by Brian C. Moore, Ph.D.
I know atheists for whom discussion of God is equivalent to quibbling over whether or not invisible pink rabbits exist. They have been educated into imbecility. While capable of shrewd, instrumental acts of reason, they naively accept the rough, pragmatic materialism that passes for metaphysics in an age of barbarism. Yet one can almost forgive them if they have a dismissive view of theology. Either as panderer to contemporary ideological obsessions or as purveyor of abstruse cogitations devoted to arcane matters, theology often appears to glaze the eyes, to make God dull, worse, merely fashionable, or to repeat tired orthodoxies without any sense that wonder and perplexity accompany every step of our journey through time. Conversely, usually in small, zealous circles, theological discourse can take a different turn, becoming an exercise in dialectical gamesmanship. In Plato’s Republic, Thrasymachus, the sophist, is described as a kind of wild beast. Today, Thrasymachus would be a professor in a university or a politician. He would tack to the prevailing opinions and make a fine career for himself. When Thrasymachus engages Socrates, he believes dialectic to be akin to professional fencing. Truth is not a reality to be discovered, certainly not beneficent or in any way a gift. The bestial sophist wins by persuading others through appeal to expediency or to their higher nature, by bullying or by preaching compassion, by the allure of power or the promise of a pleasant life, anything at hand so long as it works, to accept the world picture he conjures with his words. It is a form of black magic where the lonely ego attains a temporary advantage over its competitors – and the other is always a rival, never a friend. The baseness and deep ignorance of Thrasymachus explains why he presumes Socrates’ strange ways are merely tactical, for wisdom as he understands it can be nothing besides war covert or naked. What follows is not intended as neatly arranged argument. I am uninterested in merely scholastic back-and-forth, nor am I looking for laurels. I am searching for an enigmatic Good. I am going to circle and meander, because that is the way of the river on its way to perfection, the elemental impermanence seeking the ocean of infinitude. I sometimes confidently assert a particular metaphysical or theological position; sometimes I hold tenaciously to what I believe beautiful and good, even if it requires antinomies or having to appear a sloppy thinker or the fool. So, I do not pretend to fence though I will occasionally swing a broadsword.
But just between us, who do you think you are? Where do you think you are going? What are you doing with your precious, finite grains of sand as they implacably fall through the hour glass? You are surely going towards death. Does that make any difference? Does it unsettle certitudes? If not, why not?
One of the last things the late Kim Fabricius wrote: “The best that I can say about me is that I am a placeholder for what I will become.” The apophatic manner resists the temptation to closure. It resists forms of logic that bracket out the eschatological, as if we had genuine knowledge apart from God. If the Sermon on the Mount, among other things, is meant to portray Jesus as a new Moses, inscribing words of life upon hearts made living rather than upon dead stone, they are words difficult and inscrutable – unless rendered anodyne by pious rhetoric that sweeps away the sting and the darkness. Have you journeyed with the God rich in grief? There are tears in abundance. If you love a worm, you will cry for that burrower of earth. Does it trouble you, when it rains, to see them wriggling on the ground or dried out by the sun? There is a savage spirit that comes upon men. Then they rejoice to destroy and torture. A few days ago, some fellow took a rifle and told his friend he was going to use it to kill a dog. Then he acted as a sniper, shooting from the window of his friend’s apartment an eight-month old Chihuahua dog as it was happily going for a walk with its owner’s mother. No apparent motive other than pure meanness wed to arrogance that would play at Zeus. There is a callous “just so” that weeps not for the sparrow that falls. Nature is profligate, so why grieve over the death of single puppy?
Blissful are those who mourn. Myself, I shake my fist, and groan, and wish that I had never been born. It is a horrific world and the vile so often prosper. I shouldn’t mind so much, of course, if life was sweet for me and mine. Glimmering moments of grace come to all men, I know. Yet “there is a shattering,” says William Desmond, “being abandoned, being forsaken, as the Psalmist has it … God forsakenness … Here the most extreme willing of God is asked … the question of ultimate trust in face of the absolute nothing” (God and the Between, p. 339). Forensic justification does not know the Cross. A jejune religious sensibility will not walk with Christ. It wants to leap across agony and bewilderment. God has accomplished this for us, but not within us. The life of Christ only washes away our moral failures, does not live in us. A breakdown of temporal selving, a winnowing that disorients and puts in question an entire lifetime, often incurring the helpful consolations of Job’s counselors – how can this be anything but terror and ashes? You cannot ask for this. It would take a God-Man to willingly embrace it, to “set his face on Jerusalem.” But Desmond asserts that here is the door to liberation: “This is the freedom to give oneself up to consummate trust in the intimate companionship of the hidden God” (p. 339). Well, I am not free like that. When I am in a joking mood, I tell the One Beyond Names “too much kenosis!” When I am sunk in misery and fear each day like a threat, I rage that the Omnipotence has ruined my life. Blissful, indeed … In delight, in wonder, surrounded by beauty, loved and loving, no one asks if it is good to be. No one is perplexed by God. When folks debate modal collapse and divine simplicity, the question of whether necessity bears upon God with regards to creation and the like, do they do so in a comfortable arm chair? I have nothing against comfortable arm-chairs, by-the-bye; or a good dark porter, Audrey Hepburn, a playful cat sitting placidly upon the one book needed amidst a copious library, Bach’s cello suites, I could go on. Yet it is the anguish of the abyss that calls for the answer of love. When life becomes a horror, the soul in crisis cries out for the God who saves. And then it is not a matter of historical lineage or logical asperity that carries weight. If I argue for divine simplicity, it is not because Aquinas said so, but because without such, the unique divine transcendence that founds radical intimacy is lost and the latter is the secure bond of love that promises to remove all tears.
This is the intimacy that Desmond refers to when he speaks of the passio essendi. This is our coming to be that founds all becoming, all our attempts, evasions, wandering desires that aim at flourishing life. Forgetfulness of the gift turns existence into a barely registered given, a shallow marker of mere fact. (Babe Ruth is real, the Gorgon is not – I bow slightly, but equivocally to conventional judgment here.) Implicit in this fundamental metaphysical error is ignorance that one’s deepest interior is not an absurd mistake, an adventitious occurrence, or an isolated possession. Being is intrinsically dynamic and relational. Person is inherently characterized by porosity to the other. Plato aimed to dramatize in the Meno the strange presence of the end of all our searching within us; otherwise, we would not be moved to quest at all. The human yearning for truth is made possible by an origin that is not a point in time, but an eternal gifting that sustains every moment of being. (Desmond is often reacting against Hegel and Hegelian dialectic. Hegel’s Absolute begins in poverty, erotically seeks out the other in order to attain perfection, ultimately dialectically subsuming the other into a serene possession that echoes the solitude of Aristotle’s thought thinking itself. (I don’t know why, exactly, but such divinity suggests to me the odd picture of a narcissistic pudding enamored with its own completeness.) Desmond invokes terms like over-saturated, over-determined, the hyperbolics of being to gesture towards an Origin that is not poor, not needy, but an aseity of “pluperfection” infinitely generous and solicitous for the well-being of the other. The gift of being is always intrinsically a “for-giving.” The alpha is the omega; the teleology of human knowing is rendered possible because the end accompanies the searcher from the beginning. Birth and entry into the family is a natural analogy that can be teased for intimations. As Goethe rightly noted, “Everything that happens is symbol,” though none of this is explicable as “clear and concise idea.” It cannot be measured by the mathesis of Galilean science or expressed in “plain” rhetoric devoid of finesse. Here is how Desmond describes it in Ethics and the Between:
… this double – intense longing, need of the mother, say, but also the stirrings of anxiety that one will be lost in the mother; a yearning to die again into nonseparateness, but also a trembling that one will be devoured by nondifference. This might be called a nostalgia for the predeterminate rapport; for determinate difference and identity bring pain (algia); but this is pain for one’s own (nostos). But one’s own is the beloved other, not oneself simply; the mother or father, but one is the mother and the father too. So this nostalgia is not a narcissistic retreat to solipsistic ownness but sorrow for the immediate rapport that is an elemental intermediation, hence always a predeterminate being with the other. (Think how consoling the simple touch of another can be.) (p. 400)
By adverting to the initial state of the child before psychic development has clearly demarcated a border between self and other, Desmond points to the maternal presence prolonging the sheltering womb so that normally the world first presents itself as safe, warm, nurturing. And yet, Desmond refuses to interpret this first meeting of person and world as “narcissistically enclosed.” It’s true, he indicates, that the emerging self will look back in a kind of instinctive reflection with ambivalence at this first experience where metaphysical affinity is felt as welcoming rapport. To know determinate being is both to discover (the world begins to appear, intellect begins to grasp intelligible natures) and also to suffer the pains of separation from an unreflective communal peace. Those who focus on the freedom of the self as the acquisition of autonomy are likely to understand this pain in egoistic terms. It will be narrated unambiguously as the necessary pain of epistemic gain whereby individual awareness sheds the illusion of cosmic amity dependent on ignorance of separate identity. But this is not what is happening: rather, there is both gain and loss. The child “knows in its bones” that a real, if non-conceptual connection has been allowed to perish (or better, to recede into depths no longer palpable). Desmond therefore resists the fashionable depiction of nostalgia as infantile reaction (politicized often enough as mask for institutional power, patriarchy, the usual suspects).
An account of nostalgia as a regressive flight from difference is only true at a level that does not go to the deeper level where the predeterminate rapport with the other is working . . . At this more primordial level, nostalgia shows a love of difference, the other, though it is a love that cannot truly name itself, since it is lost in the other, though at a more superficial level it seems to be consumed with itself and its own anxiety before difference. Such an account does not do full justice to the love of the other already ingrained in one’s intimate being, a love whose elemental unnamed effectiveness resurfaces in the experience of “nostalgia.” The deeper account shows: One’s own is not one’s own; or what is not one’s own is one’s own. (p. 400)
And this, at the natural level, echoes the divine flame or as Teresa of Avila calls it, the interior castle. One’s innermost identity is both the most intimate personal secret and an other. You have to discover yourself as gift. It is not just a question of an isolated will defending its autonomy. Indeed, that is a lie most pernicious. This event is outside time, perpendicular to all temporal happening. It is metaphysically prior and coincident with the gift that is passio essendi. Thus, there is always mystery to identity because identity is a participation in divinity and entails infinite depths. The refusal of the divine kiss, the attempt to autonomously possess what would disappear into nothing apart from the continuing gift, is precisely the Fall. The error of literalist attempts to discover in Adam and Eve’s transgression a merely moral failure bringing death is multiple, but in two ways especially does it fail. First, it treats Adam and Eve as if they were modern, atomized individuals making libertarian choices, evincing near complete insensibility to the kind of identities that operate in mythic story-telling. Second, and more damaging, it thinks of the event of the fall as occupying a space within determinate being, as a purely cosmic, temporal consequence within history, whereas culpable forgetting of the gift truly lies in a metaphysical refusal at the level of coming into being: it is not simply a product of conatus essendi – the striving self in its distinct acts in the world. Sins manifest a wound that is prior to history
Heidegger was appalled by the modern world. After he became an accepted sage, it was necessary to obscure his previous attachment to Nazi ideology. Of course, the monstrous is not always fully evident before the entire hideous nature of an historical event is played out. I rather doubt that Nietzsche would have endorsed genocide of the Jews. Certainly, what Heidegger discerned early on was a kind of romantic resistance of blood and nature to an inhuman industrial demon. I am not trying to exonerate Heidegger so much as to indicate that the tacit hope his sybilline pronouncements supposedly contained was never really viable. This is because Heidegger, for all his warnings about Western philosophy and the forgetting of being was himself caught within an immanence that carried the sickness of late modernity. Unable to imagine the transcendence that founds the gifting of intimate being, Heidegger was left ever listening for a god incapable of healing or translating the dead into life. And so I want to ask, what is it we hear when we listen? Or perhaps better, what is it we are listening for? Much of it has to do with what one makes of silence. Here is how Josef Pieper describes it in his short monograph, The Silence of Goethe: “This listening silence is much deeper than the mere refraining from words and speech in human intercourse. It means a stillness, which, like a breath, has penetrated into the inmost chamber of one’s own soul” (p. 26). Many people can go a whole lifetime without listening like that. Silence is itself an almost unbearable condition for some. They are afraid of it. The fear is sometimes disguised as boredom. Moreover, everything in the world of commerce and action, everything that is lauded and rewarded with money, prestige, and power tends towards making such silence impossible. For starters, it will be repudiated as indolence, the thrifty will be offended, as will all those responsible souls earnestly following prescribed paths. Desmond reminds us that the gift of being is a primary ethos that is never encountered apart from cultural interpretation. The primary ethos is communicated, but also distorted and masked by the historical manifestations of secondary ethos. In this context, attend to Pieper’s extended reflection on listening:
When such talk, which one encounters absolutely everywhere in workshops and in the marketplace – and as a constant temptation – when such deafening talk, literally out to thwart listening, is linked to hopelessness, we have to ask is there not in silence – listening silence – necessarily a shred of hope? For who could listen in silence to the language of things if he did not expect something to come of such awareness of the truth? (pp. 28–29)
The deafening chatter is greatly exacerbated by the virtual world of the internet, but it was already discernible as the antagonistic forces in Blake’s poetry or the cause of reserve in Goethe. Note, the noise and bustle are “linked to hopelessness.” There is the despair of being trapped. S. L. Frank later identified this as being enclosed in our empirical lives, in a temporality unable to answer the yearning of the human heart. Against this, Goethe discerns something that recurs to Christ’s words about the lilies of the field. “The older I become the more confidence I have in the law that governs the way roses and lilies bloom” (51). This law, if it is truly to bespeak hope, cannot simply be a reverence for nature, the nature that is bound to death. It must be attached to that cardiognosis Jesus begins to instruct us upon when he prophecies beatitude.
With regards to our particular secondary ethos, I would draw attention to something Pavel Florensky noted about diabolic activity. There is a corrosive scorn, a leveling laughter, the comedy of Homer’s Thersites that is likely to be applauded by those of egalitarian sympathies. Yet beyond its insensibility to a certain magnanimity and daring scope proper to a truly humane life, there is a lowering that constitutes a “making stupid” of creation. A diabolic ethos is vulgar, vicious, often efficient, and certain to equate value with what can be quantified. Just as beauty is the signature of the divine, shameful stupidity marks the devil. A passage in a letter from Thomas Merton to the Polish poet, Czeslaw Milosz, exemplifies what I am talking about:
The poison is exactly the alienation you speak of, and it is not the individual, not society, but what comes of being an individual helpless to liberate himself from the images that society fills him with. It is a very fine picture of hell sometimes. When I see advertisements I want to curse they make me so sick, and I do curse them. I have never seen TV, that is never watched it. Once when I did happen to pass in front of a set I saw the commercial that was on: two little figures were dancing around worshipping a roll of toilet paper, chanting a hymn in its honor. I think this is symbolic enough, isn’t it? (28 March 1961, in Striving Towards Being)
Probably most people just filter out the constant assault on their souls in the name of commerce. They are used to being reduced to a nihilist cipher with potential value according to consumer power. How many folks willingly make an ass of themselves in order to sell the confections of big pharmaceuticals or fried chicken? I think the diabolic powers are made gleeful by such images; those called to unimaginable bliss and holy nobility rendering themselves slaves to want, buffoons to the god of mammon. Philip Sherrard warns us, “each step we make into the world of illusion – which is also the world of self-deception – leads us ever further from self-knowledge and our true identity, and plunges us ever more deeply into the world of ignorance and self-forgetfulness.” This is the world broadcast so portentously by television networks, a world so increasingly shrill, petty, extravagantly neurotic that ordinary decency and common sense are disgusted by histrionic tantrums treated not as signs of perpetual spiritual immaturity but as serious social protest. The mob rages and Thirsites eggs them on. Sherrard concludes that “unless we become conscious of our inherent nobility, as well as that of every other existing thing (emphasis mine), we are not likely to be stirred to make even the slightest gesture capable of initiating a movement of thought and action towards the recovery of our lost spiritual vision of being.”
Now, in one sense, no amount of development or ascesis can prepare one for what is pure gift. And yet, as Pierre Hadot emphasized with regards to ancient philosophy, the love of wisdom is inseparable from the performance of spiritual exercises. A sacramental ecclesia involves rites of initiation and the wise nurturing of life towards an infinite flourishing. Though more often than not, the gift of life is reduced to a tale tepid and boring, scripture made sleepy sawdust. Of course, there are probably saints at the jumble sale. God winks in strange places, but the terrible beauty of the holy is not manifest by vague altruism that lacks the shock of divine ardor. Nor is the mystery of love, the odd justice of the king who harrows hell, proclaimed with wonder by those busy earnestly burying the dead, the riffraff too easily dismissed as a collection of fools and monsters. How often does one receive the idea from churchmen or everyday Christians that they are tasked with announcing to the world a fundamental ontological change? If you took out the philosophical verbiage as much as possible and explained it to them, would they recognize the gospel? Or would they, like Nietzsche’s last men, blink before the light? To be fair, one must still abide in fallen time. It is difficult and often seemingly unrewarded to follow Christ. Vision requires an accompanying transformation of imagination – and even then, one is apt to be regarded as an incompetent, one of life’s losers. Dostoevsky insists with regards to Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov that the eccentric man may reveal what is essential. In a dark age given over to lies, a kali yuga, the prophet will be a man who “goes off the rails.” Well, probably this has always been true. The golden age is prelapsarian, a thing of dreams and the silent presence of the Holy Spirit enacting the kingdom with deft surprise.
I’d like to get back to that argument about God and creation that I alluded to early on. In his fine collection of essays, Faith and Freedom, David Burrell provides important links between our basic metaphysics, notions of freedom, and imagination. The latter, particularly, interests me. Some folks of a particular sort tend to dismiss imagination or treat it as an element of weakness in human, discursive knowledge. We can imagine unicorns, but they have no metaphysical standing. The human imagination is thus thought of as somehow spurious, lacking the metaphysical heft of the truly real. One of the consequences is that implicitly, perhaps unconsciously, the imagined is ceded to the opposition. I think this is a fairly serious mistake. It allows for the dominant modern motif in which the poet is fundamentally understood as allied with the possible over against the actual. Michel Henry’s intriguing phenomenology (I will briefly address it late in this essay) evinces a polemic that forces one to wrestle with the question of the value of human attempts to limn reality. The vates was a convergence of offices: poet, sage, prophet. How be vates? How speak the truth? My argument is that the gospel founds poetics and that the actual understood as ultimately an eschatological reality is the source of imagination. This does not mean that there is no such thing as a “vain imagination.” The imagination is a power that may be distorted and abused, that is obvious and common enough. However, the gospel kerygma is not a function of the indicative voice, a dry, catechetical statement of facts proposed by faith. Yet when the church spouts the gas of sentimental pious claptrap, a sort of sacred patina thrown over the world and benevolence as everyone else understands it, it acts in bad faith and is trapped in a false imaginary. The response of any sane person of even slight sensibility is to yawn and ask “so what?” What the gospel intends is a sacred thaumaturgy whereby Ecclesia as the fullness of the Body of Christ employs holy imagination to call forth realities.
An almost passing remark of Burrell’s is worth highlighting: “one’s theology is frequently a function of one’s anthropology, whether consciously or unconsciously so” (p. 107). Burrell’s contention is that much contemporary discussion regarding God and creation is dependent on anthropology in the wake of nominalist and voluntarist assumptions and ideals of autonomy that prescind from Christian wisdom. “There are no ‘possible worlds’ from which the creator selects this one, as though God’s action in creating were primarily a matter of will and indeed of choice,” declares Burrell (p. 78). In contrast, “Scotus’ views on freedom are … firmly ‘libertarian,’ presuming freedom to imply a radical ‘indifference’ before a set of options, so that it is always possible to do otherwise” and “It is will, for Scotus, which determines what one does … It marks him as a ‘modern man’ … ” (p.106). The priority of will has epistemological implications. “When natural necessity is contrasted with freedom understood as the capacity to do otherwise, the very realism of Scotus’ theory of knowledge makes him elevate will above intellect as one would extol what determines itself over what must conform to things as they are” (p. 181). The story as told by Scotus is one in which what is daring and interesting is focused on the will. The blockhead who simply takes things as they are is a dolt incapable of even conceiving the possibility of adventure. Again, not to put too fine a point on it, the seeming infinitude of possibilities dwarves the limited “set” of the actual. It’s why Kierkegaard’s aesthete quails before the prospect of decision, for any path taken necessarily closes off contingencies that would have allowed a different destiny. The person desires an infinite expansion into plenitude, but choice determines an inevitable diminution. The nihilist who operates in a vacuum defers existential realization of the dilemma by forgetting death and always projecting into the future a vague apotheosis where aspiration is magically transformed into happiness. This deferral is the modern way which explicitly prefers “will as freedom (libertas), or auto-determination” to “will as appetite for the good” (p. 181). Indeed, if the good is the actual and the actual is small before the infinite imagination of the will, then the good is cast in the role of antagonist. What does it do but oppose the heroic will in its search for freedom? Many contested ethical issues and contemporary ideological stances can be rather easily placed within this thematic. The passions stirred are not merely individual, but evidence of the perdurance of theological devotions that masquerade as secular and political.
The Eastern distinction between gnomic and natural will assumes a plenitude “beyond choice.” The highest freedom does not entail “indifference” between options, much less the eternity of evil so that good may remain a “genuine choice.” Indeed, attainment of flourishing excellence involves an attunement to the Good, a “musical” virtue that results in the negation of “options” when such are understood to include defatigation into sin or torpor. “To will evil is neither freedom nor a part of freedom,” says Aquinas. The person always aims at the good. The will is useless apart from the intellectual grasp of it. Our knowledge is “practical,” i.e., the good is always encountered in specific circumstances, chosen in terms of the particular existential details of our daily lives. Since in this life, we experience tension between the gnomic and the natural, our imperfect freedom derives from an occluded vision of the Good. (Some Christians resist this basic metaphysical truth of creaturely being, claiming it is a Socratic distortion that confuses ignorance with sin. Just as the spirit of anti-Christ arises with the revelation of Christ, sin is defined as the willful rejection of the authentically perceived good. Yet the word from the Cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” belies such an equation.) As David Bentley Hart acutely recognized “the soul comes to know God only insofar as it looks to Christ and thereby becomes what he is, adorned with his beauty. Revelation is sanctification” (The Hidden and the Manifest, p. 155). We stumble along, for the Father is ever the midnight sun, the overwhelming light that comes to us finite creatures hidden in the guise of darkness. Nonetheless, the Father is known by His Image; revelation is intimately a work of imagination.
Ah, and here’s the further point: if the fullness of human freedom is beyond choice, then why should one think that divine freedom is in any way determined by libertarian choice? “For Aquinas, freedom consists in response to the orientation of our nature in a concrete practical judgment; and God’s practical knowing of what it is God wills to bring forth, in response to the divine nature, is accounted creation” (Faith and Freedom, p. 109). I want to tie this in with the gift of being and the obscurity of the primal ethos. Part of the reason mankind consistently forgets what ought to be the font of gratitude is that the very richness of the Origin overwhelms determinate knowing. Then what is “greater than” can appear “as nothing;” and evil, of course. Evil brings fear, and sorrow, and bitterness. Life is a burden then, the gift lived out as curse. One grapples with the angel in the night, refusing pat answers to agony. When the sun rises the wrestler limps, seemingly alone, still parched, yet with a promise that “amen” shall one day crown his lips. It is by no means easy to attain vision in this life; although, yes, it is as simple as a child’s laugh. “Wonder is the reverent yes,” says Desmond. Only in the eschaton will we be done with antinomies and contradictions.
The key, I think, is to focus on how one understands existence. And here, I more or less follow Thomists like Gilson and Maritain who articulate the distinction between God and creatures as the difference between divinity for whom existence is essence and creatures whose essence is a finite participation in existence. The transcendence of existence from merely worldly “life” is crucial. As Burrell points out “the conceptual obscurity of the key notion of existing” results from the identification of existence with God as unique and absent “real relation” to the cosmos. “Were the ‘relation to the creator’ in which created existing consists to be accessible in terms proper to the created universe itself, that is, if it were identifiable as a feature of the world, then its transcendence would be lost and the ‘distinction’ elided” (p. 88). In my view, a great deal of analytic efforts are built on the mistaken notion that this “conceptual obscurity” can be made to yield to a logic that can only be sustained if one is dealing with purely cosmic entities (although, to be candid, I don’t believe there are such things). The divide between Aquinas and Scotus anticipates the division between those who defend the analogy of being, plurivocity, and a complex, imperfect articulation of the real in language and art and those who promote a logic comprehending both God and man, univocity, and language equally precise and indifferent.
Concepts can be “thick” or “thin.” Existence in classical theism is fat like the sun. Men and women squint and dutifully keep to the tolerable roads. Some sweat under the radiance of divine Fatherhood, sopping their brows with rags or monogrammed towels, any pragmata to place between themselves and the mystery. Others travel by night and deny the sun, though the stars whisper and the moon smiles like Mona Lisa as she reflects the unseen light. Scholars frequently think to domesticate the strangeness. They speak confidently, as if logic could comprehend the wild, paternal mirth. Only those willing to be free like the Son of God, that is, obedient to the vertiginous heart-cry of love are granted the unmerited boon. In Aquinas’ commentary on the gospel according to St. John, he writes that “even though the eye of the owl does not see the sun, nevertheless the eye of the eagle gazes at it.” Existence is then the joyous dance of infinite frontiers. It is power, movement, passionate stillness, the lively, eternal nunc stans that contains all time. It is the plenitude of act, the TriUne bliss from which all perfections flow. Nothing about existence is inert, sleepy with surfeit, or dully rich without the delight of surprise. “For Aquinas … it is precisely existence which makes something individual, so that it can be indicated by an indexical (“this,” “that”) and given a name” (Faith and Freedom, p. 103). The name is the unique, the irreplaceable, the dearness of the beloved. “There is no neutral being in general,” declares Desmond, “nor autistic particularity, especially so if the origin is agapeic – a God for the singular as singular” (God and the Between, p. 202). Matter was the basis of individuation in Aristotle, but matter is a quantifying principle that at best “allowed an Aristotelian to speak adequately of individuals as instances of a kind” (Faith and Freedom, p. 103). The roots of things always exceed the chthonic depths. “What does not have its roots in … divine life is essentially dead,”explains Sherrard (Christianity, p. 192).
“Instances of a kind” implies a willingness to sacrifice the individual for the sake of the species. The unique is a fungible asset in an economy of death. The entire pagan world is a melancholy negotiation that allows the community a brief and precarious order predicated on annihilation of the singular. (Attic tragedy is always enacted by a character of royal provenance. Christ had not yet come to reveal the royalty of a universal priesthood that encompasses the poor, the reviled, the humiliated and dispossessed.) The gospel reveals a radically different economy that turns over the tables of the money changers. The singular is not extinguished for the sake of the Whole, but neither is the Whole abandoned for an autonomous self-sufficiency. Desmond speaks of an “idiocy” of being, by which he does not intend an imbecility, but precisely the irreplaceable uniqueness that comes to one as gift and mission.
Yet singularity is not a moment in the Whole to be superseded for the truth of the Whole to shine through. Its true idiocy involves granting its porosity of being, its being as a communicative integrity of existence in communicative togetherness with others, even in the deepest intimacy of its inwardness. In that intimate idiocy the communication of the divine other is most deeply undergone in the deepest porosity of one’s being. Communicative being is not outside one. It comes alive just in this ultimate porosity that is both inside and beyond one: most intimate to one, most solicitous that one be delivered from selving that is curved back on itself (emphasis mine, God and the Between, p. 239).
Now Scotus is a Christian. He advocates for an epistemology of love, but does so in the context of existence conceptualized as Jack Sprat, famished to the edge of instrumental inanity. Origin is not a source of continuing wonder. It is not quite the stupidly mechanical attempt to trace back initial conditions as it is with cosmologists who carry on deist prejudices. Burrell says it is more like the ancient Greeks, presupposed as given. And this is carried over by moderns who never think being as gift. But if the “act of creation” is pervasive (this is nearly synonymous with the concept of participation) then “actuality takes on a new valence” (pp. 79 -80). With Scotus, we are already entering the wretched precincts of that fraudulent world that anticipates Newtonian time. Newton ended mad as a hatter making calculations for the end of history derived from the Apocalypse, probably because he couldn’t stand the prison he had imagined — time as a sort of ready-made container where the future awaits as the product of point-mass forces knocking against each other like billiards balls.
Drama disappears before a science where all conceivable events are usefully located along coordinates assigned by a clever, mechanical cartography. Scotus was ignorant of those horrors, and I don’t believe he was a scoundrel, but his mind had a certain bent: “he was beginning to look more at features of things than at things themselves, so that things become conceived as a coalescence of features” (Faith and Freedom, p. 98). And if you think that doesn’t matter, let me put it this way. Say you’re a young fella in love with Agnes Goop, the girl one street over who works in the flower shop. If someone asks why you love Agnes Goop and you begin to enumerate a list, you are firmly on the modern side of the divide. Lists are covert calculations of utility, the person indexed as a set of desirable traits rather than loved uniquely as an open-ended and mysterious good, loved with rumples and flaws without care for the cost. And all that happens when the good as continuous gift from a mysterious infinite drops out in favor of the spirit of inventory that gives one banks and securities and the celebration of opportune shrewdness. (The proper answer, by the way, is “because she’s Agnes!”) According to Scotus’way of conceiving things, “existence functions more as the precondition for things being what they are than as the source of a thing’s being and becoming” (Faith and Freedom, p. 98). Rather than a dynamic Origin of mysterious gift, existence has become that boring container, you see? “This is why Scotus appears relatively indifferent to the question of the analogy of being, for the issue is little more than an annoying residue if existence is a mere precondition which adds no intelligibility to the individual” (Faith and Freedom, pp. 103-104).
Lots of folks appreciate Van Gogh’s paintings today. A pair of worn worker’s shoes speaks in poignant silence. In his time, few understood the message. In loneliness, Van Gogh plummeted into metaphysical night where diurnal commonplaces are unsettled and equivocities typically kept at bay open onto hidden depths. S. L. Frank explained that while genuine creative work is “accomplished in the depths … precisely this profound inner activity is the common work accomplished by everyone not for himself alone, but for all” (The Meaning of Life, p. 91). There is a great secret in what Frank says. I’ll tell you later on, but most likely you’ll forget. It’s one of those things you can know, but find hard to remember, especially as you are caught up in the struggles and joys of individual life. I know it and forget it a dozen times a day. Here, I want to emphasize the confusion that Van Gogh’s work initially brought to his contemporaries. Gibberish naturally provokes confusion, but Van Gogh was not painting gibberish. Human kind had to learn to see along with Vincent, to see with his eyes. Interpretation is vision that penetrates to meaning, but it only comes to those not in a hurry, those willing to spend time before a useless painting of shoes. So long as the artisan and craftsmanship remained central to ordinary living, patience before natural potencies and limits and appreciation of the well-made thing was part of traditional culture. The machine age, the loss of integrated communities, the preference for cheap, mass-produced goods shifted awareness and sensibilities. Centuries later, the bitter fruit: attention deficit disorders, escapism into virtual realities, ignorance of and disdain for masculine and feminine virtues, humankind reduced to a mass of wills easily manipulated and subject to vicious delusions.
I’d like to suggest a connection between a certain ideal of speed and efficiency becoming near universally embraced so that it no longer seems something one could question and susceptibility to vain imagination. Think of modern science and its concentration on method, replication, being reduced to quantifiable analyses and specialized language incapable of lyrical grace; and all that a function of trying to fix essences into predictable patterns. This is what we mean today by knowledge. (The universe would be a mad house of dreaming transmogrification were there not some truth underlying the praxis, of course. But there is also an important bit of obfuscation going on. The post-Enlightenment narrative pretends to a false objectivity. The carefully neutral rhetoric of science is unwieldy, frequently burdened with ugly nomenclature – how rare the tone of Jean Henri Fabre talking of his beloved insects – nothing neutral or subtly devious there, rather prose is elevated to the level of humane letters because drawn by beauty into love of the subject; but ordinarily the scrum of mixed human motives, the embedded nature of the scientific project within an historically situated story outside scientific justification or verification, that is ignored and probably not even recognized by most participants.) The trouble, as Luigi Guissani suggested, is that precisely the most interesting aspects of reality are not demonstrable, i.e., not subject to method and replication, not commanded to appear as identical items of maximum utility before a transcendental audience of abstract humanity that doesn’t exist in any event; nor does one encounter essences “ahistorically” apart from existential confusions and alarming equivocities, these swept under the rug and dismissed as “qualia” without epistemic value. And the seeds for all that, or at least, one of the significant philosophical judgments that made it likely to happen derives from Scotus because his epistemology could only go in one direction once existence was conceptually narrowed to the scope of an uninteresting given. As Burrell notes, “Where the proper object of human understanding is essences taken ‘absolutely,’ and existence is quite extrinsic even to individuality, then one is free to insist upon univocity for one need not struggle to convey by one’s language a sensitive and accurate rendering of the (actual) world …” (p. 104). Burrell admits that school Thomism espousing a pre-critical “conceptual realism” endorsed a notion of abstraction that elides the stark difference between Aquinas and Scotus’ essentialism. He asserts that Bernard Lonergan’s careful study of the thought of St. Thomas offers a more accurate understanding. Lonergan proposes “insight into image” as a more illuminating expression of Aquinas’ central phrase, conversion ad phantasmata (p. 182). Concept formation by abstraction is drawn closer to the domain of the vates and away from the historical vector that led to the myopic expertise of the scientist technocrat.
Something interesting emerges: the move towards univocity is accompanied by a construal of freedom as the libertarian choice between “indifferent” options. Indifference comes from culpable obtuseness. The qualia were granted cognitive value in a metaphysics open to the analogy of being because each unique being as unique, never simply “an instance of kind,” whispers mysteriously of the incomprehensible Origin. Being is always incipiently symbolic of the giver of the gift. This active dynamism is obscured by the reduction to quantity that René Guénon identified as the hallmark of the modern era. Univocity may not be quite simply this, but it is certainly amenable to proclivities that enclose qualia in categories of subjective ephemera. It is at one with the rationalist intellectual as Pavel Florensky paints him in The Pillar and Ground of the Truth: “He hates the whole world in its concrete life and would like to destroy it, in order to replace it with the concepts of his rational mind … he has an aversion to all that is “natural,” for the natural is alive and therefore concrete and cannot be stuffed into a concept” (p. 215). It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that univocity produces a world lacking imagination. While St. Thomas’ vatic realism sustains an imaginary porous to eschatological depths, the path that leads to modalism and a plethora of possible worlds grows out of a refusal of the distance marked by the analogy of being. The imagination aggrandizes itself after the manner of the will shorn of its orientation to the Good via the intellect. It becomes a vain titanism, a gnosis built on lies and despair.
Burrell warns us that a properly deft use of analogous terms “demands an awareness that we are functioning as creatures ourselves in a created order whose principles remain unknown to us, yet whose lineaments can be glimpsed from time to time”(p. 120). And further: “How little we can expect to understand the order God intends in a universe we apprehend so minimally” (p. 122). “Perhaps the decisive thing has always lain in what is hidden,” says Adrienne von Speyr. Indeed, an apophatic reserve is not only necessary in our thinking about God, but also with regards to the cosmos and our very selves. “How could we know what God wants to do with us when we cannot even know what we are nor who we are?” asks Leon Bloy. Given the depravity and sorrow so evident in fallen time, the unknown becomes consolation and hope. Yet Sergius Bulgakov reminds us that the “lineaments” glimpsed from time to time are also prophetic. “Art is the Old Testament of Beauty, of the kingdom of the coming Comforter and of course is itself filled with prefigurements of what lies ahead” (Unfading Light, p. 402). Such hints are both visionary gift and cause of anguish. “Art must hide in itself a prayer for the transfiguration of the creation … Patiently and with hope it must carry the cross of being unquenched in its craving and wait for its hour” (p. 403). Because the kingdom is creation in its fullness, one must exercise ascesis that does not foreclose on being. “There is a severe discipline involved in openness to the plurivocal presence of things,” notes Desmond (Being and the Between, p. 311). In Buddhist compassion there is a hint of reverence for the flux of being. Desmond presses further when he speaks of a needed “ontological respect” that engenders a love of singularity, for “the singular is a certain promise of infinitude” (p. 311). This promise of infinitude underlies the ungovernable flash of beauty that draws the poet into a mode of discovery that is not to be confused with imagination construed as mere fancy, a choice between a plethora of possibles. I cannot emphasize this enough. Schopenhauer and Nietzsche unmasked the nihilism of nature divorced from Christian revelation or at least the precritical naïveté where the cosmos was full of gods. Modernity evacuated the cosmos of intrinsic value. Attempts to construct meaning on the basis of human imagination alone is the project of will-to-power. Nietzsche is the poetic version of the Faustian scientist. Certain modern nihilists make a religion of politics because meaning has no ground other than what you can persuade the majority of people to believe. It’s Thrasymachus redux.
Goethe prescribed silence. His reverence for nature and the quiet grace of the rose and the lily suggests another possibility. The creation may speak, may even sing, though the music might be threnody in response to what mankind has wrought. If “insight into image” is the proper mode of human knowing, one comes upon a middle where permeable borders allow for a genuine meeting between person and thing. Truth is an event that happens, not something usefully cataloged in an encyclopedia and known ahead of time. If being is communicative and the human is the spiritual place where the cosmic flesh registers a message, it may behoove one to listen. Thus, Desmond parses out the ontological implications of what is frequently taken as a mere figure of speech:
Metaphor may be a revelation of reality. Metapherein – the thing carries itself across to revelation, metaphorizes itself; this is its spread beyond metaphysical identity. In its self-metaphorizing, it reaches out to more, reaches into the meta, the middle. The metaphorical “as” thus seeks to identify the plurivocal “is” of the “this” in its otherness. Thus the thing may be, so to say, an ontological metaphor, bespeaking the power of being, and not just the human imagination (emphasis mine). If the thing is a poiēsis of the original power of being, then the metaphorical “as” may well be in rapport with the “is” of the thing, and rapport in an entirely realistic, though not objectivistic sense. (Being and the Between, p. 310)
That is to say, the plurivocity is a function of the richness of the Actual, not the notional infinity of yet undecided choice. Catherine Pickstock is especially good at drawing out the quality of the unanticipated in dramatic truth. In Repetition and Identity, she explores the deeper significance of Thomist analogy. “Analogy in its most radical sense (as considered by Aquinas, for example) does not summon a similarity of proportion of equivalence between two different pairs, but rather an obscure likeness of “attribution” which pertains between two unlike things, without being expressible outside the specific conjoining of their unlikeness” (p. 52). Thus, analogy should never be understood as a kind of forced allegory as one sometimes finds in patristic biblical exegesis (it may still be charming and instructive, of course.) Pickstock continues, “According to this conception, analogy is not an isolatable property in which two things or parts equally share; rather, it is the fittingness or convenientia which binds them to reveal a kinship only apparent through this very conjunction (emphasis mine)” (p. 52). The “fitness” here is in no way a product of whim or merely adventitious coincidence. It is not a question of selecting two disparate things and coercing synthesis like the names of bad eighties rock bands, nor is it a product of a tertium quid that abstractly binds them together. Instead, one discovers something more like the odd entanglement evinced in quantum theory between electrons literally galaxies apart. Connections that transcend the physical plane witness to a metaphysics of community held by bonds of relation that display an aesthetic both fecund and beyond rational capture as reason is normally defined. “Because there exists no template or formula for successful combination, analogous fittingness constantly reveals beauty in myriad ways, without exhausting it” (p. 52).
Thick and thin concepts articulate thick or thin things. “Thick” things contain an excess of semiotic power. “Things are never present without their accompanying signs, just as sublunary bodies are never without their attendant shadows” (p. 73). The inherent, vital energy of created being resists univocal closure into the fixities of Heidegger’s “standing reserves.” Whereas modern science proposes an asymptotic approach to neutral being that strives for a knowledge that equates mystery with ignorance; and so the method equates wonder with curiosity, the latter destined to vanish, along with mystery once conceptual mastery has disclosed the mechanism behind action. Then one has identical repetition. Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum purchases security at the cost of sterile monotony: the closer one approaches his epistemic ideal, the more it is one damn thing after another, but nothing ever happens. In contrast, Pickstock discerns in created things their own intrinsic spark of freedom. Certainly, she is correct to recognize that a thing cannot be thought without also thinking potential variations, but this should not be primarily attributed to the selective power of will. “To say that the possibility only exists in our imagination would seem to wield an arbitrary decision (either idealist or reductively empiricist) to elevate the epistemological over the ontological (emphasis mine, this is the modern move)” (p. 73). The truth behind animist religions or theologies that recognize the angelic intelligence infused in nature or in the sophianic speculations of the Russian silver age echoes in Pickstock’s intriguing question: “If the haystack is only apparent to me insofar as I can imagine it as differently shaped or coloured, then by what warrant do I say that this imagination arises only in my mind and not also as a kind of emanation of the haystack itself?” (p. 73). In short, the creative power co-opted for the imagination by modern men who believed they were stranded in a meaningless universe turns out to be a synergy called forth by the cosmos itself. Significantly, the flourishing of a thing allows for ever greater expression of its actuality. One is figuratively light years removed from how Burrell describes Scotus’ univocal complacency. “If one presumes Scotus’ way of grasping the nature, the formula which accompanies that understanding will normally be presumed to have captured the essence as well … alternatively, one might be tolerant of diverse formulae, confident one has grasped the nature” (p. 184). The result is indifference to the artistry required to touch upon truth that remains wildly open to supplement.
I love Chesterton for whom paradox is a sign of the elusiveness of Christian truth. Paradox becomes a way of circumventing the logician who is like the clever boy who precociously advances six months ahead of his peers. He astonishes his schoolmates. He appears to have surmounted that invisible barrier between adolescence and adulthood. And yet, he is still a callow youth. His prodigious feats will be commonplace to every one of them soon enough. Facility with logic is only a mundane virtuosity. Theo-logic is topsy-turvy mirth that confounds univocal certitudes. Yet one has to admit that occasionally Chesterton’s pen is too glib with paradox. It can become a facile judo not much ahead of the advanced school boy. Then it is just another rhetorical strategy that can be quickly and rather mechanically deployed. If you ever try to walk the path of the vates, you must discover slowness. The mystery comes in slowness, can creep up on one unawares. You are living your life, perhaps sleepy with comfortable, familiar routine, when you are suddenly shook with the very strangeness of the familiar. Well, that is the lesson of The Napoleon of Notting Hill, isn’t it? The ordinary world, the one folks take for granted, is something else entirely. And here I am bound to come up against a sticky wicket. Right off the top, I confess I’ll appear to be talking out of both sides of my mouth. I’m going to plump for paradox and hope I’m six months ahead of the rest of you duffers.
There’s a nice quote of Erich Przywara’s in the preface to the English translation of Analogia Entis. I’ve used it before in something or other I’ve scribbled out, but I’m fond of it so I’m going to bring it up again.
Christ is the eternal archetype of the inner and outer world. All the beauty of the cosmos – the majesty of the high mountain range, the lovely simplicity of the verdant fields, the brilliant concert of birds in the springtime forests and the cracking and thundering of storms at night, the still solitude of the mountain retreat and the powerful rushing together of the industrial city – is a manifold image of his unity. (p. 107)
It’s easy to pass over that first bit – “the eternal archetype of the inner and the outer world.” Charles Taylor writes about the modern “buffered self.” We like to think of our inner life, the interior, as exclusively ours, the spiritual site of retreat and inviolable autonomy. But we come from nothing. Our inner life is sustained by gift just as much as the cosmic world. The psyche is fragile, subject to emotional storms and the destructive effects of physical and mental distress. The deep structure of the soul encompasses such considerations, but also transcends them. If one thinks of the appearance of being, the things that arise in time and lapse into the apparent nullity of death as the light of a non-appearing energy (forms are invisible), then it’s possible to conceive the spiritual as a concentrated intensity of being that manifests as bursts of temporal action. I sketch all that to oppose mysticism reduced to psychology and the hazy ghost of popular prejudice. The interior is hyperbolic to time and space. Though our inner life is deeply wounded and fractured by sin, this is not the normal state. Jesus enacts a flourishing human inner life which is porous to the Father as Father, not simply the “ground of being.”
Przywara asserts: “This is the message of ‘John the theologian’: how God and cosmos are correlated in the ‘Logos-Lamb who was slain'” (p. 112). That is the chief motif of Maximus the Confessor as well, how all the universe was planned for and loved because it is radiant with the intimate life of the Son. “‘And the Logos became flesh.’ But ‘flesh’ here (sarx) can be taken to signify not only the flesh of the human body; it can be taken to signify all matter, all physical nature. All matter, all physical nature, is the Body of Christ,” says Sherrard. Renaissance neo-platonism and hermetic teaching articulated the mirroring between man the microcosm and the larger macrocosm. I intend more: in Christ, the dynamism of the gift is brought into the foreground. So if you want to talk about divine exemplars and the relation between the eternal and the temporal, you shouldn’t do it as if the temporal is an eidos of static eternity or as if the exemplars persist in the immanent life of the Trinity as a set of pre-existent options that God may or may not choose to create. “It is only in the measure that God is creator that there is need at all for ideas, since the divine intellect as such has no need of ‘being informed by a plurality of species’ by which it knows. Indeed, divine simpleness would be violated were that required,” explains Burrell (p. 84). It is because of Jesus and not outside of the narrative of the gospel that the pagan esoteric teaching about man and the cosmos is true. It is because of Christ that one can exclaim “the very universe is an expression of what it means to be fully human” (James Arraj, Mind Aflame, p. 46). All this must come as a very great surprise to folks who have been taught to dogmatically believe the universe a cold, accidental machine and man an adventitious and rather haughty ape dithering about on a backwater planet orbiting a middling sun in an unexceptional galaxy amongst thousands upon thousands of others — less shocking, of course, if they had been taught not to be impressed by the mindless weight of numbers.
“Creation is not arbitrary fiat, modeled on the capricious finger snap of some oriental despot,” says William Desmond. “Creation is intrinsic to His very life, it is the inner landscape of His own Being,” says Sherrard (Human Image, World Image, p. 157). It is certainly a mistake to think God is like Hegel’s Absolute, needy at the start and requiring the world to attain perfection. (For that matter, the supposed perfection of Hegel’s Absolute is ultimately stultifying and self-satisfied. The complex Whole achieved through erotic dialectic eliminates initial lack by drawing the curtain on dramatic aseity. The notion that a certain kind of poverty is richer than an abundant determinate wealth does not occur to Hegel. Trinity, after all, was for him only an image for intellectual conquest of the other. In the Triune life, however, there is a kenotic “letting be” that allows Father to be Father which is synonymous with the Sonship of the Logos and the infinite surprise and delight of Spirit.) It is an equally grave mistake to think God loves creation as an especially treasured toy or as a delightful something that could just as well not be so far as God’s perfection is concerned. Were this so, the kingdom would be perhaps a very large and joyous cosmos, but it would not be a revelatory one. The infinite depths of creation are the gift of theosis, which is not an extrinsic grace that may or may not be attached to a “pure nature,”nor are they merely the trace or footprint of the divine. There is an agapeic erotics that confuses those who want to apply the law of non-contradiction to the God who is Triune. Such an erotics does not come from lack, but plenitude. (In a similar vein, Hans Urs von Balthasar will argue for something like “supertime” in God’s eternity for the surprise and delight of love’s happening is first the event of divine life before the participated source of any creaturely experience.) God, of course, is beyond perspective. Folks who think of God’s knowledge as even an omni-perspective tend to import creaturely terms. While creation groans and God “works,” the “it is finished” proleptically applied to what is for us an eschatological future hides the coincidence of divine patience with a bliss that does not wait. “And where else are we? Do you suppose the godhead able to create a world that would not be Paradise? Is the Fall another thing than our not knowing this, that we are in Paradise?” writes the great Borges in “The Rose of Paracelsus.”
thinking about jesus and <do you believe in jesus?>
i believe i do. I believe, at least (i believe i believe)
in what he believed in.
<do you believe he’s alive now and sitting at the right hand of God?>
i believe, at least, that he got where he was going,
and that where he was going is exactly where i
should like to go.
our identity is bound with our memories: wash away
memory and identity disappears…
only to reappear again with our next action.
i remember the people i loved (who have died) or
who’ve just disappeared – remember their traits
as though it were a sacred duty.
what possible use for all those memories
unless we were (somehow)
all to meet again?
(Robert Lax, Contemplative word # 60, In the Beginning Was Love)
Michel Henry’s phenomenology is a strange bird. I find myself by turns exasperated, intrigued, cheering, and then decrying the fella as a modern-day Cathar. One of the aspects of his thought that I like is his insistence on Life as unique and his situating of subjectivity as ultimately Christological. I surmise some critics think he is just translating his own philosophy into theological terms. I translate Henry’s Life as akin to uniquely divine Existence. Creatures participate in both analogously. Regardless, what I want to touch upon now may seem a banality, it is so obvious. It is so evident that Henry feels it necessary to point it out. I suppose it is helpful to know that Henry thinks divine life as “auto-affective.” Feeling is not directed to an “outside.” Henry’s truth is acosmic, so that the “appearance” that constitutes worldly truth is essentially a lie. This gets rather squirrelly and difficult and I’m not interested in hashing it out here. What does interest me is what Henry has to say about the poet:
Human speech says by showing in the world. Its manner of saying is a make-seen, that make-seen that is only possible within the horizon of visibility of the “outside.” … 1. It gives itself by showing itself outside in a world, in the manner of an image. 2. It gives itself as unreal. Let us consider the first verse of Trakl’s poem entitled “A Winter Evening”:
Window with falling snow is arrayed,
Long tolls the vesper bell,
The house is provided well,
The table is for many laid.
The things referred to – the snow, the bell, the evening – named by the poet and called into presence by their names, are shown to our minds. Yet they do not take a place among the objects surrounding us, in the room where we are. They are present, but in a sort of absence … This is the enigma of the poet’s word … it gives the thing but as not Being. (I Am the Truth, pp. 218-219)
We are so used to this, it hardly seems worthy of remarking. Folks would be disconcerted should Hamlet’s ghost suddenly appear in their bedchamber. But ultimately, Henry wants to bring judgment on all human speech. The creature’s words are not merely impotent, they are inherently guilty, gesturing towards that which is a permanent absence. (Let us leave aside all the post-modern angst over presence and nostalgia and the like. None of that understands the gift or a dynamic eternity or much of anything at all, to be honest.) Thus, Henry: “Speech’s powerlessness to bring into existence what it names is not due to chance, to some exterior and contingent obstacle. It is the very way it speaks that de-realizes in principle everything of which it speaks … strips it of its reality, leaving behind only empty appearance” (p. 219).
Against this pessimism, I want to set some thoughts of Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy. Before doing so, however, allow me to say that there is more than an intellectual stunt behind Henry’s critique of the poet. I think he expresses in a different key Plato’s objection to the mimesis of the poet. Both detect illusion in the artist that prevents encounter with the real (and here, more broadly interpreted, all men are artists, all their words pointed towards images that may betray or imprison.) This is not at all Plato’s last word on the poet, but ambivalence towards human language is noted. Rosenstock-Huessy wryly observes in The Origin of Speech that “the indicatives of language are the concessions to the scientific or reflective mentality. Yes, we may say `2 plus 2 is 4,’ we may say: `The Mississippi is the largest river in the United States.’ … The reflective mood surveys facts which can be labeled and defined, and Horace makes fun of it” (p. 38). I think the logicians who refuse the analogical gap between God and creatures, the ones who try to confine God to a Euclidean logic and measure divine freedom by concepts derived from the imperfect experience of fallen men, these would not laugh. If you like, there is a continual forgetting of what is real and what is provisional, on the way. We are pilgrims in status via and so the wise use of language must always remember the silent plenitude from which the word arises. “The meaning of meaning is not discovered by defining our terms. Our semanticists are alright when they apply their method to dead words of the past. They are gravediggers. They are quite helpless with regard to the names …” (p. 35). Yes, let the dead bury the dead. Whereas we are asked to be daring. There’s this thing about names that utterly escapes the nominalists for whom trivial convention is the apex of their intellectual achievement. “Names are promises to be acted upon” (p. 34). To be gifted a name is to be given a vocation barely discerned and beyond calculation. “Names, to the initiated adolescent were promises of a slow ascent to understanding. They were shrouded in mystery, not because they were not true but because they were meant to come true” (p. 37). And most importantly, “There are … no other living names but “theophoric” ones” (p. 36). In Speech and Reality, Rosenstock-Huessy declares that “man’s real action is contained in the myth-weaving or truth-disclosing business. This is our action. For the rest we belong to nature” (p. 76). Once again, the counter-cultural impetus of “insight into image” and Goethe’s “listening” and Desmond’s metaxological porosity to things that metaphorize themselves into symbolic speech of the mysterious Origin, of Pickstock’s sign-bearing things that bump up unpredictably into meaningful juxtaposition asks of us a serious discernment between imagination rooted in what I would call prayerful openness and the kind of Gnostic imagination that runs rampant today. The former makes possible real action, while the latter is what Henry dismisses as terminal failure radically at odds with life as the power to give Being.
I prefaced this section with a brief rumination from Robert Lax, who was Thomas Merton’s great friend. Lax was eccentric, innocent, guileless, often astute to the Spirit. He once spent a fortnight in what he mistook for a hostel before realizing it was a bordello. He was that kinda fella. Lax spent the last part of his life living on the island of Patmos where he wrote disarming, simple poems that flash contemplative depths. He isn’t voicing triumphalism in the bit I quoted, but you’re missing it if you think it is skirting the line of skepticism or evincing a low Christology. But notice: the interlocutors questions about the victory of Christ are turned to memory and identity and the reverent service we offer to the dear ones by refusing to forget. Rosenstock-Huessy understands this as a communal piety. “I possess memories in the plural only, loves, desires, observations. The whole race is making up for my forgetfulness, my indifference, my fears, my madness. Mankind has a destiny, an origin, a self-revealing art …” (Speech and Reality, p. 63). History is disclosure only when it is memory made meaningful by passionate attachment. “Our fears while we listen to the tale are: will they obey their highest calling. If the tale ends in woe, it actually has not ended. It follows us into our dreams; it remains with us and we shall have to do something about it” (p. 55). That last is the Ecclesial challenge, the place where one must see who treats the gospel as written in the indicative and who attends to the silent artistry of the Comforter even now transforming horrors into the life of Christ. Catherine Pickstock hints at what I am after in Repetition and Identity. “It is too soon to say . . . what the French Revolution really means; it will always, in time, be too soon. We must await the final judgment, which is already made” (p. 100).
Bulgakov asks us to imagine a metaphysical reality beyond the deathward dispersion of what Paul Griffiths describes as “metronomic” time. Time as gift, as room for delightful event, time as God intends it for eternal wedding feast reveals a very different community from that conceived as an array of individuals passing on genetic information before an inevitable mortality. “In its idea the genus exists both as one and as the fullness of all its individuals, in their unrepeatable particularities, with this unity existing not only in abstracto but also in concreto” (Unfading Light, p. 236). Such unity demands an eschatological horizon where one lives and loves eternally. Within that horizon, the spousal truth of all being is manifest. Grace radiates iconicity.
In totems, coats of arms, and sacred images this ideal reality of genus is symbolically expressed: a wolf exists not only as the totality of wolves but also as wolfness, as does a lion and lioness, a lamb and lambness; there is a rose that blooms in Sophia and a lily of the Annuncation; there is gold, frankincense, and myrrh, which are suitable for presentation to the infant boy of Bethlehem, not all by arbitrary selection but by their inner nature. An icon such as the image of the Theotokos in the fields, surrounded by sheaves of rye, speaks of this, or the so widespread symbolism of animals in iconography. (p. 236)
An economy based on scarcity which is synonymous with time as a dwindling, mortal element provokes the fear of Kierkegaard’s aesthete who must renounce plenitude with decision. Such thrift is an accommodation to diabolic illusion, even if we all experience it existentially in this world. Those who labor under the impression that it is a perduring rule for life are akin to those Sadducees who sought to test Jesus by inquiring about the marital status of the resurrected woman married sequentially to seven brothers. (You wonder how many brothers in before the next fella up started to wonder if Moses had left an escape clause.) The pleroma of eschatological humanity was simply beyond their imaginative capacity. But something like ecstatic plenitude is intuited by General Loewenhielm in a famous speech that marks the wise crescendo of Isak Dinesen’s “Babette’s Feast.” (I was going to make a brief allusion, but what’s one more long quotation, eh?)
“Man, my friends,” said General Loewenhielm, “is frail and foolish. We have all of us been told that grace is to be found in the universe. But in our human foolishness and shortsightedness we imagine divine grace to be finite. For this reason we tremble…” Never till now had the General stated that he trembled; he was genuinely surprised and even shocked at hearing his own voice proclaim the fact. “We tremble before making our choice in life, and after having made it again tremble in fear of having chosen wrong. But the moment comes when our eyes are opened, and we see and realize that grace is infinite. Grace, my friends, demands nothing from us but that we shall await it with confidence and acknowledge it in gratitude. Grace, brothers, makes no conditions and singles out none of us in particular; grace takes us all to its bosom and proclaims general amnesty. See! that which we have chosen is given us, and that which we have refused is, also and at the same time, granted us. Ay, that which we have rejected is poured upon us abundantly. For mercy and truth have met together, and righteousness and bliss have kissed one another!”
I rather doubt that Dinesen actually believed in the eschatological reality that makes sense of her General’s words, but poets often garner more truth than they intend.
I’m very fond of Plato. He’s the most congenial pagan thinker, in my view. His Socrates was surely placed providentially so that his life might act covertly as John the Baptist to the gentiles. That is my private speculation, but whether one entertains that or not, no one can credibly dispute that Plato is a master artist which is why those who uncritically accept the exile of the poets from the ideal Republic must account for an obvious contradiction. The answer, as David C. Schindler argues in Plato’s Critique of Impure Reason, lies in the transformative role played by the concluding myth of Er upon the dialogue as a whole. One has to remember that Plato’s project is driven by the life and death of Socrates. It is particularly the death of Socrates at the hands of the Athenian bien pensant that drives him to seek justice and to reconcile the horror and anguish of loss with the mysterious Agathon. Schindler persuasively asserts that Er is a stand in for Socrates. Like Er, Homer’s Odysseus has journeyed in the Underworld and returned to the living. The sly cunning of Odysseus, however, is not altered by such an adventure (so much is he not changed that Straussians and other skeptics believe the whole episode a bit of wily yarn-spinning.) Regardless, Odysseus remains “a master of deception” who aims “primarily at glory.” In contrast, Er/Socrates “has `recovered from love of honor’ through ‘memory of my former labors,’ i.e., because he has suffered through the whole of human experience and is now in a position to view it from an eternal perspective” (pp. 330 – 331). This is recalled in Desmond’s concept of posthumous mind. Desmond asks one to imagine one is thrown into the future beyond one’s mortal years. How differently would one look upon the cosmos as if from beyond death? “Beyond the instrumental relation of means and end, posthumous honesty would serve nothing but the praise of the worth of being, of truly worthy being . . . Posthumous mindfulness makes us wonder about what we so love now that its loss or desecration would grieve us to the roots on our restoration to life” (The Intimate Strangeness of Being, pp. 294-95). Anxiety, envy, ill-will, ambition, the petty maladies of soul sickness destroy vision. For these, death is the cure that restores sight. Schindler notes, “By being allowed to return to life without drinking from the river Lethe, Er carries the ‘eschaton’ back with him into this world. His return is, so to speak, the entry of the infinite into the finite, the insertion of the ‘beyond’ into the ‘here and now'” (p.333).
I’d like to think about what happens to time for the posthumous? Time is no longer running inexorably through the hour-glass. That kind of time, time as a product of scarcity, has died with death. My argument is that Socrates’ daimon, the spirit that I suspect was his guardian angel, the one that would leave him standing in a field for hours contemplating whilst others puzzled over him as they passed by on serious matters, had already drawn him into a temporality beyond this world of ruin. Hence, Socrates’ actions, his mode of quest, are already implicitly eschatological and dependent on an everlasting time that does not know famine. Schindler specifies that the sophists are inevitably associated with efficiency. “Plato regularly emphasizes speed when he refers to sophistry. ‘But the greatest thing of all,’ Socrates tells a couple of sophists, ‘is that your skill is such, and is so skillfully contrived, that anyone can master it in a very short time'” (p. 261). Quickness to adapt and readily apply skill can also be thought as indicative of Michel Henry’s poet. It doesn’t take very long to conjure an entire ocean or nation or world. One need only jot down the words. So, maybe in all this there is a common element. Socrates thinks the chief vice of the sophists is that they are always in a hurry. (They are the opposite of Ents.) Indeed, Socrates grants that the sophist has attained a technical ability that surpasses the ancient thinkers. Yet it is a false triumph: “this both makes wisdom a ‘skill’ and makes it subservient to ends other than itself, i.e., practically useful. Sophists are never therefore wise because it is good to be such, but always simply as ‘wise as they need to be'” (p. 268). The expedience of that last line is of course the virtue of a strumpet. I believe this is what they tout nowadays as “transferrable skills” as a means of making the liberal arts relevant. Meanwhile, Socrates the annoying gadfly, the poor man who is constantly trying to drag folks into endless dialogues about useless questions devoted to what everybody already knows is decidedly not interested in what makes a thing useful. A paradox emerges. Schindler asserts that Socrates’ leisure is the flower of an ardor that transcends the limited desires of practical men:
Freedom from time implies in another respect a greater responsibility to time, which expresses itself existentially as a certain patience. Desire for the goodness, i.e., the real reality, of a thing is a desire for the whole of it. But though the whole is revealed in one respect “in a flash,” in another respect it does not show itself all at once but takes time. Something great, Plato explains, cannot come to be in a short time (pp. 263–64). The beautiful is loved for its own sake. Moreover, beauty is the radiance of goodness, the witness of truth. It remains to be said that the poetry of Er may also be written in words, at least sometimes. The difference is that language that comes from long acquaintance compactly references what takes not only a vast amount of time, but the whole of a lifetime. Only from the deepening of eschatological insight is the name of the beloved discerned. Participation in divine delight is the necessary flourishing from which one can recognize the transient cosmic expressions of even a world marked by death as fundamentally rooted in generosity. The image is not an empty signifier as Henry seems to fear. Rather, forms are made more full and loveable by the images that spark from them as living fires.
“When Jesus takes our human nature, it does not become less, but more human, and it is made more by its contact with God, the very source of all being, and this intensification of Jesus’ human nature must be understood not only in a personal sense, but in a social one, as well,” states James Arraj (Mind Aflame, p.33). Sherrard adds “Human potentialities go infinitely beyond the parameters of any kind of perfection we can visualize as possessing on our own account or that can be actualized without divine intervention and guidance” (Christianity, p. 12). And this is S. L. Frank: “Outwardly, the human personality appears to be self-enclosed and separated from other human beings, but, inwardly, in its depths, it communicates with all other beings, is fused with them in primordial unity” (The Meaning of Life, p. 90). Last, here is Bulgakov: “Christ is a human being as such, the whole idea of the human, and in this sense the genus in the human being … If it were possible to look from within at the family, the clan, the nation, humanity, all of this would be presented as a single, many-faced, many-eyed entity” (Unfading Light, p.236). Of course, this sense of ontological solidarity is an interpretation. It is certainly not a given available through demonstration or the logic of univocal philosophers. Yet it is the fundamental secret entrusted to the Church — and so often betrayed. Holiness is not a judgment from the outside. It is the leaven of Christ healing and empowering from within. Generations of Christian belief have softened the existential vertigo of the Passion. Folks like to condescend about Peter, that rough fisherman who was brave enough to follow Christ so far as the court of the high priest, but then faltered. When Pilate asks the bedraggled, country prophet from a benighted and troublesome province “what is truth?” all the weary experience of antique civilization shrugged before the dreamy inconsequence of any answer. Even Christ’s family had wondered if he was mad. The death-bound world, the world of violence and power, has not left off condescending dismissal. The line between a sovereign and kingly patience that bears everything in order to attain the “it is good” of creative victory and an impotence that simply permits everything can be impossibly obscure from the side of shadows and tears. The courage of ecclesial existence is to dare to tell the story of God’s impossible love, which is the story of us.