Academic journal article The Jewish Quarterly Review

Theology and the Imagination

Academic journal article The Jewish Quarterly Review

Theology and the Imagination

Article excerpt

Always he faces.

Levinas

1. THE CONTEMPORARY SCENE

I SETTLE DOWN to an hour's mindless watching. The TV program is of little account - usually news already heard or a film with high-placed frauds or camouflaged thugs, and episodes of gratuitous violence. The guns get bigger and bigger, the corpses require more and more ketchup. Alter many misunderstandings and near disasters the good guys prevail, and there is a happy ending, sort of.

Of course, each program is interrupted at strategic points by ads. This one is for the Lexus. An incredibly sleek, shiny phantom, the embodiment of silent power, glides over the screen toward infinity. "Lexus," I read, "The relentless Pursuit of Perfection."

So mysticism and mechanics converge. But the Lexus ad was soon modified. For two seconds "Perfection" is replaced by "Exhilaration." The obvious reason for this was the introduction of a new type of Lexus. The less obvious one was the manufacturer's awareness that driving a Lexus had become sedative rather than exhilarating. What still remained watchful in me shifted suddenly into another gear, call it parabolic. "The Pursuit of Perfection," I thought, "can be either a calming intellectual topic, an escape from life's turmoil into the history of ideas, or a strenuous thought-experiment, an effort to understand a drive that persists despite our clearly imperfect human condition."

Do not take it ill that I practice exegetical skills on an advertisement. Our dream life, or the escapist part of it, is spent increasingly in the bosom of videos, and consumer magazines interrupted by ads. Montage and morphing multiply fetishistic images, commodify sensationalism, and exacerbate an appetitive, frustrated relation between eye and mind. We cannot grasp (beg 'reifem 'ergreifen) the sensory and speeded-up spectacular load. How can we negotiate the passage from glossy TV ads, or the ingenious evil empires of the tough movie, to an essay opening with "Does it make sense to think of the Messiah after the Shoah!"1

The extreme instance points to a more habitual, painful puzzlement: in an imperfect world, originally that way, or else spoiled by us, how does the idea of absolute perfection survive, so often linked to the existence of God and a kingdom of God? The belief in a Messiah seems to emerge necessarily; the greater the need, the more we rationalize his absence or deferred advent. Paradise Regained, in the depictions of both literature and religion, is a spiritual and political restoration brought about by a figure like the Adam kadmon (Hebrew: Adam r'uhon), the divine anthropos of mysticism, the awakening giant Albion in Blake, Buddha radically sensitized by his first encounter with human poverty, pain, and distress, Jesus as an incarnation of the Hebrew prophets' suffering servant.2 Thirty-six inconspicuous Righteous Persons, Lamed Vavniks, are precursors or outriders. In the meantime, however, a mean time indeed, we have the meager consolations of . . . theology.

2. THEOLOGY

Indeed, reading Duns Scotus or Franz Rosenzweig or Karl Barth is hardly an opiate. Scripture is easy compared to them, for the Hebrew Bible is the Book of Imperfection - readable stories, in the main, about individual or communal human struggles, even with God himself. It does not contain lucubrations concerning the eru perfect issimum or whether "Nothing"- death and its abyss lor thought, rather than the All - should be the starting point of theological speculation.

I think ol theology with great ambivalence, admiring its determination to attain a knowledge of God, and specifically of a perfection that must guide human behavior and morality. Theology characterizes divine or sacred via concepts derived from reason or revelation, also via communal rituals, rites of purification, ancient prayer-speech, and meditative techniques (kavanatí). But I regret the dogmatic and bellicose uses to which theology has often put those explorations, and how it refuses to recognize its own imaginative content. …

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