Archive for December, 2011


Monday, December 19th, 2011

En faisant de Dieu un événement de l’histoire, en inscrivant sa Présence au cœur de l’humanité, Jésus-Christ a intériorisé Dieu. Dieu n’est plus une puissance cachée derrière les étoiles, Dieu est au-dedans de nous. (Maurice Zundel)

[08-16/10/11 – Droits de l’homme, droits de propriété.]

This idea of God, a power hidden behind the stars, is quite striking, and pretty traditional.  It is a simple graphic idea, quite easy to grasp and it deals nicely with the problems of coming to grips with a God who is utterly transcendent – the idea of a being beyond, but relating to, the visible cosmos. A problem occurs, however, when it comes to Jesus Christ. Even though we have may have accepted the idea of the Incarnation – that this being has become man – we don’t really dwell on the utter contradiction of Jesus Christ, God and man. Either God, or man, but God/man – that is the greatest contradiction of terms. God is infinite self-sufficiency; man is contingent matter. To say that one is the other does not make sense. The cognitive dissonance involved in such a gross contradiction means that, rather than grappling with it and trying to understand its consequences, we tend to accept that God, the transcendent power hidden behind the stars, is present in some way we don’t understand in Jesus Christ. And that, probably, for most of us is as far as it goes.

But Zundel does not look away. He follows the logic. If God is in Christ then God is immanent. He is within humanity. He is within us. This is a novel and startling idea. It is not, first of all, our common experience. Indeed, we would look very suspiciously at anyone who claimed that they were aware that God was within them. Yet Zundel is quite serious, as Paul was quite serious when he said, ‘I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.’ (Gal 2:20) One might be forgiven for thinking that perhaps this might be the case but that it applies only to a selected few great mystics. However, the tenor of the New Testament implies that God’s immanence in humanity is universal. The presence of God within us is not just for the select few but for all. In what way, then, is God within us? And what does it mean – especially since it is not our common experience?

Zundel does not pose this question, neither does he answer it directly. Instead he comes at it in a roundabout way by looking at what it means to exist as a human person. He says, Exister, c’est être l’origine et la source de soi-même.’ (To exist is to be the origin and source of oneself.) The emphasis here is on the self. Only God is the origin and source of his own being. But for us, to exist as human persons in the fullest sense consists first in becoming aware of what it is that makes us persons. This awareness is not necessarily conscious and explicit. More often than not it is instinctive and implicit. It is the awareness that I, the person me, am an amalgam, a nexus of relationships. And secondly, that the person I am is determined by the manner in which I reciprocate in, respond to these relationships. Our modern consumerist culture, with its attendant social changes and secularisation of religion has led to the dominant idea (at least in the West) of possessive individualism.  C. B. McPherson described this as,

Every man is naturally the sole proprietor of his own person and capacities (the absolute proprietor in that he owes nothing to society for them).*

By the mid-twentieth century, after two devastating wars, the old societal bonds and values were crumbling and their value open to question. At its best the possessive attitude is neatly summed up in Fritz Perls Gestalt Prayer

I do my thing, and you do your thing.

I am not in this world to live up to your expectations

And you are not in this world to live up to mine.

You are you and I am I

And if by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful.

If not, it can’t be helped.**

This is a sad distortion of the nature of things. It is not the way we are, although it does reflect the way which the impersonal anomie of our urban culture often forces us to be. John Donne is much nearer the mark when he says,

No man is an island entire of itself; every man

is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;

if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe

is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as

well as a manor of thy friends or of thine

own were; any man’s death diminishes me,

because I am involved in mankind.

And therefore never send to know for whom

the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

The truth is that we, as persons, are interdependent. We are social beings. We depend for our existence as mentally and emotionally healthy persons on the quality of our relationships with others. One of the worst things one can do to another person is to imprison him or her in solitary confinement. One of the worst things that can happen to a child is to suffer neglect and rejection. Without human interaction we cannot grow, or flourish. Without love we become empty husks, shadows of what might have been.

For some time in my younger days I worked for a market gardner in Burgundy, Pierre Oriol. He was a home-grown philosopher. When I asked him once what philosophers he read, he said, ‘Je ne lis pas. Je pense.’ Perhaps it was because he did not read that his thinking was so fresh and original. After the Saturday morning’s work he would invite us up to his house to be paid and over a glass or two of pastis he would challenge us with some of the ideas he had been mulling over. One Saturday the argument extended well into the afternoon. Pierre challenged us, ‘L’amour n’existe pas.’ Of course love exists, was the reaction. But for Pierre love, essentially, is pure self-giving with no hint of self-interest. All that we generally call love, as far as he could see, is inherently selfish and therefore is not, properly speaking, love. I did not have much experience of life then and could not refute his argument. Since then I have seen the unsparing commitment of individuals to the sick, the vulnerable and the suffering. Since then I have experienced what it is like to love and to be loved. I would not now try to refute his argument but rather take it to another level. Perhaps there is no such thing as the pure love Pierre intends and of course there is no love which does not involve self, but as the Japanese philosopher Nishida explains, ‘The centre of the self is not limited to the interior of the individual; the self of a mother is to be found in her child.’*** Which brings us back to Zundel. The self of the Father is within the Son, the lover within the beloved.

(To be continued.)

* Mapherson, C. B.  The Political Theory of Possesive Individualism, OUP, Oxford, 1962,  270

** PERLS, F.  Gestalt Therapy Verbatim, Bantam Books, London, 1971

*** Nishida Kitaro, Zen no Kenkyu 1921. Translated as An Enquiry into the Good by Masao Abe and Christopher Ives. Newhaven CN: Yale University Press 1990.