God’s Legacy is Liberty

The Dawn of Midnight/28 - Man and woman: the most beautiful "image" under the sun

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire le 29/10/2017

171029 Geremia 28 ridThe longer we are uprooted from professional activities and our private lives, the more it brings home to us how fragmentary our lives are compared with those of our parents. Our spiritual existence remains incomplete.”

Dietrich BonhoefferLetter to Eberhard Bethge, 1944 (English translation by Reginald H. Fuller)

Ideology is anti-hope. Hope is born within the imperfect reality of today and feeds on a better tomorrow that it does not know yet but awaits. It is the gift-virtue of the crossings of deserts, when we walk in the scorching heat knowing that a promised land awaits us in the end, which is real even if nobody has ever seen it.

Hope makes us see Canaan while we are still at the waters of Meriba. Ideology, on the other hand, lives on an already perfect today, and does not wait for anything that it does not already know. It leaves us slaves in Egypt for a lifetime, but has the extraordinary ability to transform the slavery of brick factories into the ‘land flowing with milk and honey’. The promised land is the land where we already live. Therefore, a typical symptom of the person infected by ideology is the absence of surprises and amazement. They cannot be surprised because there is nothing but the interests of the present and and there is nothing in the future world that has not already happened, is known, perfectly controlled and dominated. Amazement needs ignorance (perhaps only children can be truly amazed) and the desire that arises from the awareness that life is something wonderful whose most beautiful pages still have to be written. And we always expect everything, always, really. But when we are convinced that we have finally come into possession of the secret of life and that we know everything we need to know under the sun, there remains nothing to be expected or hoped for. Desires are turned off, and we begin to die. Ideology is the transformation of the idea into reality, and the ‘gap’ that remains between ideal and reality is denied or experienced as an evil, a sin, a scandal. Hope, on the other hand, cultivates and cares for today's reality so that it can flourish tomorrow in something new, and the gap is the soil of desire and expectation. The already of ideology curses the not yet; hope blesses it because it lives it as the beginning of the fulfilment of the promise.

The Bible is also a great treatise on the birth, development and justification of ideologies. It is a syntax and often a semantics of the tremendous nature of ideological thought and action. That people saw Jerusalem invaded, the temple become a heap of rubble, the kings and ministers killed and deported. They believed the false prophets, they were fed up with illusions, nothing remained of their kingdom. And now, despite all the evidence to the contrary, they continue to produce ideologies, to offer their interpretation of that ruin. Jeremiah can only tell a different story, the same one, because it is the only story he knows: “Then Jeremiah said to all the people..., »As for the offerings that you offered in the cities of Judah ... did not the Lord remember them? ... The Lord could no longer bear your evil deeds and the abominations that you committed. ... It is because you made offerings and because you sinned against the Lord and did not obey the voice of the Lord or walk in his law and in his statutes and in his testimonies that this disaster has happened to you, as at this day«” (Jeremiah 44:20-23).

Now almost at the end of our commentary on the Book of Jeremiah, we must try to answer a difficult but inescapable question: and what if the ideology had been that of Jeremiah? And what if Jeremiah's interpretation had become the true interpretation only because it was adopted by the elite of intellectuals who fixed the canon? And what if it was the cult of the ‘Queen of Heaven’ that was the true and good one for simple people, for humble and oppressed women? Who is telling us that Jeremiah spoke in the name of the true God and his compatriots in the name of the wrong idols? No one can tell us with certainty, nor can we exclude that some of these things have actually happened. Like no one can guarantee that Jeremiah and all the biblical prophets were only self-deceived like all the other false prophets, neurotics convinced of listening to voices that were not there. Or that it was the events and internal conflicts of Israel's religious power that made them call the oracles of some prophets ‘true’ and good, and all others false; and that the rabbinic school which at some point chose Jeremiah or Isaiah as prophets hushed the oracles of other prophets who were their competitors. This is a serious question because it lies at the root of the entire Bible and every religious (and perhaps even secular) humanism because it is, simply, of that great human experience called faith. Faith is first and foremost trust in a story of a historical experience of a relationship between a people and their God. First there is this faith, and then comes the subjective experience of believing in God's existence.

The two can also come at the same time, but the first is the decisive one. Also because when believing in God it is not or does not become believing in the words of those concrete people who have told me about that God through the events of their own history, that belief lasts little, serves very little, does not affect life, and if it does, it only does harm. Without first believing in the narrative capital of the fathers and mothers in faith, we will never know if that voice that one day called us by name was a ghost, an idol, self-deception, or simply nothing.

This faith is neither a guarantee nor a reassurance that we are not believing in an untrue story. The freedom of the believer lies precisely in the real possibility of having believed in a great collective deception - that’s where its beauty and his risk is. It is possible for faith not to be an illusion because it is possible that it may be one - and when we begin to be sure of the impossibility of illusion we are already trampling the ground of ideology. Too many people are not able to mature in collective experiences of faith because they are not educated to inhabit this existential risk, and so they grow up with a faith that is too small to make them become adult people.

The abstract god becomes concrete when someone tells me a story that says what the name of God is. And in the Bible the name is also the incarnation of the idea of God in a historical and concrete experience, the Logos that comes to dwell in our midst. The name is a word revealed in a concrete encounter between a man with a name (Moses) and a voice, on the slopes of a mountain with a name (Horeb), to liberate a people enslaved in a place (Egypt). A name says a history, geography, community and a tradition. For this reason the name YHWH is kept in the very heart of the Law, it is the intimacy of a concrete and living relationship, which must be pronounced without pronouncing it.

No wonder then that to the women who “made cakes for her bearing her image” (44:19), Jeremiah responds, “Then confirm your vows and perform your vows! Therefore hear the word of the Lord, all you of Judah who dwell in the land of Egypt: Behold, I have sworn by my great name, says the Lord, that my name shall no more be invoked by the mouth of any man of Judah in all the land of Egypt, saying, ‘As the Lord God lives’” (44:26). Jeremiah contrasts the name with the image of the queen of heaven imprinted on the cakes. The name is not the image. In the Bible, the only true and good image of God is Adam. But we are not the name of God. We are made in his image, but we do not inherit his name.

This dialogue between name and image opens up something important for us about biblical humanism and its anthropology. The Bible tells us that in our being we carry the image of God, but we do not carry his name. Unlike in human generations, the biblical God is a Father who does not imprint his name on that of his children. He leaves us our name and imprints his image on us. Our freedom is so great that we are also free from the Father's name, but not from the image that remains in the children of Cain, too.

Whoever wants to read God's word on earth has the Bible and other sacred texts (and profane ones: much literature and poetry) to turn to. Whoever wants to hear God's voice can listen to the prophets. But those who want to see the most divine thing present under the sun can only look at the most human thing on earth: a man, a woman. It is in order to save this very high dignity of humans that the Bible does not allow us to represent the divinity by other images. They would be less beautiful and true than those we already have around us, every day, looking at each other. When the first man appeared on earth, the universe understood something more about God's image.

The mere representing of a divinity on a cake or stone already tells the biblical man that the God represented is an idol, because the only good image of that name is: you. Here, too, we can find a root of the pictorial poverty of the tradition of the people of Israel: the prohibition to represent YHWH's image has also become a brake on the image of his image. We are not God, but we look very much like him. We are the thing that most resembles him under the sun. We resemble him to the point that the first and greatest temptation of man is to make himself God, and therefore to become an idolater of himself.

These words on the ‘name’ are the last ones of Jeremiah. After this he will leave the scene without Baruch telling us about the end of his life, perhaps so as not to risk that the events of his biography eclipse his words that are not his own. But it will be with the wonderful blessing of Jeremiah on Baruch that we will conclude our search for dawn in the midnight next Sunday. In the meantime, let us stop and rest our hearts contemplating the most beautiful image under the sun, which shines and illuminates even the darkest nights in the world.

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