This weekend I went back and slowly reread the first chapter of Paul Philip Levertoff’s Love in the Messianic Age. Thoughts like a flood of many streams came to me. I also spent a little time in a stack of books that I always want to delve into, but never get to. They’re introductions to kabbalah and the Zohar and Jewish folklore about golems, dybukks, and Lilith.
But all that could give you the wrong idea. I’m not writing about sorcery or the occult. The folklore is just an example of extreme ideas that the esoteric road can lead you down. My interest in those matters is more general.
What I find is a more intense desire for me is talk about God that carries me on a swift current nearer the great ranges in the ever-distant West.
I’m by nature more comfortable with the conventional, a repentant rationalist to be exact. Admitting the existence of God was a battle for me, stepping my foot into a door of the supernatural I didn’t want to enter at all. For years I kept any further metaphysical and romantic notions at bay. I sought to believe in God as a rationalist.
But the conventional doesn’t carry me in that westerly flow. And I’m drawn as if by an irresistible current always to the edgy, the radical, the mystical.
A parable included in Levertoff’s first chapter set me back on the river:
A king lost a costly pearl. He sent out his three sons to find it. The first set out, glad to be free from the restraint of his father’s presence. He cared neither for the pearl, nor for his father. He never returned, but spent his life in following his own pleasure. The second set forth, made a hasty search, and quickly returned to his father’s house, not because he so greatly loved his father but because he was loath to be away so long from the comforts of his home. Now, the third set out, full of sorrow at leaving his home and his beloved father, but determined, notwithstanding all his own suffering and separation, to stay away and make diligent search until he should find the pearl, because he knew what great joy the finding of it would give his father.
Here you have the culmination of many classic themes of mysticism but also an edginess and irony that draws me with irresistible power.
My favorite Christian mystics, Augustine and Bernard actually have been far better to me than many who are mentioned more often as mystics, speak on the classic theme of loving God for his own sake. Rabbinic literature and more mystical midrashim (though at the moment I can’t quote a reference) speak of loving Hashem without reward.
But beyond the mystical element of this parable there is an ironically delightful edge. It had me at the words “full or sorrow.” It finished me with words like “separation” and when the object of the third son’s life was the father’s pleasure.
This parable deconstructs most religion in terms of organizations, churches, and synagogues. It reminds me very much of the Christian philosopher Peter Rollins (see here for The Orthodox Heretic). His parables are excellent at peeling away the conventional and revealing the ironic (much like Kierkegaard, another light whose edgy ideas draw me westward).
So, I use the word edgy to describe the iconoclastic style, drawing us away from comfort and into hard love.
But there are other kinds of talk about God that pull me as well. Anything radical and at the same time intelligent draws me. Bonhoeffer is popular for a reason. His Cost of Discipleship is a coming of age book for people of faith. His philosophical work on community and his Creation and Fall have a radical edge that is attractive.
At one time, I was drawn to read daily from a Kempis’s Imitation of Christ for the same reason. I’m currently enjoying Nahmanides’ letter to his son (you can see it here on amazon). I am interested in finding more Jewish ethical works (I’ve had Path of the Just recommended to me).
There’s something about a radical call to self-awakening and self-diminishing that the non-rationalist side of me knows will take me westward and over the foothills into God’s country.
But there is another category, perhaps two merged into one, that draws me. It is a separate category from the edgy and the radical. Lewis called it romanticism (see Surprised by Joy and many of Lewis’s books, especially The Great Divorce). Many others call it mysticism. I suppose I should separate them, but there is a common thread.
It first wooed me to the great river’s deceptively gentle currents through Augustine and Bernard of Clairvaux. The way they address God, as the supreme unknowable lover, neither too familiar like cheap religious talk nor too distant like conventional theology. Bernard’s sermons on Song of Songs (I think I need to read the Song of Songs Rabbah very soon as well) and both he and Augustine’s talk of ascending to God by descending within opened a new world to me.
I’m a novice when it comes to knowledge of kabbalah. An expert might easily shoot me down, but I’ve found some places of accommodated agreement with kabbalah. Some might argue that my understanding is not pure, and perhaps this is true, but three ideas in particular draw me. They are why I love Levertoff’s Love and the Messianic Age so much. I want to see the best of kabbalah appropriated in synthesis with biblical theology (Levertoff seeks common ground between the Fourth Gospel and chasidus).
First, I used to reject the idea of tzim-tzum, contraction, the idea in Lurianic kabbalah that in order to make room for creation, God had to contract part of himself. As Spinoza would say, since God is the ultimate of everything, there is no room for beauty that is not his beauty or intelligence that is not his intelligence and so on. This led Spinoza to be a monist (everything is God because there is no room for anything but God). In Christian theology, I long ago rejected determinism and have to believe in some type of self-limitation of God to make way for our being and our will to be and do. As I understand tzim-tzum, and perhaps there is great variation among kabbalists, the contraction of God to make way for us is the greatest triumph and the greatest tragedy of the universe. Everything good and evil that we know results from this self-limitation of God which allowed us to be created and have room to exist. The tragedy of broken vessels, as the kabbalists speak of it, is evident every day in this broken universe.
Second, I am drawn to the kabbalistic idea of Tikkun Olam. I’m not keen on the mythology of sparks of the shekhina being returned per se, but something very close to that mythology may in fact be true. It is a mystery why God leaves us a major role in repairing the world. Yet the evidence of biblical history and theology reveals it to be so. It is not enough to God that he should simply make Tikkun Olam (repair of the world), but that he should take joy in our repairing work too.
Third, I am drawn to the notion of supra-rational ways of knowing the inner being of God, with an understanding that God is present among us in lower forms of glory. The idea of God as ultimately Ein Sof (the unknowable) has truth to it. The idea of emanations or lower forms of his glory being present with us and among us is also true. I don’t enjoy the specific charts and the tree of life list of the sefirot (emanations) of God. I find it tedious and unfounded to start naming the levels and specifying them. But the idea itself I think is true and concords with biblical imagery of various levels of the glory of God and his indwelling Israel and the church as well as humanity at various levels. And the idea that through being and doing we can know, that all is not rational or deductive, but that living the mitzvot (commandments, deeds) brings us knowledge theology never could intuitively calls to me as a true voice from the West.
That third son, his way haunts me. Am I searching for the Father’s pearl? Am I willing to be sorrowful for his pleasure? I can’t think of anyone who better exemplifies that third son than Yeshua himself.