Friday, June 20, 2008

#39. Hebrew Thought

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"We are just coming out of the Neolithic Age." (Teilhard de Chardin)

My main idea in the previous post is that our contemporary scientific understanding of reality-- as dynamic and evolutionary rather than static-- was initiated in human history by the Exodus and by subsequent reflection on it by the sages of the Jewish people.

With the Great Escape from Egypt, global humanity's awareness began to move beyond the vegetation cycle of life-death-life of the Neolithic Age. "Something new happened; God did something new."

That change in perspective from stasis to dynamis is a major aspect of the Immense Transition humanity is currently experiencing; so is the change from mind-body dualism to an integral-unitive perspective on personal consciousness.

Biblical thought helps us with both of these aspects of the Immense Transition.


A major question comes up here: If the Immense Transition actually began with the Exodus thirty-five centuries ago, how come it's taken so long for the world of global humanity to catch on? Why is it that we're "just coming out of the Neolithic Age"?

One reason the process has been so slow is that western culture has its roots not only in the Judeo-Christian tradition of the Bible but also in the philosophical perspectives of ancient Greece.

Aristotle's book, Metaphysics, for example, is about "being" (ens in Latin, on in Greek). His analysis of "being"-- what everything has in common simply because it exists-- was a great breakthrough in human awareness. It looks at the deeper-than-surface layers of reality, just as his works on logic look at the deeper workings of the rational mind.

But those breakthroughs still took place within a static context.


The best help I know for understanding the contrast between those static perspectives of the Greek mind and the dynamic worldview of the biblical tradition is the work of a mid-20th century French philosopher, Claude Tresmontant.

Tresmontant taught medieval philosophy and the philosophy of science at the Sorbonne. An English translation of his book, A Study of Hebrew Thought, appeared in 1960. Its significance got lost, unfortunately, in the social and religious turbulence of the 60s. Tresmontant's central concept is that Hebrew thought is inherently dynamic and evolutionary.

As a philosopher, he expresses his main idea in terms of metaphysics. He says "being" itself is dynamic rather than static: it is the nature of whatever exists to be continuously evolving. That's a tremendous step beyond the static worldview!

Tresmontant says that humanity owes this understanding to the Hebrew mind. The dawning of the idea that it is the very nature of things to be creative was occasioned by the Great Escape from Egypt. It was a major cultural advance for all humanity, although much of the world is just catching up!


Tresmontant builds his work on the earlier French philosopher Henri Bergson, author of an especially significant and influential book, Creative Evolution. Bergson notes that Greek philosophy had never been able to acknowledge the essentially creative nature of reality. It wanted nothing to do with a creative world, said Bergson, because what's new and unknowable cannot be controlled.

Today we refer to that need for control as "patriarchy," the suppression by authorities of any kind of creative activity in art, thought and social action. So we see now that the intrinsically dynamic nature of Hebrew thought which was initially occasioned by the Exodus, contrasts not only with the matriarchal attitudes of the Neolithic agricultural period but also with those oppressive patriarchal perspectives which still remain with us today.

The evolutionary worldview offers an alternative to both the cyclic view where nothing new ever happens and the patriarchal perspective which suppresses everything new for the sake of power and control. No wonder Teilhard describes it as the greatest change in human consciousness since consciousness first appeared on Earth several million years ago!

As a philosopher of Medieval thought, Tresmontant refers to this breakthrough in human awareness occasioned by the Exodus as an "evolutionary metaphysics." But as a philosopher of science he uses the language of biology to describe Hebrew culture. He calls Israel "a mutant species."

He doesn't mean "mutant" in a negative sense. In biology a "mutant species" is simply a new species which has resulted from a radical genetic change. Tresmontant says that today we're so familiar with the idea of creative change that it's hard to understand what a radical departure it was from its Mediterranean cultural context where it first emerged.

He notes that all the ancient cultures of the Near East viewed the world as something negative. Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Plato and Plotinus, the Gnostics, the Manicheans, even the later Medieval Jewish Cabbalists and more recent philosophers such as Spinoza, Leibniz and Hegel all held, in one way or another, that the world was a mistake, that it was the result of something bad that had happened to God: "the One fell apart into the many."

In this context, says Tresmontant, the Hebrew idea of creativity and newness was as significant as the discovery of fire.


Especially important for an understanding of the New Cosmology is Tresmontant's distinction between human history as a series of apocalyptical disasters (as the Mediterranean world saw it and religious fundamentalists still see it today), and human history as a dynamic maturing process. The Hebrew mind understands the world not as negative and disintegrating but as "on going and good."

Creation is growth, not decay, gain, not loss. The world is like a tree growing and developing from within, producing abundant fruit. Tresmontant gives "abundant newness" as his definition of the results of creative activity and notes that "we see the fact of creation, endlessly. It's all around us," he says, "in the smallest blade of grass." (As a philosopher of Medieval thought, he probably was familiar with that Medieval Jewish saying I quoted in post #37: "Standing behind every blade of grass is an angel urging it to 'Grow! Grow!' ")

Using another biological image, Tresmontant says "the cosmos is continually giving birth." In a static world, nothing really new ever happens; but in a dynamic world, the flow of time is all-important. He says that time itself is "a ceaseless springing up of things" and that it "works from within like the sap of a tree." Time, he says, is "the invention of the absolutely new." Time is what allows us to distinguish between stasis (the world given all at once) and dynamis (the continuous creation of newness).

Tresmontant uses words like "organic" and "whole" to describe dynamic creation; today he would probably talk about "systems," from Systems Theory, where galaxies and stars, and especially living organisms and persons, are all seen to be "self-organizing systems."

Tresmontant contrasts this dynamic understanding of "the universe branching out into ever newer things" with what he calls "the world of dead things" which has characterized western science and culture since the time of Rene Descartes and the Enlightenment period.


One other aspect of Hebrew thought which Tresmontant notes is especially interesting. Not only is the world going somewhere, there is also a unique type of personality in Hebrew culture who is especially able to see the direction in which the world is moving: the nabi (prophet).

And the direction? Peace, pax, shalom. "The wolf will lie down with the lamb," says the prophet Isaiah. The prophetic books are a major component of the Hebrew scriptures precisely because of the understanding by Hebrew thought that the world is dynamic and evolutionary.

Tresmontant notes that the Christian tradition is "mutant," too, and in the same positive sense he means when he calls Israel a "mutant species." In that context he notes that "negative events such as wars and other human conflicts occur when there are distortions in the dynamic cosmic process." As an example, using a biblical image he says: "Christendom's fornication with power resulted in Karl Marx."

Today, we can say something similar with regard to Christian fundamentalism's attempt to take over the American government and to Catholic church authorities' attempt to cover up the sexual abuse of children by priests. These are "distortions in the cosmic process" indeed: the result of seeing reality as "a world of dead things" rather than as a continuously evolving creation.

Tresmontant says explicitly that, in contrast to the "suppression of everything new for the sake of power and control," the dynamic world view sees human beings as co-workers with God. The very essence of being a human person is creativity, and the on-going creation of the world is the result of human-divine interaction. In the dualistic perspective, spirituality is essentially an escape from the world, while in the dynamic perspective, spirituality is a co-creative participation in it. Creativity and spirituality go together in the New Cosmology.


I also find especially interesting a few other insights from Tresmontant. He says "these are the views of shepherds and farmers," and there is no concept of "matter" in the Bible. There are only the "elements" of the world: earth, air, fire, water, stone, wood-- all understood as "words" spoken by the Creator to humanity (and understood as nothing less, he says, than "wedding gifts"). There isn't any concept of human body in Hebrew thought, nor is there a concept of soul as something separate from a person. In Hebrew thought, the words we translate into English as "body," "soul" and "person" all mean the same thing.

Tresmontant notes the one distinction the Bible maintains is between human life-breath and the divine ruah (pneuma, spiritus, wind, air, breath), the very breath of God in us. And, he points out, Hebrew thought does not do a good job in keeping that distinction clear.

And that's just the point. Because each of us is "a living soul" or "a flesh"-- and again, both words mean the same thing, and they do not mean anything negative-- it is transformation (changed consciousness) that defines us as persons: we are not just anthropoid mammals but consciously aware, co-creative co-workers in the world's on-going creation.

So finally, what the ontology or metaphysics of Hebrew thought comes down to, for us, is change: transition, passage, passover, exodus.


At the Passover seder, the Exodus story is told in response to the youngest child's questions and begins by naming "our father who lived beyond the river." That's the Tigris river, in present day Iraq, and that's the "Abraham from Ur of the Chaldees" who is still claimed as the father of Jews, Christians and Moslems today. Abraham was told by God, "Go. Depart. Leave your country and your kinfolk. Go to a land that I will show you."

Tresmontant says human life is continuous transformation. And he adds that often we don't know where we're going, that we have to do a lot of wandering. "Often enough we learn what we should be about only by boredom, suffering or sorrow," he says. Once again we see the integral connection in an evolutionary context between spirituality and creativity. And we can see the significance for the unique spirituality of Hebrew thought forged during the forty years of wandering in the wilderness after the escape from Egypt.

What all of this comes down to is that the dualistic worldview of western culture-- which most Christians as well as most secular thinkers still identify with the very essence of Christianity-- is simply unfounded. The Greek distinction between body and soul, matter and mind, nature and spirit, which took over in Christian theology after the Dark Ages, isn't a valid understanding of biblical thought, Jewish or Christian.

In practical terms, the Hebrew thought of the Bible can help us to recover a more substantial spirituality than what is possible in a dualistic context: not a flight from the world but an active participation in the world's development by way of our own creative transformation.


A Study of Hebrew Thought is long out of print in English, but it's still available in many libraries and if your local library doesn't have it, you can easily request it via interlibrary loan. (Next to the World Wide Web, interlibrary loan is one of the best things going in our contemporary world!)

If reading a book originally written in French many decades ago by a metaphysical philosopher isn't your cup of tea, there are more contemporary versions of what Tresmontant was offering now available.

One comes from an American rabbi who is working at recovering the non-static and non-dualistic perspectives of the biblical tradition for contemporary Jews. Since the Middle Ages the Jewish world had begun to see itself in the static context of Greek thought; it too lost touch, as Christianity did, with the natural world that's at the root of its unique spirituality.

A rabbi from California, Mike Comins, who calls himself "a rabbi of the wilderness rather than a pulpit rabbi," describes his work of recovering the non-dualistic core of Hebrew thought in his book A Wild Faith: Jewish Ways into Wilderness, Wilderness Ways into Judaism.

I heard him speak at a Jewish center in Philadelphia in May, 2008, where he talked about his own recovery of the roots in nature of Jewish spirituality while hiking in Israel. He now leads vision quests for Jews in the deserts of the American Southwest. It was delightful to hear him talking about making a Jewish medicine wheel and of offering participants Buddhist-based mindfulness training and nature-based Asian practices such as Qi Gong Tai Chi.


The Immense Transition we are currently experiencing includes not only a recovery of the world of nature at the root of Judeo-Christian spirituality but also a recovery of the integral nature of human persons within that natural world. An especially helpful book in our movement beyond the dualistic separation of mind and matter is Dr. Nancey Murphy's Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies?

Dr. Murphy is a professor of religion and science at Fuller Theological Seminary. She's also a member of the Planning Committee for conferences on science and theology sponsored by the Vatican Observatory, the author of a number of other books including her prize-wining Theology in the Age of Scientific Reasoning, and an ordained minister in the Church of the Brethren.

I also heard her speak in May 2008 in Philadelphia. Her talk was sponsored by the Metanexus Institute. (Metanexus is a "global think tank for promoting the constructive engagement of science, religion and the humanities." It was founded in 1998, and is now active in 42 countries.) The focus of Nancey Murphy's talk was the compatibility of the biblical understanding of person with the findings of contemporary brain studies.

One of her main points is that neither Hebrew nor early Christian thought saw persons as made up of two parts ("body plus soul") as the Greek philosophers did. Rather, the Jewish and early Christian church tradition saw each person as an integral unity of mind and matter-- in the very same sense that the scientific view of evolutionary biology and neurophysiology does today.

Dr. Murphy shared one especially easy way to express this difference between the Greek view of person and that of the Hebrews and the early church. Understand "body" and "soul," she said, not as parts but as aspects of each person. That small distinction-- "aspects" instead of "parts"--makes a big difference in helping us move beyond the static dualism of Greek thought.


We live in exciting times, when we can see some break though from the dreadful stuff happening in our world as we move beyond the static views of the past centuries and recover again the integral spirituality of newness and dynamic creativity which is at the center of the New Cosmology. We are indeed finally coming out of the Stone Age.

And we owe that immense transition, first of all, to Hebrew thought.

1 comment:

Sam said...

While trying to eliminate numerous spam comments, I inadvertently deleted all comments at the END of the posts up until #90. BUT... they are still preserved in the collections of comments found in posts #32, #67 and #83.

One set of comments, however-- for posts #84 to #89-- has been completely lost. If you happen to have copied any of them, I'd much appreciate your sending a copy to me so I can restore them. Thanks.