by Richard L. Rubenstein (November 2014)
(This essay is a revised version of chapter 16 of the second edition of Richard L. Rubenstein’s, After Auschwitz: History, Theology and Contemporary Judaism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.)
When I reflect on the question of God after the death of God, I recall a crucial conversation with the late Swami Muktananda of Ganeshpuri that took place at a major turning point in my spiritual life. One of my academic colleagues, Dr. Gulshan Khaki, a disciple of the Guru, invited Dr. Betty Rubenstein and me to spend a weekend at his American Ashram when he was in attendance. At the time I met Swami Muktananda, I was experiencing something akin to the “dark night of the soul” concerning which mystics in all of the great traditions have testified. Although happily married and grateful that I had found appropriate academic employment, I was bitterly pessimistic about almost every aspect of the human condition. I was especially intolerant of the men and women within my own religious tradition who could not or would not understand the difficulties involved in affirming the traditional God of covenant and election after Auschwitz.
The very first thing the Guru said to me was: “You mustn’t believe in your own religion; I don’t believe in mine. Religions are like the fences that hold young saplings erect. Without the fence the sapling could fall over. When it takes firm root and becomes a tree, the fence is no longer needed. However, most people never lose their need for the fence.”
I have never forgotten the Guru’s counsel. Although he had never met me before, he knew instinctively what I needed to be told. Here was a profoundly religious man telling me that he was not a believer. I understood his real meaning, that there is an esoteric as well as an exoteric tradition in all of the major religions. He helped me to see that my “death-of-God” theology, with its radical questioning of tradition, was not negative rebellion but contained the seeds of affirmation of the esoteric tradition. The Guru’s counsel caused me to recall the esoteric character of Jewish mysticism before the Sabbatian movement1 and the rise of Hasidism, when Kabbalah was taught as secret knowledge and confined to a small, élite group and their disciples.2 He also helped me to achieve a measure of empathy with traditional believers, both Jewish and Christian.
The Guru reminded me that there are levels of religious sophistication in every tradition. Nowhere is that insight more relevant than when reflecting on the meaning of the death of God. It must be stressed at the outset of this essay that the death of God is not something that has happened to God. It is a cultural event experienced by men and women, many of whom remain faithful members of their religious communities. No longer able to believe in a transcendent God who is sovereign over human history and who rewards and punishes men and women according to their deserts, they nevertheless render homage to that God in the rituals and liturgy of the community of their inheritance. They instinctively intuit that the “fence” of traditional meanings is indispensable to their sense of religious identity. As we have seen, belief in the sovereign God of covenant and election requires interpreting events such as the extermination of European Jewry and the bitter strife of our times as God’s providential way of leading humanity to its final redemption. Many thoughtful men and women find this idea too great a strain on their credulity. Their experience of the death of God rests upon their loss of faith in the transcendent God of History, but not necessarily in the loss of the sense of the sacred.
Faith in the transcendent God is also rendered problematic by the promise of redemption itself. What indeed does redemption mean? In the biblical religions, the God of History is depicted as promising that the sorrows of the present era will ultimately be overcome by the establishment of a “kingdom of heaven,” perhaps here on earth. This belief entails the conviction that history has a meaning, a purpose, and a climactic goal. The belief has become so pervasive in the world of Judeo-Christian inheritance that hope for the coming of the “kingdom” is no longer necessarily dependent upon faith in the existence of God. Marxism, for example, has its own secular version of the coming of the kingdom.
Judeo-Christian faith in the transcendent God stands in contrast to Buddhist religious sensibility. In Buddhism redemption is understood to involve the the cessation of all craving for, and attachment to, the ephemeral states of existence to which men mistakenly ascribe permanence and stability. As we know, attainment of such peace and enlightenment is called nirvana. In contrast to biblical religion, Buddhism holds that no transcendent deity can bestow enlightenment upon human beings. On the contrary, the way to enlightenment is through knowledge of the Four Noble Truths, namely, that existence is permeated by suffering and unhappiness; the origin of unhappiness lies in craving or desire; an end to suffering is possible through the cessation of craving; and craving can be terminated by following the Eightfold Path, consisting of right understanding, right purpose (aspiration), right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right contemplation (concentration).
Although firmly rooted in the Jewish tradition, I was struck by the fact that the difficulties arising from theistic belief do not constitute a problem for Buddhism. Moreover, the Buddhist view would appear to be more in harmony with the facts of human biology and psychology than the western view. Every human being is a perpetually changing process from the beginning to the end of life. At no moment in the ongoing transformation, can one discern an underlying substantial, essential, unchangeable self. Every human action attempts to gratify some felt need. But, needs are experienced as disturbances we seek to overcome. That is as true of eating, breathing and love-making as it is of spiritual activities such as prayer. Were all needs perfectly and permanently gratified, the individual bodily organism as we know it would not persevere. In reality, suffering and need can only be overcome in death or through the immersion of the self in the seamless ocean of being in which individual identity is dissolved. Redemption thus involves the dissolution of the self or, from a Buddhist perspective, the illusion of the self. Such redemption may bear a greater resemblance to Buddhist nirvana than to the western conception of the coming of God’s “kingdom,” insofar as redemption is thought of as endowing the self with a measure of discrete, enduring identity.
In place of a biblical image of a transcendent creator God, an understanding of God which gives priority to the indwelling immanence of the Divine may be more credible in our era. Where God is thought of as predominantly immanent in the cosmos, the cosmos in all of its temporal and spatial multiplicity will be understood as the manifestation of the single unified and unifying, self-unfolding, self-realizing Divine Source, Ground, Spirit or Absolute. The names proliferate because we are attempting to speak of that which cannot be spoken of or even named, as mystics in every age have understood. Moreover, the cosmos itself will be understood to be capable of vitality, feeling, thought and reflection, at least in its human manifestation. As the Ground of Being and of all beings, Divinity can be understood as the ground of feeling, thought and reflection. Human thought and feeling are thus expressions of divine thought and feeling, albeit in a dialectical form.
In the West emphasis on Divine immanence has been expressed in mysticism and nature paganism. If one finds the transcendent God of covenant and election lacking in credibility, some form of mysticism can become a meaningful religious path. Another alternative would be some form of Buddhist enlightenment. The Buddhist view reminds us that religion and theism are not necessarily identical.
To choose immanence, mysticism, nature paganism or the quest for Buddhist enlightenment is to choose a synthesizing system of continuity over a dichotomizing system of gaps, such as faith in the radically transcendent creator God of biblical religion who bestows a covenant upon Israel for his own utterly inscrutable reasons. Deutero-Isaiah expressed the unbridgeable gap between God and man in biblical religion when, speaking on God’s behalf, he declared:
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55: 8, 9)
The inherent logic of the gap between the radically transcendent biblical God and man finally comes to full expression in Calvinism’s doctrine of double predestination which holds that, at the very first instant of creation, the sovereign omnipotent Creator predestined all of humanity either to election or damnation and that no human institution, action or petition can have the slightest effect on a person’s eternal destiny. Cut off completely from any influence upon the Creator, men and women can only glorify from afar the one who might be the Author of their eternal damnation.
In philosophy and philosophical theology, choice of a system of continuity reflects a preference for Hegel over Kant, Kierkegaard and Barth, who stressed the infinite qualitative difference between God and man. Among the systems of continuity we find mystical and pantheistic traditions that affirm the ultimate, though not necessarily the immediate, unity of God, man, and the cosmos.
To understand the preference for a system of continuities over a system of gaps, it is helpful to recall Hegel’s reformulation of Kant’s distinction of Verstand (understanding) and Vernunft (Reason).3 Hegel defined the activity of Verstand as the analytic definition, organization and fixation of seemingly discrete phenomena, the hard. concrete, matter-of-fact quality of the events and the existents of the empirical world. He characterized Verstand as “isolated reflection,” insisting that Verstand could only apprehend a partial, limited aspect of reality. Verstand can analyze discrete phenomena; it cannot understand the ultimate interconnectedness of all things. For Hegel, the finite, empirical existence apprehended by Verstand is not what it appears to be; it is actually the self-manifestation of the single, universal, infinite Ground and Source. Were this not so, reality would be divided into mutually repellant sectors which are incomprehensible to and incommunicable with each other. Beyond the empirical world of dichotomous oppositions and discrete, isolated entities, there is, according to Hegel, a unified totality that can be rationally and conceptually grasped. Thus, belief in the transcendent God of history, who relates to the empirical world as subject to object, is an expression of the partial and incomplete perspectives of Verstand. Although not false, the finite perspectives of Verstand are partial. They constitute developmental stages within the all-encompassing activity of speculative Reason or Vernunft which is the Absolute or Geist for philosophy and Divinity for religious mysticism. It is, however, important to note that Hegel does not deny the reality of concrete entities. He holds that the Absolute exists only in and through its finite constituents: “Ohne Welt ist Gott nicht Gott.” (Without the world is God not God.)4
Stressing the indispensable nature of each and every finite entity and event in the world as an expression of the underlying Absolute, Hegel attempted to comprehend all of nature and history as expressions of the self-positing, self-unfolding rational totality. Instead of seeing God, man and nature as separate and distinct, the perspective of Verstand, Hegel insisted upon the “identity of identity and non-identity” of phenomena. He sought to demonstrate that humanity in its historical development and nature in its evolution are expressions of the same ultimate Reality. I would add, absent the unifying comprehension of Vernunft, Verstand is the mode of comprehension appropriate to a system of gaps; Vernunft is the mode appropriate to a system of continuities. Above all, in a system of continuities there are no mystifying leaps of faith.
Among Hegel’s successors, the Hegelian left denied the divinity of the Absolute.5 However, in a theological reading of Hegel, the divinity of the Absolute or Geist is affirmed. According to Hegel, religion can only anticipate the reconciliation and ultimate union in the Absolute of nature, humanity and Divinity in the subjectivity of faith and feeling. Like the Guru, Hegel regarded religion as the fence for the young tree yet to take deep roots. For Hegel, philosophy alone can attain the reconciliation in its comprehensiveness through the activity of Vernunft. Indeed, for Hegel true philosophy is is nothing less than Absolute’s fully rational, self-transparent knowledge, so to speak, of Him/Herself in se ipsum. Hegel’s thought expresses a perennial human aspiration, namely, humanity’s desire to understand its place in the order of things with lucidity and without self-deception or bad faith. That same aspiration can be seen in dialectical mysticism and Buddhism. For us, however, true self-knowledge and the insights of dialectical mysticism attain the reconciliation.
HOLY NOTHINGNESS AS THE GROUND OF THE ALL
Although deeply indebted to Hegel, I believe that his quest for a system of continuity can best be achieved by another name for the Unnameable. I also believe there is a conception of God which does not falsify or mystify reality, as a system of gaps must inevitably do, and which remains meaningful after the death of the transcendent God of history. It is a very old conception of God with deep roots in both western and oriental mysticism. In this conception God is spoken of as the Holy Nothingness, das Heilige Nichts, and, in Kabbalah, as the En-Sof, that which is without limit or end.6 God, thus designated is regarded as the Ground and Source of all existence. To speak, admittedly in inadequate language, of God as the “Nothingness” is not to suggest that God is a void; on the contrary, the Holy Nothingness is a plenum so rich that all existence derives therefrom. God as the “Nothing” is not absence of being, but a superfluity of being.
Use of the term Nothingness to point to the divine reality rests in part on an ancient observation that all definition of finite phenomena involves negation. In order to know something, we must know what it is not. The infinite God, the Ground of all that is finite, cannot be defined for there is nothing outside of God, so to speak. In no sense is God a definite thing or a being bearing any resemblance to the finite beings of the empirical world. The infinite God is not a thing; the infinite God is no-thing. At times, the mystics spoke of God in similar terms as the Urgrund, the primordial ground, the dark unnameable Abyss out of which the empirical world has come.
At first glance, these ideas may appear to be little more than word play. Nevertheless, men in all of the major religious traditions have expressed themselves in almost identical images when they attempt to communicate their conception of God. Those who believe that God is the Source or Ground of Being usually believe that discrete human identity is coterminous with the life of the physical organism. Death may be entrance into eternal life, the perfect life of God; it may also end pain, craving and suffering, but it involves the dissolution of individual identity. Thus, in speaking of God, we also formulate a judgment concerning the nature and limitations of human existence.
Perhaps the best available metaphor for the conception of God as the Holy Nothingness is that God is the ocean and we the waves. Each wave has its moment when it is identifiable as a somewhat separate entity. Nevertheless, no wave is entirely distinct from the ocean which is its substantial ground. Furthermore, because the waves are surface manifestations of the ocean, our knowledge of the ocean is largely dependent upon the way it manifests itself in the waves.
The waves are caught in contradictory tendencies. They are the resultants of forces which allow them their moment of identifiable existence. At the same time, they are wholly within the grasp of greater tendencies which merge them into the oceanic ground from which they have been momentarily distinguished without ever really having separated from it. Similarly, all living beings seek to maintain their individual identities, yet there is absolutely nothing in them which does not derive from their originating ground. This is especially evident in the most intimate of all human activities, sexual love. Nothing could be more private or personally involving. Nevertheless, at no time is the individual more in the grip of universal forces than in the act of love. Only to the extent that the individual is capable of letting these overwhelming forces flow through him or her of their own accord will the act of love be complete and fulfilling. Only he or she who has the capacity to lose himself totally in love can achieve this fulfillment.
The same reality is evident in the life cycle. Because our bodies are the most deeply personal aspects of our beings, identity begins as body-identity and the earliest development of the ego is as body-ego. Our fundamental projects are related to the care and nurture of our bodies. Yet, nothing is more universal and impersonal than the shape, demands and sexual character of our bodies. We do not choose to be born; we do not choose our gender; we do not choose the course of our life from its beginnings in cellular existence through physical maturity, old age and, finally, death. We simply repeat, each in our own way, a destiny common to billions of other human beings. Admittedly, we possess a measure of freedom to work out our distinctive path to the world. Nevertheless, both the individual and the race are the consequence of vast, non-personal forces which transcend yet permeate their every activity and project.
Questions about the relation between discrete phenomena and universals are not new. In the Middle Ages there was an important controversy in the field of logic and metaphysics concerning the nature of universals. One group of thinkers, the nominalists, regarded the universal as the name given to a class of objects which resembled each other. Another, the realists, argued that the universal has an extra-mental reality of its own which is exemplified in each of its particulars. We call their system realism. The controversy has been one of the most abiding and complicated in the history of philosophy.7 Since the time of Luther, there has been a tendency, especially in countries strongly influenced by Protestantism, to regard individuals as real and universals as merely names, although Hegel obviously regarded the Absolute, the Universal par excellence, as the one and only true reality. The social and cultural expression of the triumph of nominalism is reflected in the growth of individualism and the stress on private rather than corporate experience. In the political order nominalism was paralleled by the rise of the middle class and its preference for free, unregulated competition and commerce.
Although we can press the metaphor of the ocean and the waves too far, it is very useful and very old. The Summerians saw all things, even the gods, arising out of the divine oceanic substratum of existence which they called Nammu. Nammu was the archaic sea-goddess in Summerian mythology.8 She was not the goddess of the sea, but the goddess who is the sea. Hegel used a similar metaphor at the conclusion of the Phenomenology when, after describing the full scope of human activity and passion in the course of history, he concluded that all of the apparent diversity of both natural existence and the drama of history was the self-positing expression of one, underlying, ever-changing and yet ever-constant divine Spirit or Geist. He adapted a line from the poet Schiller to summarize this paradox of divine unity and diversity:
aus dem Kelche dieses Geisterreiche
schäumt ihm seine Unendlichkeit.
The chalice of this realm of spirits
Foams forth to God his own Infinitude.9
When God is imaged as the Holy Nothingness, the divine Ground of Being is thought of as beyond all finite categories. It may be the source and precondition of the empirical world, but it is not identical with that world. There is an inescapable tension between God’s essential unity and his process of self-manifestation in the multiplicity of the empirical world. Hegel caught something of the tension between God as ground, on the one hand, and the natural and historical world as epiphenomenal manifestation of the divine Reality on the other. This is reflected in the Preface to the Phenomenology:
Per se the divine life is no doubt undisturbed identity and oneness with itself, which finds no serious obstacle in otherness and estrangement…But this “per se” is abstract generality…The truth is whole. The whole, however, is merely the essential nature reaching its completeness through the process of its own developement.10
Spirit alone is reality. It is the inner being of the world, that which essentially is, and is per se; it assumes objective, determinate form and enters into relations with itself-it is externality (otherness) and exists for self; yet, in this determinateness, and in its otherness, it is still one with itself-it is self-contained and self-complete, in itself and for itself at once.11
Hegel used a very complicated philosophical language to express the idea of the fundamental identity of God as unchanging unity and of the world as the divine means of expressing itself in diversity. I prefer the more graphic metaphor of the ocean and waves, but the fundamental conception underlying both images is much the same.
Hegel called the divine Ground Geist or Spirit; the twentieth century religious thinker, Paul Tillich, used the term “Ground of Being.” There is nothing original about my use of Holy Nothingness. All three designations reflect a preference for metaphors rooted in maternity rather than paternity. Words like “ground,” “source,” and “abyss” have maternal overtones. This is also true of the image of God as the oceanic substratum. In the symbolism of both religion and dreams, ocean often represents womb. In the evolution of the species, the womb is a surrogate ocean providing mammals with a replica of their original aquatic habitat through which they can reproduce in an encompassing fluid and recapitulate the evolution of the race in their own ontogenesis.
Terms like “ground” and “source” stand in contrast to the terms used for the transcendant biblical God of history who is known as a supreme king, a father, a creator, a judge, a maker. When he creates the world, he does so as do males, producing something external to himself. He remains essentially outside of and judges the creative processes he has initiated. As ground and source, God creates as does a mother, in and through her own very substance. As ground of being, God participates in all the joys and sorrows of the drama of creation which is, at the same time, the deepest expression of the divine life. God’s unchanging unitary life and that of the cosmos’ ever-changing, dynamic multiplicity ultimately reflect a single unitary reality.
Although I have cited Hegel and Tillich, I could have cited a long list of eastern and western mystics who have had similar conceptions of God. J. N. Findlay, an authoritative English commentator on Hegel, has observed that Hegel’s conception of God as the Spirit underlying nature and history “has an obvious parentage in the glorious mysticism of mediaeval and renaissance Germany.”12 Findlay finds echoes of Hegel in Meister Eckhart, Angelus Silesius and Jakob Boehme. He comments:
In all these systems there is that approximation of the finite to the infinite Spirit which fits in with Hegel’s notions: there is also that profound, theologically heretical stress on the necessity to the infinite Spirit of a world of Nature and created Spirit, which by enabling him to exercise his creative energies and redemptive love, also enable him to know and be himself. Hegel quotes with approval the following statement of Meister Eckhart: “The eye with which God sees me, is the eye with which I see Him, my eye and his eye are one. In the meeting out of justice I am weighed in God and He in me. If God were not, I should not be, and if I were not, He too would not be..…13
This conception of God also implies a judgment on the overly-individualistic conception of the self which has predominated in the western world.
In spite of the resemblance between the term Nothingness as a designation for the divine substratum and Hegel’s use of the term Spirit to point to the same reality, there is an absolutely crucial difference between them. Hegel saw the self-positing of Spirit as a process leading to a final goal in which Spirit would finally come to know itself as Spirit. For Hegel the ultimate goal of all existence is the fully self-realized knowledge of God. God will come fully to know himself as God, so to speak, when he finally recognizes every event in natural evolution and human history as the very road he has had to traverse in order to become and know himself as self-conscious Spirit. Everything that has ever happened would then be seen as an indispensable moment in the life of God.
According to Hegel, had Spirit not gone through the infinite pain of the negative, of human history, its self-knowledge and its very nature would have been empty, a void. In order to be God, Spirit had to suffer the tortuous path we call history. Without it, God would not have had a self, so to speak, to know. The image here is not unlike human self-knowledge. The new-born infant has no possibility of self-recognition or self-knowledge. Such insight is only possible when the self has a memory of events, conflicts, victories and defeats. True self-knowledge involves recognition and acceptance of the fact that the unique path taken by the individual was indispensable to the formation of the person he or she has become. For Hegel the goal of history will be attained when God recognizes that all the diversity of existence is but his own unique life-history.14 The one true Substance would then become the one true Subject.
BIBLICAL AND COSMOLOGICAL IMAGES OF GOD
Attributing a goal to history reflects the influence of biblical teleology on Hegel, an influence which is understandably shared by many other western thinkers. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, for example, interpreted the whole of the cosmic process as having a goal he identified as the “Omega-point.” Taking the incarnation of God and man in Christ as his starting point, Teilhard looked forward to the moment when the cosmic Christ would be “All-in-everything.” All of matter and spirit would then express fully and completely the perfect unity already made manifest in Christ incarnate according to the Christian tradition.15 Biblical religion expresses itself in redemptive hope. To the extent that Hegel, Teilhard, and Karl Marx saw history as a process with a goal, they were influenced by biblical religion.
An alternative vision may perhaps be more plausible: If creation is understood as the self-unfolding of God’s life, so to speak, then the process itself may be a vast cosmic detour originating in the Nothingness of God and ultimately returning to God’s Nothingness. This would appear to be the viewpoint of the Kabbalah of Rabbi Isaac Luria. In Lurianic Kabbalism the Fall was regarded as the catastrophic moment at which God’s Holy Shekhinah, his Divine Presence, was exiled from the primordial Divine Ground, the En-Sof.16 Thus, “a part of God Himself was exiled from God.”17 The goal of all existence is regarded as the overcoming of the cosmic galuth or exile and the restoration of the cosmos to its seamless unity with the primordial source, the aboriginal Urgrund. Thus, the final reversal of Adam’s Fall, depicted in Jewish mysticism as both an anthropological and a cosmic event, would ultimately entail the restoration of God to God. Insofar as God is experienced as a Thou by a human I in the present aeon, it is only because God himself, so to speak, is separated from his true nature as primordial Urgrund and, in the final analysis, Holy Nothingness or En-Sof. God restored to himself as En-Sof would truly be “all in all.” In the language of Buddhism, the goal of all existence is none other than the attainment of primordial Nirvana and the restoration of all things to the originating Womb of existence.
Not surprisingly, a similar vision is to be found in the thought of Paul of Tarsus, whom Gershom Scholem called a “revolutionary Jewish mystic,” and who was, after all, trained by the Pharisees.18 In Paul’s vision of the final consummation of redemptive history, Christ, the Messiah, utterly destroys “every rule and every authority and power” and does away with the “last enemy” death. Christ then submits himself “to the one who made the universe subject to him, so that God may be all in all.” (I Cor. 15: 20-28).19 Elsewhere I have attempted to show that Paul’s meaning is that, at the end of all things the distinction between the transcendent God, the I-and-Thou God, as subject and the cosmos as object is overcome and God entire, so to speak, becomes “all in all.”20 Put differently, at the end of all things God and the world return to the originating Sacred Womb out of which both have come. The logic of such a restoration is expressed in the idea, “Endzeit ist Urzeit,” (The end-time is the original-time) which signifies that the end of all things recapitulates their primordial beginning.
A somewhat similar vision is to be found in the later writings of Sigmund Freud. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud depicted organic existence as primordially inclined to seek to return to the inanimate condition out of which it had arisen. According to Freud, both the animate and inanimate realms are ultimately linked by the common tendency of all things in the universe to return to the simplest equilibrium of the cosmic system with itself. For Freud, as for so many of his scientific contemporaries, this meant that the universe would ultimately ‘run down’ resulting in a universal cosmic death.21 Nevertheless, as Norman O. Brown and others have observed, Freud’s ideas on this subject have deep affinities with the great mystical systems in which the goal of all existence is return to the Divine Ground out of which it has arisen.22
I have often expressed my deepest religious feelings by saying that “Omnipotent Nothingness is Lord of all creation.” This affirmation of mystical faith seems to offer a parsimonious way of synthesizing mystical, dialectical, psychoanalytic and archaic insights concerning God as the ground, content and final destiny of all things. It also has obvious affinities to the Buddhist doctrine of Sunyata or emptiness although Buddhist thinkers would not use poetic images such as “Lord of all creation” to express their meanings. According to Masao Abe,
The ultimate reality for Buddhism is neither Being nor God, but Sunyata. Sunyata literally means “emptiness” or “voidness” and can imply “absolute nothingness.” This is because Sunyata is entirely unobjectifiable, unconceptualizable, and unattainable by reason or will. Accordingly, if Sunyata is conceived as somewhere outside of or beyond one’s self-existence, it is not true Sunyata, for Sunyata thus conceived…turns into something which one represents and calls “Sunyata.”23
The affirmation of “Omnipotent Nothingness” is ipso facto the affirmation of God as Urgrund, source and final goal. It also implies that the only eternal life is the ‘life,” so to speak of God. There cannot, however, be a separated eternal life for the individual, for that would be eternal separation and estrangement from God.
An analogous vision can be expressed in cosmological images. For those who hold that the universe originated in a cosmic “big bang,” there are two general hypotheses concerning its ultimate fate. Some could argue that all of the exploding matter of the universe has been rushing away from its originating point in all directions and will continue to do so, world without end. At present, this appears to be the favored scientific hypothesis. Others reason that, if space is curved, the matter of the cosmos will eventually implode and return in unimaginable density to its cosmic starting point. Whatever the evidence of the scientists, the second hypothesis is more consistent with dialectical mysticism and with an appropriate theological vision after the death of the transcendent biblical God of history, the God of I-and-Thou. Perhaps the vast cosmic implosion, by its very force, might be followed by yet another “big bang.” If so, the universe might be a vast exploding-imploding domain which completes its cosmic cycle in about 84 billion years. This vision would resemble that of the ancient pagans who believed that time is cyclical, ultimately returning to its starting point, rather than a straight line proceeding to a future fulfillment.
Writing in The Christian Century shortly after the publication of the first edition of After Auschwitz, Ronald Goetz argued that to regard God as the Holy Nothingness is to regard him as death. He based his comment on my argument that we have no ultimate hope save return to the Nothingness of God.24 I believe Goetz was arguing for the religion of the young sapling and its indispensable fence rather than for the religion of the tree that has taken deep roots. Admittedly, a rejection of the popular notion of the Judeo-Christian hope for the eternal life of the individual presents difficulties for men and women brought up in a culture fundamentally nourished by the biblical tradition. Nevertheless, as we have seen, even within the Judeo-Christian tradition the idea of redemption as return to the Source and the ultimate dissolution of the individual self is to be found in the mystical conception of redemption as the return of the exiled Shekhinah to union with the En-Sof, as well as in Paul’s vision of God as “all in all.”
God is not death; he, so to speak, is the source of both life and death. Death is the final price we pay for life and love, but death is not all there is. Life has its deep, abiding and profound moments of joy and fulfillment. Were there no death of the individual, there would be no biological need for love in the order of things. Moreover, every act of love truly consummated is to some degree a joyful dying to the self.It is a distortion to see God solely as love, for love and death are inseparable. God creates, so to speak, out of his own substance; he nurtures, but he also sets a term to individual existence, which in its individuality is no less indivisibly an epiphenomenal manifestation of the divine substance. The creative process is a totality. It is impossible to affirm the loving and the creative aspects of God’s activity without also affirming that creation and destruction are part of an indivisible process. Each wave in the ocean of God’s Nothingness has its moment, but it must inevitably give way to other waves. We are not, like Job, destined to receive back everything twofold.
The world of the death of the transcendent God of covenant and election need not be a place of gloom or despair. One need not live forever for life to be worth living. Creation, however impermanent, is full of promise. Those who affirm the inseparability of the creative and the destructive in the divine activity thereby affirm their understanding of the necessity to pay in full measure with their own return to the Holy Nothingness for the gift of life.
1. Sabbatianism was an heretical, anti-nomian, Messianic Jewish movement.. See Gershom Scholem, Jewish Major Trends in Mysticism, 2nd ed. (New York: Schocken Books, 1974), pp. 287-324.
2. Scholem, op. cit., p. 21.
3. On the understanding, see G.W.F. Hegel, “Vorrede,” Phänomenologie des Geistes, ed. Johannes Hoffmeister (Hamburg: Felix Meiner, 1952) pp. 29 ff.; English translation, G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), pp. 32 ff. See also G.W.F. Hegel, The Difference Between Fichte’s and Schelling’s System of Philosophy, trans. and eds. H.S. Harris and Walter Cerf (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1977), pp. 89-103. For an interpretation of Hegel’s use of Verstand and Vernunft, see John Edward Toews, Hegelianism: The Path to Dialectical Humanism, 1805-1841 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), pp. 51f.
4. G. W. F. Hegel, Begriff der Religion (Leipzig: Felix Meiner, 1928), p. 148.
5. “For Hegel, the real object of religious thought is Man himself: every theology is necessarily an anthropology.” Alexandre Kojève, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, trans. James H. Nichols, Jr., ed. Allen Bloom (New York: Basic Books, 1969), Summary of The Course in 1937-1938, p. 71.
6. On the En-Sof, see Scholem, op. cit., pp. 11 ff.
7. For a brief overview see article, “Universals,” The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (New York: Macmillan, 1967), Vol. 8, pp. 194-206.
8. See Samuel Noah Kramer, ed., Mythologies of the Ancient World (Garden City: Anchor Books, 1961), pp. 103-04.
9. Hegel, Phänomenologie des Geistes, p. 564; English translation, English translation, Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller, p. 493.
10. This translation is from G. W. F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind, trans. J. B. Baillie (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1931), p. 81.
11. Hegel, op. cit, p. 86.
12. J. N. Findlay, Hegel: A Reexamination (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1958), pp. 48 ff.
13. Findlay, op. cit., pp. 48-9.
14. Findlay, op. cit., pp. 34-47.
15. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Divine Milieu (New York: Harper and Row, 1965). For a sympathetic presentation of Teilhard’s religious philosophy, see Henri de Lubac, Teilhard de Chardin: The Man and His Meaning, New York: Mentor-Omega Books, 1967).
16. See Scholem, op. cit., pp. 244-86.
17. Gershom Scholem, On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, trans. Ralph Mannheim (New York: Schocken Books, 1965), p. 107.
18. Scholem, op. cit. , p. 14.
19. There is some minor disagreement concerning the Greek text that is translated as “all in all” in English which we note but which need not detain us. I have accepted “all in all,” the traditional translation and the one used by the Oxford New English Bible and the Roman Catholic Jerusalem Bible.
20. See Richard L. Rubenstein, My Brother Paul (New York: Harper and Row, 1972), p. 170.
21. Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, trans. James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1950).
22. Norman O. Brown, Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytic Meaning of History, 2nd ed. (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1985) pp. 133-34.
23. Masao Abe, “Kenotic God and Dynamic Sunyata,” in John B. Cobb, Jr. and Christopher Ives, eds., The Emptying God: A Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1990), p. 27.
24. Ronald Goetz, “God: Love or Death?” The Christian Century, LXXXIV (1967), pp. 1487-90.
Richard L. Rubenstein is President Emeritus of the University of Bridgeport. His latest book is Jihad and Genocide (Rowman and Littlefield: 2011).
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