RELIGION AS LITERATURE AND NIGHTMARE
Harold Bloom is a distinguished American literary critic (and academic mentor of the Camilla Paglia) who, let loose on the subject of religion as in Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine, becomes more like a hard to manage whirling top. (Published in late 05 the book has finally reached the shores of China so I've belatedly read it). Bloom’s genuine insights appear mixed with so many contradictions and questionable claims it becomes as troubling as his own concluding confessions about how Yahweh/God, for whom his Orthodox Jewish upbringing has left him a residual if reluctant awe, wakes him at night with nightmares.
Yet the seeming chaos of Harold Bloom’s beliefs and opinions still strikes a very modern note worth considering and commenting. Also there’s a fruitful approach to the Bible in his concern to understand it more as literature with analyzable characters than something to be meticulously proved (or disproved) by the historical and textual analyses that leave people the often remote, confusing images of “The historical Jesus”. It’s an approach largely pioneered by (though also partly influenced by Bloom himself) in Jack Miles’ controversial God: A Biography and Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God which are examinations of Yahweh and Christ simply as given.
Despite the title of Harold Bloom’s book and greater part of its arguments essentially I get that the author’s theme is the problem of hanging on like grim death to some system of “transcendence”. Bloom wants to justify the best in life - like literature, art and plain optimism - against the grey of secularist, humanist, nihilist or even Buddhist traps while avoiding various Judaeo-Christian options deemed too hard to accept. Perhaps, too, the book is about how to remain Jewish when you admit you distrust and reject the Covenant, sacrifice and just about everything within Judaism and you emphatically can’t like its Yahweh, nor Jesus much either as any alternative.
SPIRITUALITY A LA IRIS MURDOCH
Harold Bloom thinks he may be a sort of Gnostic Jew, which is possible, but his beliefs and the project of this book finish a bit like the late Dame Iris Murdoch’s Christian atheism - Murdoch is in fact one of Harold Bloom’s favourite modern novelists. Murdoch's ideas were similarly described in a pell-mell of ideas and I note both of these messily suggestive writers on the spiritual are emotional Cancerians. One can well mention the point because unexpectedly astrology includes a message that explicates, if it doesn’t solve, a problem that for Bloom seems utterly insoluable. Also I note it could perhaps only be a member of zodiac’s Great Mother sign who could imagine (as Bloom does in his earlier The Book of J ) it was a woman who wrote the most attractive, accessible J strand of the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh, Old Testament) even if that still hasn’t made it the kind of book Bloom likes! It’s just that the Hebrew Bible is at least its ruggedly original self. Bloom’s famous theory of “the anxiety of influence” posits an oedipal factor at work in literature in which the late come seek to overthrow their predecessors. Accordingly any “New Testament” can only be a “Belated Testament” of doubtful motivation, not any fulfilment.
Harold Bloom doesn’t go so far as Iris Murdoch as to suggest that if God existed he would be a demon, but his book, critically described as “provocative”, cannot help but offend Jew and Christian alike at points in its quasi blasphemies fit for the already famous objections of Dawkins in The God Illusion. Yahweh is described as “bad news”, “a capricious God, “this stern imp” uncanny, not to be trusted, unlovable, plainly no lover of the Jewish people at any time, an entity somewhere away in the universe nursing his lovelessness. The book concludes with the suggestion Yahweh should provide us a covenant that could actually be trusted.
POWER WITHOUT RELIABILITY
Yet despite the constant negative write-ups Bloom goes on to describe Yahweh as the most powerful figure in fiction (could any “imp” be that?) even if he could somehow be proved to be only fiction and not linked to certain real enough experiences (like Bloom’s nightmares). Actually, Bloom comes down on the side of drama rather than fiction and decides there is something distinctly King Lear like about Yahweh, passionate and raging about his ungrateful children and the world at large.
Similarly courting contradictions about Yahweh’s successor or mouthpiece, Jesus, Bloom assures us that none of the gospel writers had ever seen or heard Jesus who almost certainly was never crucified under under Pilate Pilate, still less betrayed by Judas (a pure anti-semitic fiction) but a teacher who probably died in India. Yet having assumed the gospels are totally unhistorical and unreliable and John’s gospel fit to be dismissed as a “murderous” text, Bloom then takes pains to treat at least Mark’s Jesus seriously as a rounded credible character based on probably someone who did exist and so whose character can be compared and contrasted with that of Yahweh.
In the space of this article I’m not even going to try to answer some of the objections to gospel reliability especially as at the scholarly/historical level sometimes Bloom scarcely deserves reply because he gets so much wrong. One glaring error is to propose, (having decided that Christianity is a form of Hellenism), that at least the Torah doesn’t demand perfection like the hellenized, platonic Christianity in which Jewish Christians lost out to Paul. Rubbish! Even in the very Jewish Christian gospel of James it is quite correctly observed to its Jewish readers that to fail in one point of Torah is to fail in all (Jam. 2:10). That’s a perfectionist doctrine which may have been soft pedaled or lost to Judaism since Roman times, but it existed. So what deserves answer is Bloom’s more central issue namely is Jesus like Yahweh or not? Is Jesus Yahweh’s son or possibly Yahweh himself?
On this again Bloom obfuscates and muddles and the top whirls. He protests there is no likeness between Jesus and Yahweh (as befits the hopeless heresy from Judaism he considers Christianity to be) and then he finds that really there is plenty of likeness. Jesus speaks in dark riddles, he is capricious, he is ironic, he speaks with hyperbole (exaggeration) he can be fierce. In which case there could perhaps be something “like father like son” in it all but, no, Bloom thinks he couldn’t allow the Christians that possible advantage. While he appreciates their doctrine of the Trinity “as poetry” Christians by getting philosophical in that area have finished up with a passionate Jesus and what seems like a remote impassive God the Father. Traditional trinitarianism can never fit with any Yahweh/Jesus, father/ son equation. But if you want to say Jesus equals Yahweh then character- wise that supposedly works less than a Father Son connection.
CHRISTIANITY ON THE ERA CUSP OF ARIES/PISCES
Well, how do we reconcile Yahweh and Jesus and Jesus’s statement “he who has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn 14:9 ) if also “the Lord is a warrior” (Ex. 15:3) and Jesus patently isn’t?….Or isn’t he? There is at very least the picture Bloom would inevitably discount of Jesus as apocalyptic warrior in Revelation (Rev 19: 11-16). And even if one doesn’t care to attribute that book to the disciple John as per tradition, then at least don’t let’s dismiss Revelation’s Christ images as an aspect of the Christian “hellenism” Bloom automatically assumes of the religion. It’s so little an expression of hellenism that precisely the Greek churches have never allowed Revelation a status above apocrypha!
Super quirky though Bloom’s beliefs are, they are based upon debatable notions one hears among quite a few Jews, (especially those of more Orthodox tradition such as Bloom was raised in), when faced with the OT/NT problem.
1) The only true tradition of Judaism is assumed to be a monotheism so absolute it doesn’t even allow God different “faces”. Bloom reads everything he can lay hands on but he hasn’t read or I’m sure would never cite if he had, Borderlines by Orthodox Jewish scholar, Daniel Boyarin. This makes very plain that at the time of Christ and until rabbis had a reaction against the Christian movement, there was a much more flexible notion of the one God within Judaism, especially a “two powers in heaven” idea into which Father/Son and Trinitarian notions easily slipped. There was no total heresy in thinking the Messiah could be God, the scandal lay more in thinking that specifically Jesus, someone who had been crucified, could be messianic deity.
2) From their literary perspective Bloom, like Miles, sees all the differences between Yahweh and Jesus and cannot understand what causes them. Nor perhaps can some Christians at the more popular level and this has occasioned an excessive division between what constitutes a Jewish and a Christian vision. Any difference is therefore construed by Bloom as a cultural or religious mistake or worse illusion on the part of what Bloom calls “The Belated Testament”. In fact, what Jesus so clearly represents in terms of change is to a large extent the abandonment of the Age of Aries vision of a God of War for an Age of Pisces vision of a God of compassion which could and perhaps should have been expected in Jesus’ time. We know from Josephus (and it’s a reason Josephus bizarrely decided the Roman Emperor, Vespasian, was the Messiah) that Israel expected its Messiah in the first century due to a generally accepted reading of Daniel’s Prophecy of the Weeks still promoted today by Christian dispensationlists. Since however it’s not clear whether Daniel’s weeks of years are lunar or solar years the Messiah couldn’t be very precisely dated within the first century but he was clearly someone for the Aries/Pisces era cusp. God however is all the ages, all the signs. The signs are like his faces so traces of the Arien imagery and symbolism as of the lamb, the blood, the sword, are taken over and retained within the new age. Yahweh can be both a warrior God and a healing, forgiving God. Also Yahweh’s warring is anyway most essentially on the side of freedom and the righteous and/or oppressed, a link to the Piscean savior who suffers. I would maintain contra Bloom that in the new era Jesus incarnates precisely Yahweh and/or The Angel of the Lord whose father is Elohim or El Elyon, the Highest.
3) What was most “hellenistic” and also New Age about Christianity was a philosophical willingness quite simply to generalize. Mainstream Judaism, based on ritual and legal specifics seemed, and still seems, unable or unwilling to do this and to recognize that if, as its prophets maintained, its message was ultimately for all peoples this expansion would be hard to convey without some generalizations of the heritage. The extremely particularizing Talmudic mind set is something alien to most people. It seems rather purely and restrictively Jewish (it is as much as most Gentiles can do even to get through a reading of the Torah, let alone the rabbinic commentaries!). The Torah, though increasingly given a virtually divine status within Judaism, one offering almost an alternative to any Messianic incarnations, contains elements suggestive of editing and the all-too-human addition. Moreover rulings such as the law of jealousy or on the rape of women who must live lifelong with her abuser are grounded in archaic cultural values which raise the most serious questions about God, perfection, revelation and justice if they are to be regarded purely as a dictated “Word of God”. Luther’s “Down with the Law” though controversial even to many Christians, was not without all reason. And though Jesus employed proverbial type expressions about “not a jot or tittle” departing from the Law till all would be fulfilled (apparently through himself) his references to the law of Moses and the elders implies he may not have thought of the Torah as in all parts equally inspired from heaven.
There is not just a religious argument going on in the long standing Jewish-Christian debates but an intellectual one with a certain refusal on the Jewish side of the Logos in all senses of the word. Like the atheist (not devout Jew) Jewish philosopher, Jacques Derrida, the more intellectual wing of Jewry seems to want to overthrow the “logocentric” mindset of the west. But while Derrida’s "deconstruction" does offer insights that reveal the limits of reason in western philosophy, Christian and secular, the result is rather anarchic, inconclusive – Derrida himself would not allow his thought was even a philosophy, more a reading, a technique. It’s a technique rather akin to Talmudic ones whereby Torah can be not just illuminated but if need be altered, whittled down or whittled away because it doesn’t fit the times or its original purpose even while one refuses there can be any philosophically or psychologically Christian/Hellenistic fulfillment or transcendence of it.
TO FULFIL OR NOT TO FULFIL
Harold Bloom denies any text can ever fulfill another. He absolutely denies the traditionally prophetic Isaiah 53 could possibly prophetically refer to, or be fulfilled in, Jesus. I admit, and intellectually almost more than religiously, to be irritated by his fairly representative Jewish take on this one. I can obviously accept it if a Jew says such and such a passage does not refer to specifically Jesus. I remain however frustrated by the kind of denial involved that this long poetic passage, so intensely personalized and about a suffering person could ever refer to any suffering messianic figure because Isaiah’s Messiah would have to be an all conquering Cyrus of Persia (who didn’t suffer) or else (as per philosopher, Franz Rosenzweig’s interpretation), must be a plural entity, namely the Jewish people as a whole. How, to intellectual satisfaction, can one read lines like
“he bore the chastisement that made us whole and by his bruises we were healed”
and seriously maintain the reference is still collective? Whose bruises in that case is this great Israel collective healing? This kind of position seems like an a playing of games with simple logic so that I feel exasperation and even possibly something along the lines St Paul is referring to when he speaks of a "blindness" overcoming Israel (Rom 11:25).
It becomes fairly clear that for certain purely cultural reasons best known to himself Harold Bloom is more determined to remain a Jew, however dissenting and blaspheming, than to assume any other philosophical or religious position. Again this strikes me as slightly perverse. We should let truth take us wherever it will take us even if, as for the skeptical Jewish philosopher,Spinoza, it takes one nowhere in particular from our starting point. However I do see Bloom as deep down wanting something that St Paul maintained the Jews of his time according to him inappropriately wanted, namely signs (1 Cor 1:22) because Bloom writes “but trust, faith, submission are none of them knowledge”. So what would be knowledge? Ultimately perhaps signs that prove.
Granted Bloom may not quite want or expect signs from heaven, but he does demand the next best thing, a verifiable knowledge rather than any exercises of faith. He in effect wants to know how it all works and to make everything work and to make it work via texts and not by inspiration. It is most noticeable that when he has his God nightmares upon waking his reaction is not to invoke God, not to pray or to meditate, but frantically to begin all over again lacerating himself by re-reading the passages of OT and NT and commentaries that trouble him, a clear case of the Talmudic attachment to text if nothing else. Perhaps this in itself shows some kind of tension between a modern desire for purely individual understanding and the demands of a Judaism formed more than Christianity around the collective, the nation, the tribe, and whose God is thus, all religious issues apart, more psychologically difficult for the individual to encompass and approach.
WHICH GOD, WHOSE GOD?
In an interesting and topical recent book, Secrets Things of God (it is written is response to the New Age philosophies of this year’s bestselling The Secret), a Christian psychiatrist, Dr Henry Cloud, records how on a radio show he was once given some very impassioned questioning about having God answer belief problems or life quests. How can we know it’s true, that God’s true etc. On being pressed he had finally to respond that if one really asked passionately enough somehow or other God would be revealed, (a case of “seek and you will find”). One listener took this very seriously to heart. Later she arrived in town asking to meet Cloud personally. She had had this marvelous vision. It was the best thing in her life, light, bliss, peace, except there was a slight problem. What was that? Well…she had asked for God but then Jesus had appeared. Why was this? She was, after all, a Jew…. and God, you know…. Dr Cloud tried to explain using all those fulfillment passages that Harold Bloom believes never could and should be used to fulfill anything. In this case the questioner felt she would have to be persuaded.
Happy Christmas Harold Bloom and everyone!