Thursday, June 4, 2015

Judaism and the Mystical Christ, Ch. 7: Beginning

Note: This is part of an ongoing series entitled "Judaism and the Mystical Christ".  I have created a blog entry containing the table of contents linking to each article which may be accessed here:

Table of Contents


There is a very interesting interpretation within the tradition of Kabbalah for the phrase in Gen. 3:15: "he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel."  The reasoning goes: "head" and "heel" are words that sometimes represent the beginning of an era (the head) and the end of an era (the heel).  Thus, this verse would represent how those who grasp at preserving their un-expanded consciousness (from the old era) are like the serpent striking out at the new era - but they will be crushed by the inevitability of the movement of time.

This view also plays in nicely with another interesting interpretation of Genesis 1:1 - the original language would not have had capital letters or punctuation, and so we must guess at where these would occur.  Also, the grammar for Hebrew and English are a bit different, and so Genesis 1:1 in the original language would have read more like “In the beginning created God (Elohim) the heavens and the earth.”  Furthermore, the language is a bit more ambiguous than we realize, and so "in the beginning" could have also been "with the beginning" or "with a beginning" -
Rashi ( who may have written the the most famous Jewish Torah commentaries ever) translates the phrase as "in a beginning."  Rodger Kamenetz writes about this translation in "The Jew in the Lotus: A Poet's Rediscovery of Jewish Identity in Buddhist India":
“[I]n a beginning” suggests that the biblical account of creation is not intended as a rigid recitation of God’s plan, the way fundamentalists often argue, but something looser, more creative. “In a beginning” could mean something like, “one way of telling the story.” This teaching liberated me from my own unconscious fundamentalism, my own rigidity about the Torah. It suggests that there is much more freedom to be found in its language than I’d thought, if only I would take another look.
Neil Gaiman has written one of the most popular graphic novel series in history - The Sandman.  It is a brilliant piece of modern mythology, full of powerful and provocative metaphor.  He begins the second volume of the series with this introduction:
In the beginning...

But of course we never see the beginning. We come in the middle, after the lights have gone down, and try to make sense of the story so far. Whisper to our neighbours “Who's he? Who's she? Have they met each other before?”
We get by.
Even if we were to insist that Genesis marks the beginning - doesn't Christianity believe that there was something before this beginning? (At the least, God existed before.)

The Genesis Rabbah has an interesting take on the order of the words in Genesis 1:1:

The title of an earthly king precedes his name, for instance, Emperor Augustus, etc. Not so was the will of the King of kings; He is only known as God after creating heaven and earth. Thus it is not said יהלא ארבם (God created), but םיהלא ארב. 'In the beginning created God heavens and earth'; He is not mentioned as God before He created.
Keeping in mind that there was no punctuation in the original language, we know that we must make a choice as to where to put the punctuation.  One provocative interpretation of Genesis 1:1 offers that perhaps the verse should read:
With the Beginning, created Elohim, the heavens and the earth.

The idea of this interpretation is that "Elohim", being a human concept of God, is a step of removal from the real thing.  And thus "Elohim" is not God, but is an aspect of the infinite God, and thus the true God is Beginning itself - not in the finite noun sense as in a point in time, but as in the continual process of Beginning (hence, Rabbi Cooper's fascinating book title: "God Is a Verb").  God is the continual Creative process that constantly causes growth, and Creation is continually emanating from God.  This turns the "eternity" of God into a divine paradox of radical temporality - God is not a perfect state that exists in eternal changelessness, but rather God is the unchanging nature of the continually changing Beginning.  God is the force that brings continual change through the growth of Beginning.

This interpretation of
Genesis 1:1 gains more plausibility when we also take into account the fact that "Elohim" is a plural word - literally "gods".  The word "Elohim" is the same word used in the command from Ex. 20:3:
You shall have no other gods before me.
C.S. Lewis backs this view of a dynamic God of Beginning - in Mere Christianity, he writes:
In Christianity, God is not a static thing - not even a person - but a dynamic, pulsating activity, a life, almost a kind of drama. Almost, if you will not think me irreverent, a kind of dance.
While the views of Young Earth Creationists say that God created once and only once and then stopped, never to create again, and man has no part to play in this process - Evolution says that God is constantly, continually exercising God's creative powers and that God incorporates us into this process.  "Let there be..." is the language repeatedly used in Genesis 1 - an invitation to participate.  I feel that Ilia Delio captures this sentiment in this quote from her book "The Unbearable Wholeness of Being: God, Evolution, and the Power of Love":
[E]volution kindles the dawn of postmodernity because it marks the break from a closed, static world of law and order to an open world of change and play.  ...Evolution tells us that nature is not a closed, causal system of events but a complex series of fluid, dynamic, interlocking, and communicative relationships.
Likewise, Rabbi David Cooper writes ("God Is a Verb"):
[Kabbalah]  says that creation is not something that happened at some point in time; creation is happening at all times.  It is happening right now.
In this view, God is the Source of all life, and continually emanates the energy that causes Creation.  In some versions of this belief, if God were to stop for even one moment, all of Creation would cease to be (as in a lightbulb and the light it emanates).  

Note how Genesis 1 records the end of each of the first six days, but not of the seventh. This may imply that the 7th day is still ongoing, and that seems to be affirmed in the New Testament, as Hebrews 4:1-11 speaks of the Sabbath as God's ongoing state of rest into which the righteous are welcomed to join.

If we are to accept this, we must understand that this concept changes the way we think of perfection - if God is Beginning, then perfection itself is the act of perfecting, and thus the idea that there is a finite point which can be defined as perfection is absurd.

This concept of God is not all that different from the Hindu concept of Brahman (to grow, to expand) - in the Hindu religion, ultimate Reality is described as Brahman, and Guru Nanak described it as “Ek Omkar, Sat Naam” (which is translated as “One Reality, eternally True”).

John Horgan also demonstrates how this concept of God relates to Brahman in "Rational Mysticism: Spirituality Meets Science in the Search for Enlightenment":
According to Hindu myth, Brahman, the cosmic source of all things, creates a new universe with every exhalation. But Brahman itself - the spirit or mind from which all things spring - is eternal.
The Dominican mystic Meister Eckhart once wrote:
God is the newest thing there is, the youngest thing there is. God is the beginning and if we are united to God we become new again.
Jürgen Moltmann begins his masterpiece on Christian Eschatology, "The Coming of God", with the phrase: "In the end is the beginning."   Note here that Revelation 21:5 does not present us with an end, but a beginning - "See, I am making all things new."  This is not an end, but a continuing process.  You might say the end represented in Revelation is a re-beginning.  Moltmann writes:
Wherever life is perceived and lived in community and fellowship with Christ, a new beginning is discovered hidden in every end. What it is I do not know, but I have confidence that the new beginning will find me and raise me up.
Further on in "The Coming of God", Moltmann writes:
Entering into God's coming future makes possible a new human becoming: 'Arise, become light, for your light is coming, and the glory of the Lord is rising upon you' (Isa. 60.1). The proclamation of the near - the coming - the arriving kingdom of God makes human conversion to this future possible. 'Be converted, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand' (Matt. 4.17). This unity between the divine coming and human conversion is 'fulfilled time' (Mark 1.15). The First Epistle of John also links human becoming with the divine coming: 'It does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is' (I John 3.2). The writer is talking about the Christ of the parousia. The eschatology of the coming God calls to life the history of new human becoming, which is a becoming without any passing away, a becoming into lasting being in the coming presence of God.
Much of popular Christianity has completely misinterpreted the "second coming" of Christ - seeing it as something they wait for in their La-Z-Boy (and when Jesus comes, he'll fix the mess we've made without our having to lift a finger).  But the word Paul always uses when speaking of Christ's coming is parousia - and in the Roman world, this word was used to describe the arrival of Caesar to a city, where the leaders would organize a parade to meet the Caesar a few miles down the road and escort him into town.  We see this concept echoed in quotes like the above, where we are meant to join in to God's Beginning and partner with God in the act of new creation.  As Ernst Bloch wrote in "The Spirit of Utopia":
Only the wicked exist through their God; but the righteous - God exists through them.
This kind of unity with God is only possible through the self-emptying act of kenosis - the life of unconditional love.  In Philippians 2:6-11, Paul uses this word when he states that though Jesus was in very nature God, he emptied himself.  The word "kenosis", when used in a theological context, involves self-renunciation - a transcendence of ego.  Paul states that it is because of this kenosis that God exalted Jesus - because Jesus was humble he was made great.  Greg Boyd illustrates this concept with the following quote from "The Myth of a Christian Nation":
In the words of Barbara Rossing and John Yoder, borrowing an image from the book of Revelation, the contrast between the “power over” kingdom of the world and the “power under” kingdom of God is “Lion power” versus “Lamb power.” The kingdom of God advances by people lovingly placing themselves under others, in service to others, at cost to themselves. This “coming under” doesn’t mean that followers of Jesus conform to other people’s wishes, but it does mean that we always interact with others with their best interests in mind.

Following the example of Christ, and in stark contrast to the modus operandi of the world, we are to do “nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than [our]selves.” We are to “look not to [our] own interests, but to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:3–4). We are to “not seek [our] own advantage, but that of the other” (1 Cor. 10:24, cf. 10:33). Following Jesus’ example, we are to find honor in washing people’s feet (John 13:14–15)—that is, in serving them in any way we can.
Similar to the concept of kenosis, the Hebrew root of Kabbalah is "to receive" and the word is translated "tradition" - thus it is a receiving tradition, and not forced. 

Ilia Delio writes in "The Unbearable Wholeness of Being" of how the emptying of unconditional love binds us to God:

Love is a consciousness of belonging to another, of being part of a whole. To love is to be on the way toward integral wholeness, to live with an openness of mind and heart, to encounter the other - not as stranger - but as another part of oneself. When we enter into the heart of love, that integral wholeness of love that is God, we enter into the field of relatedness and come to see that we are wholes within wholes. This is the consciousness we need today, an integral wholeness of love that is open to new life; a being-at-home in love that can evolve.
The German Catholic priest, mystic, and poet Angelus Silesius once wrote:
I am eternity when, from time free, I join myself in God with God in me.
Likewise, Moltmann writes:
If, one day, that which in hidden form drives us forward emerges, what will come into being is eternity, i.e., 'absolute time', time which does not pass away, life without death, the unveiled face in God.
Kabbalah holds that the known reality of our world is a partial manifestation of a much bigger reality (infinite, really) which we call God - they often use the term Ein Sof to talk about God.  Ein Sof literally means “there is no end”, and so it is a way of talking about the infinite nature of God. Rabbi David Aaron writes in "The Secret Life of God: Discovering the Divine within You":
The infinite is that which goes on and on in space. However, God created space and is therefore not bound to the laws and limitation of space.
Rabbi Aaron goes on to describe how God is "spaceless" - both beyond space and within space simultaneously - and "timeless" - both beyond time and within every moment of time simultaneously.  As an anonymous philosopher wrote: "God is a circle whose centre is everywhere, whose circumference is nowhere."  

When we speak of God as "One", Rabbi Aaron explains, we must be careful to realize that this is not the same as when one is a limitation that is the opposite of many.  In the case of when we use "One" to describe God, this speaks of God’s nonduality, which is free of the confines of one or many.  He writes:
Nonduality is free to be beyond the many and within the many. Therefore, God is beyond you, me, and everyone else in this world, and yet also within us.
Later on he explains the "Oneness" of God like so: 
[T]he oneness of God does not mean that He is only one as opposed to two or three. The oneness of God is an all-encompassing unity that includes multiplicity while remaining one.
The mystical view of Judaism teaches that "I am" is a way of the Divine - which is outside of person-hood as we understand it - expressing itself through the metaphor of person-hood in order accommodate our understanding.  That which is outside of categorization entered into a category we could understand in order that we might be able to reach greater heights of understanding.

Paul Tillich wrote in "Systematic Theology: Volume 1":

It would be a great victory for Christian apologetics if the words “God” and “existence” were very definitely separated except in the paradox of God becoming manifest under the conditions of existence. . . . God does not exist. He is being-itself beyond essence and existence. To argue that God exists is to deny him.
Tillich goes on later to defend this statement with the following logic:
The being of God cannot be understood as the existence of a being alongside others or above others. If God is a being, he is subject to the categories of finitude, especially to space and substance.

Likewise, in "The Unbearable Wholeness of Being", Ilia Delio writes about Raimond Panikkar’s "cosmotheandrism":
God is not created being and created being is not God, but God is one with created / cosmic being and created / cosmic being is one with God.
Later she writes: 
The divine is never alone or by itself because it has no “self”; it is the Whole of the Whole.  The divine mystery is the ultimate AM of everything.
God is not supernatural being residing "out there" - God is rather the supranatural Ground of Being, while at the same time existence is not a category in which God fits into.  God is not a thing, nor is God nothing - rather God is no-thing while being the center of everything.  The love of God is expressed within every being, and yet no being can contain this love and so it spills over into transcendence, which is expressed through the new creation of evolutional Beginning.  God is thus simultaneously in the present and in the future as the fullness of love - in other words, as Ilia Delio puts it: "God is the One who is and who is coming to be."

Next Chapter: The Image of God

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