specific ideology does so as a form of opposition to “the world.” The dialogic element is explicitly rejected, but it is implicitly present.

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