"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Of pearls and pigs

I smoked a pipe, too, once.  That's about all we have in common.

If you stumble around the websites I regularly stumble around (and that includes Religion Dispatches, where I expected a better caliber of commentary), you will find any number of comments anxious and seemingly able to define what "religion" is, usually in a very derogatory fashion.  Here is the opening of a book on the subject as philosophy, by a philosopher of religion, that is, someone whose professional obligation was to think about such terms and how they could be defined:

In one of his Heretical Essays on the Philosophy of History Jan Patocka relates secrecy, or more precisely, the mystery of the sacred, to responsibility.  He opposes one to the other; or rather underscores their heterogeneity.  Somewhat in the manner of Levinas he warns against an experience of the sacred as an enthusiasm or fervor for fusion, cautioning in particular against a form of demonic rapture that has as its effect, and often as its first intention, the removal of responsibility, the loss of the sense or consciousness of responsibility.  At the same time Patocka wants to distinguish religion from the demonic form of sacralization.  What is a religion?  Religions presumes access to the responsibility of a free self.  It thus implies breaking with this type of secrecy (for it is not of course the only one), that associated with sacred mystery and with what Patocka regularly calls the demonic.  A distinction is to be made between the demonic on the one hand (that which confuses the limits among the animal, the human, and the divine, and which retains an affinity with mystery, the initiatory, the esoteric, the secret or the sacred) and responsibility on the other.  This therefore amounts to a thesis on the origin and essence of the religious.

Under what conditions can one speak of a religion, in the proper sense of the term, if such a thing exists?  (emphasis added)
Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death, tr. David Wills (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press 1995), p. 1-2.

I include that opening sentence of the next paragraph to show the question is put directly, but not answered directly.  What answer could there be?  Even reading the first paragraph I start to exclude Judaism as I understand it, aware of how much of the argument of Patocka and Derrida depends on the thaumaturgical and mystagogic of Platonism, which is part and parcel of Christianity but not necessarily of Judaism.  If there is a true secret in rabbinic Judaism (as opposed to Temple Judaism and the Holy of Holies), I'm not aware of it.  Christianity, on the other hand, especially Christian mysticism, is shot through with various ideas and experiences of the sacred as secret, from mysteries like the Holy Trinity to mysteries like the cloud of unknowing (in which something still, however impossible, is known).  But "Religions presumes access to the responsibility of a free self"?  "Religion," as Derrida says just a few paragraphs later, "is responsibility or it is nothing at all"?  Can you imagine coming across that anywhere on the web, and having it discussed sensibly?  Can you imagine trying to drop that into a discussion among on-line atheists about the nature of religion which they describe in such childish and ignorant terms, the better to burn their straw man?

I have no higher purpose than to put this out there because I may want to come back to this passage and think something about it.  Barring such thoughts, I put it in the only context I have for the moment.



Blogger alberich said...

If there is a true secret in rabbinic Judaism (as opposed to Temple Judaism and the Holy of Holies), I'm not aware of it.

Well, if you were aware of it, it wouldn't be a very well kept secret, would it? ;)

Seriously, though, the traditional rubric for Biblical interpretation in Judaism is PaRDeS (Persian-derived Hebrew for "Garden").. One level of PaRDeS is indeed Sod, which means secret and refers to mystical readings of the text, such as those expounded upon in the Kabbalah. Indeed, certain texts (the creation stories, the chariot vision of Ezekiel) beg for a mystical interpretation. Of course, the idea that God's true name is unpronouncible is critical in mystic Jewish thought.

I guess one can make a distinction between mystical Jewish thought and Rabbinic thought, but certainly many of the thinkers involved are the same -- a rationalist Rabbi such a Maimonides was also a mystic, for example. In fact, the ineffibility of God's name is a touchstone not only for Jewish mysticism but even for as humanistic and rationalist of a thinker as Erich Fromm.

I don't know if esoteric eisegeses of Biblical passages (Sod) and their associated metaphysics (whether mystical or humanistic) count as "secret" in the sense that this post uses the term, though. Certainly, within the context of Rabbinic Judaism, the purpose of the secret (Sod) is not to avoid observance of sacred duties (Mitzvoth), although some passages e.g. relating to R. Meir in the Talmud seem to indicate the existence of a "higher Judaism" that transcends Torah observance, but to place that observance in a meaningful context, although that context can also provide a justification for less stringent observance of certain Mitzvoth by giving them a "spirit of the law" which can be observed even if the letter cannot be so observed.

12:30 PM  
Blogger Rmj said...

Mysticism involves a certain amount of mystery; but how central that is to the religion is another question.

Christianity encompasses mysticism, but few Christian figures were true mystics. The story is Aquinas had a vision after he'd finished the Summa which, he said, made all his works appear like straw. I think Augustine longed for such an experience, but I don't think he ever had it.

A long way around trying to make a short point: Patocka emphasis (and so Derrida's) on the secret is tied up with Platonism, or maybe more accurately Neo-Platonism. There is a great deal of Christianity which is inextricably Platonic, therefore Hellenistic; and I was trying to suggest a distinction between that and Hebraic thought.

Although by now no doubt Judaic thought has its Hellenistic roots, too.

In fact, I can back up and clarify, with a sentence I didn't include in the post: "In the authentic sense of the word, religion comes into being the moment that the experience of responsibility extracts itself from that form of secrecy called demonic mystery."

Derrida goes on to explain "demonic" in this context means irresponsibility. He puts it particularly in the context of ecstasy, of the kind of loss of self to the moment that we associate with religious frenzy: "It belongs to a space in which there has not yet resounded the injunction to respond...."

I hear echoes of Paul admonishing the Corinthians in that. If I catch an echo of it in Judaism, it's the Golden Calf scene that upset Moses so much.

Mostly I'm trying to extricate the Platonic roots, based in part on this:

"The secret that the event of Christianity takes to task is at the same time a form of Platonism--or Neoplatonism--which retains something of the thaumaturgical tradition, and the secret of the orgiastic mystery from which Plato tried to deliver philosophy."

And to keep Christianity and Judaism clear of each other, without seeing the latter wholly through the lens of the former.

The ineffability of God is not a secret in that sense, then. But your comment helps me distinguish in my own thinking what I'm trying to get at.


12:56 PM  

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