ARCHIVE. For a list of all my published posts:
Blog entries beginning with #101 are not essays but minimally-edited notes and reviews from the files I've collected over the last few decades. I no longer have the time and energy needed to sort out and put together into decent essay-form the many varied ideas in these files, but I would like to share them with all who are interested.
If you have questions and think I might help, you're welcome to send me a note: email@example.com
This post #149 contains some thoughts stimulated by a master's thesis, "Henry Corbin and Russian Religious Thought," submitted in August 2013 as part of Master’s of Arts program at the Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University in Montreal, by Hadi Fakhoury. The full text is available on Tom Cheetham's website.
The main idea of Fakhoury's thesis is straightforward: that the noted Islamic scholar Henry Corbin (1903-1978) was considerably influenced by Russian religious thought.
In the first of its four chapters Fakhoury gives an excellent introduction to Russian religious thought over the last two centuries. He shows how Corbin made use of the work of Sergius Bulgakov (1871-1944) to spell out his own understanding of the Islamic expressions of Divine Wisdom and its guidance in human life.
I found the fourth chapter, where Fakhoury spells out Corbin's use of the work of Alexsi Khomiakov (1804-1860) to explain the Iranian spiritual world, most fascinating.
The main idea is that that there is in fact an Iranian "spiritual universe" which came into existence long before the beginning of Islam and which persists even to this day in Islamic Sufism.
Its roots go back to the ancient Persian religious leader Zoroaster (628-551 BCE), and was brought to new life through the efforts of the work of the 12th century Sufi leader, Suhrawardi (1155-1191 CE).
In spelling out Suhrawardi’s “Iranism,” Corbin also draws on the concept of “Byzantinism” coined by the conservative Russian religious thinker Konstantin Leontiev (1831-1891).
It is a somewhat bewildering mix-- of ancient Persian, Medieval Islamic, and Russian religious thought-- but Corbin would like to see it incorporated into the contemporary understanding of global religious perspectives. I think Corbin is right.
Personally, I find several things of major significance in Fakhoury's presentation of Corbin's ideas. The most important, I think, has to do with my life-long interest in the nature of religious ritual.
Another, closely related, is the nature of the long-neglected fourth function of human awareness for which we still lack a commonly-understood name. Jung calls it "Intuition," others call "Imagery" and "Super-sensory perception." Corbin's name for it is "Creative Imagination."
A third item of major significance is a very clear understanding of the nature of modern matter-mind rationalism and of body-spirit dualism which emerges from Corbin's presentation of what I think of as his mistaken need for an intermediate realm of reality which he calls the mundus imaginalis.
Some words about Corbin's understanding of Suhrawardi’s lifework will be helpful. In a 1966 essay titled “From the Heroic Epic to the Mystical Epic," Corbin describes Suhrawardi’s interpretation of the ancient Iranian-Persian heroic epics. He saw Suhrawardi’s project as a “resuscitation” of the theosophy ("religious wisdom") professed by the Sages of ancient Persia.
Suhrawardi saw those ancient sages as predecessors in the Islam of his time of those called Ishraqiyun, "Disciples of Light."
Corbin makes the point that, while Suhrawardi's work of proclaiming his kinship with the sages of ancient Iran reveals that Suhrawardi did envision an “Iranism,” he was not describing objective history but a “meta-historical” fact, something psychological. Corbin describes it as an “event that took place in Suhrawardi’s soul."
As I see it, Corbin's emphasizes the non-historically-factual nature of Suhrawardi's perspectives because Corbin wants to say that they are, or belong to, another realm of reality, that 'in-between' realm which he calls the mundus imaginalis.
In the course of Fakhoury's presentation, an amazing number of names are used to describe the soul-event being talked about here: besides "meta-historical" and "imaginal," some are more psychological-- such as "personal," "experiential" and "existential"-- while other are more conventionally religious-- such as "spiritual," "priestly" and "holy."
Of great interest to me is Corbin's own term for Suhrawardi's psychological-religious soul-event: “creative intuition.” The emphasis is not just on the fact that it's a perception of reality, but that it is a new-- previously non-existing-- perception.
Corbin is describing an essential aspect of that long-neglected fourth function of consciousness: creativity. "Creative intuition" doesn't mean seeing something new, but seeing something in a new way. My wording for it is "seeing newly." It's like the phrase used by liturgical theologian Alexander Schmemann (1921-1983) to describe the nature of the new creation: "not new things, but things made new."
Corbin says this soul-event is its own "source and principle of explanation." I want to emphasize that it is a new perception, a new conscious awareness, and that the change is epistemological, not-- as Corbin's words would seem to imply-- ontological.
Corbin also uses a phrase I like a lot in describing the results of this creative soul-event; by it, he says "a new past emerges."
Fakhoury points out that the Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev (1874-1948) uses a similar term: "creative newness." Both Berdyaev and Corbin are talking about the same thing, a perception by personal consciousness that didn't exist before.
In explaining why a creative perception doesn't have a past, Berdyaev says it is achieved "in existential time." I'd emphasize that his use of the term "existential" is his way of saying that a human person, a consciously aware being, did the perceiving. (With philosophers, such things aren't necessarily obvious!)
Berdyaev also notes that “creative newness” cannot be explained in terms of the past, because, being achieved in existential time, it knows "no system of causal links.” Although I have more to say about this below, I want to note here that from this we can see that neither Corbin nor Berdyaev value cosmic space and time as they might; they are both operating in a pre-evolutionary worldview. This point helps make sense of the strong dualistic language used by both of them.
Fakhoury includes a reference to Berdyaev's 1941 book The Beginning and the End, where Berdyaev makes the point that there is "no new 'object" in a creative intuition, that it only makes sense "when we start from the subject." Once again, Berdyaev is simply saying that creative newness comes only by way of personal consciousness-- indeed, a very important point.
In describing creative newness Berdyaev uses language which demonstrates a very negative view of the world: “It is in fallen time," he says, "that the life of nature and historical life flow on. But everything that happens in time which has broken up into past, present and future, that is to say in time which is sick, is but a projection on to the external of what is being accomplished in depth."
I find it sad that these thinkers have to negate and devalue the real world in order to make their point about creativity and newness. From my perspective, they lacked the age-old and four-fold, "mandalic" understanding of personal self-awareness.
Berdyaev also uses the language of "vertical vs horizontal" in talking about "true creative newness." He says it's not only achieved "in existential time" but also vertically, not horizontally.
Again, it seems a pity that he has to negate one dimension of reality to make another dimension more important. There's no reason to exclude relationships just to say other realities are valid, too. (Bruno is the one religious thinker I know who emphasizes that for a complete picture the four-fold view is needed. And once again, Hooray for Bruno!)
As a summing up of this point I want to note that there is simply no need to mistake epistemology for ontology. I am sympathetic with their efforts, but the world-negating wording they come out with-- left over from a static-dualistic worldview-- is neither helpful nor valid for today. Our great need is not to negate the world but to understand our place in it.
Corbin uses the phase "a new past emerges" when he is discussing what are called the "recitals" of Suhrawardi. The "recitals" are a ritual re-telling and re-living of the stories of the old Iranian myth-heroes.
That the past becomes present in acts of creative intuition is an understanding long-familiar to me from my interest in ritual. It has been especially well described in the works of early- and mid- 20th century liturgical scholars. (And here I offer special thanks for the work of Alexander Schememann mentioned above).
What Corbin calls "reversal of time"-- his wording for saying that the past becomes present for those participating in the 'recital'-- validates for me the correctness of my understanding of ritual.
Corbin also says that in the creative act the past is "absolved" (and I thought maybe a better word would be "dissolves"), but either word would seem to miss the main point: that while what was, remains in the past, it also becomes real in the present. I think this is the essence of what's being described here, whether we call it "recital" or "liturgy" or "ritual"-- or even "dance" as some Native Peoples do.
A major question is how this "seeing, newly" happens. And that question is much more readily answer-able in the modern evolutionary worldview than in the static, dualistic and patriarchal perspectives of the past.
In the energy-focused dynamic cosmic context we can more easily understand that what makes the newness available-- both then and now-- is the tune-ing in, by personal consciousness, to the energy processes of the universe.
And that, as I understand it, is the very essence of religious experience via ritual. As I see it, this is one of the places where a more complete understanding of science-- as the understanding of time and space, matter and energy-- allows us to move far beyond the antagonisms of religious fundamentalism and scientific rationalism.
Corbin was opposed to both religious fundamentalism and scientific rationalism, and yet he seemed to remain stuck in the worldview of static dualism.
For example, in talking about how a new past emerges Corbin uses the Arabic word hikayat, which means a narration that is at the same time an imitation or a repetition. The word applies to the kind of ritual which is a re-telling and/or an acting out of 'the old (or "basic", "foundational") stories and myths. Corbin says that in the hikayat, the Reciter is the actual and active actor. And this makes good sense.
But then, speaking from his anti-reality attitude, Corbin also says that "we ravish this past, and ourselves with it, from the causality known as historical causality." I think this is an especially important source for an understanding of Corbin's Docetism and his strong anti-Incarnation views.
It's also helpful for understanding the reasons for his "anti-historical" perspective, manifest when he notes that the creative act is a “history that breaks history.” He calls it an eschatological history-- which "in reverting the deeds of the heroes of ancient Iran to their “true,” “inner” meaning, simultaneously leads the mystical pilgrim “to his real being, to his origin, to his ‘Orient’.”
I hear all this as talk about human purpose and meaning, about eschaton and what I like to call "our fullest significance." Unfortunately, Corbin, like Berdyaev, again seems to need to negate one view to affirm the other. (More on that, shortly.)
In any case, we can learn a great deal of wonderfully valuable stuff from these various religious thinkers-- Medieval and modern, Islamic and Russian-- despite their inability to express themselves in a more contemporary non-dualistic, not-static and non-patriarchal socio-cultural context.
I see this inability as a major problem, so it seems important to spell it out a bit more here. Suhrawardi's idea of "Iranism" is a good place for that effort.
In spelling out Suhrawardi’s “Iranism,” Corbin also draws on the concept of “Byzantinism” coined by the conservative Russian religious thinker Konstantin Leontiev (1831-1891).
Corbin relates Suhrawardi’s “Iranism” to the "Byzantinism" of the conservative Russian religious thinker mentioned earlier, Konstantin Leontiev. It is a bit complicated, but well-worth staying with, for the sake of the resulting clarity.
Corbin sees Suhrawardi’s “Iranism” and Leontiev’s “Byzantinism” as both being in contrast to their opposite, which Leontiev called "Kush-ism." Corbin says all this as a version of "Hegel’s system."
According to Corbin, the whole philosophy of Hegel (1770-1831) "rests upon the contrast between two types and upon the conflict of two principles in history": freedom and necessity.
These opposites, also referred to as spirituality and materialism, result in Leontiev's "Iranism-Byzantinism vs "Kushism," which is then extended to include "Russia vs Europe" and "East vs the West."
According to Berdyaev, the "principle of necessity" has to do with materialism and logic, while the "principle of freedom" has to do with creativity and morality.
From a mandalic perspective, we can easily see that materialism and logical reasoning come from the Sensing and Thinking functions of consciousness (our awareness of matter and sequential time), while morality and creativity come from the Feeling and Intuition functions (our awareness of spatial relatedness and the dynamic energy of the cosmos).
The dualistic implication is that the fixed necessities, matter and time, are bad, while space and energy, the more free aspects of reality, are good. In a patriarchal context, this also makes the bad-and-necessity aspects 'masculine' while the good-and-free aspects are 'feminine.'
Note, too, that it is the "good" group which is called by the dozen or so different names I mentioned earlier: "meta-historical," "imaginal," "creative," "religious," "priestly," "holy," "spiritual," "personal," "psychological," "experiential," "existential."
The whole point here-- of Khomiakov, Hegel, Berdyaev and Corbin-- is that what's of highest value is freedom and spirituality, in contrast to necessity and materialism. And this, of course, is a most blatant dualism.
They also found "necessity"-- that is, the power of materiality over the spirit-- in pagan religions, in Roman Catholicism and in Western rationalism. It's "us vs them" on a very large scale!
(This present paragraph should probably be a footnote, but I want to add it for completeness.) Fakhoury makes clear the emphasis, essentially and primarily by Khomiakov, on the presumed superiority of Iran-ism over Kush-ism. Iranism "is founded on tradition and cannot be restored by a purely logical action, because the concept of creative freedom cannot be chained to and deduced from formulae."
This is being said in support of Corbin's ideas about Suhrawardi making the past present (i.e., that "a new past emerges"), and that Iranism "can only be discerned by a superior intuition [i.e., some kind of higher activity], going beyond the narrow limits of reasoning." Khomiakov also associates the notion of "creative freedom" with “tradition.”
Fakhoury's point is that this view anticipates Corbin’s own association of the notion of “renaissance” with “tradition”: what Corbin has to say about Suhrawardi's 'recovery' of the pre-Islamic Iranian views is coming from-- and, at least in some sense, based on-- Khomiakov.
This is important because Corbin draws a parallel between Khomiakov’s notion of “Iranism,” which denotes “creative freedom” rooted in tradition, and the “free creative inspiration” which Corbin saw enabled Suhrawardi to claim he was the “resurrector” of the theosophical wisdom of ancient Persia.
Corbin ends all this with a kind of hymn to what I think might be described as the "superior superiority" of Iran-ism over Kushitism. In "Irani-ism" Corbin includes Suhrawardi and those he calls "the Platonists of Persia," and in "Kushitism" he includes "Peripatetic philosophy, the dominion of Logic, and the necessity of the laws of rational understanding."
He adds that logical and physical necessity "is shattered by the visionary theosophy of the Khosrawaniyun from Iran, by the free flight of the configuring vision, the 'superior intuition' penetrating into the spiritual universes forbidden to the dialectic of Logic."
So all these Russian themes-- of freedom vs necessity, intuitivism vs rationalism, East vs West, Orthodoxy vs Catholicism-- ultimately come together for "the affirmation of the mundus imaginalis." And in which, Corbin adds, is "therefore the paradox, which in daring to 'exit' the constraints of empiricism and rational Logic, surmounts their antagonism."
My response: I don't think so!
One more point. Fakhoury observes that Corbin also notes that there is a divergence between Khomiakov's and Suhrawardi's versions of “Iranism.”
Corbin notes that the Russian version is “the desire to elevate the hidden type at the root of the life of a people to a universal value.” He names this value “pravo-slava” (literally "right praise," a self-description of Russian Orthodoxy).
Corbin criticizes this “populism” as being too concerned with the consolidation of a “temporal ideal.” The pravo-slava ideal is too 'materialistic."
It's not sufficiently 'spiritualistic,' so Corbin uses the term "Oriental" describe what he saw as the purely spiritual “Iranism” of Suhrawardi. He notes that "the knowledge of the ancient Sages was not 'Oriental' simply because they happened to live in the geographical East. Rather, inversely, it is 'Oriental' knowledge that made these Iranians 'Orientals' par excellence."
Corbin calls this “Oriental" knowledge "the Light of Glory," and gives the Zoroastrian name for it "Xvarnah." He describes as "a hieratic ascendant in the Neoplatonic sense of the word."
His point is that “Orient” does not designate a geographical East, but rather symbolizes a spiritual light and knowledge which contrasts with knowing in a physical and material sense.
To illustrate the point that "Orient" doesn't mean a geographical east but a spiritual knowing, Corbin draws a parallel between Suhrawardi and Konstantin Leontiev.
Fakhoury notes that Leontiev was at one time an admirer of Solovyov and an aesthete ["a person who has or affects to have a special appreciation of art and beauty"] but died as an Orthodox monk.
Leontiev's religious and political conservatism placed him at odds with the other religious thinkers of his generation. He rejected Solovyov’s “humanism,” charged Dostoevsky of promoting a “rosy Christianity,” and considered Khomiakov’s Orthodoxy as “too liberal and modernised.” In contrast, he affirmed Byzantine Orthodoxy and the ascetic monasticism of Mount Athos.
Fakhoury says Leontiev “placed his faith neither in Russia nor in its people, but in the sacral and hieratic ideal of the Byzantine world.”
Corbin favors Leontiev here because, as he says, the Ishraqi Light-wisdom ideas in Iranian-Sufi Islam come from ancient Persia via Suhrawardi, there is "an essential affinity between the Byzantine and Iranian spiritual universes."
Fakhoury makes the point that Corbin's saying that Byzantium and Iran are alike is meant not in a 'historical' but in an 'ecumenical' sense.
Fakhoury also notes that the perceived “sacral” and “hieratic” sympathy between Byzantium and Iran "defies every historical analysis." Corbin gives an example from an exhibit of Byzantine mosaics in Isfahan: at least in the minds of the Islamic observers, Byzantine mosaics shine with a light of their own just as do the famous ceramic tile artworks of Isfahan.
Corbin also claims that for both Leontiev and Suhrawardi, it is not the people that is in itself essential, but the sacral idea which inhabits it and prevails in it. He's saying that what's really important is not the place or the people but the "concept." I find the language here-- saying that people are too material and too physical-- to be the grossest kind of dualism.
But if we can move beyond the dualistic wording, there is something of the greatest value in all this. It sounds like Corbin is talking a dualism language of light vs darkness, but he is not.
The Zoroastrian Xvarnah is not about darkness vs light or evil vs good. Rather, the Light of Glory is about the goodness of the world which is already actual, and the goodness of the world which is yet to be realized. It's such a different perspective that it's difficult for us to even hear correctly what's being said.
It is an eschatological view, in the sense that it sees a purpose to reality. With it's distinction between what is and what is yet to be, this 25-century-old dynamic-emergence perspective is eminently suited to the modern evolutionary worldview!
So despite all the dualistic language-- matter vs spirit, physical vs spiritual, a people vs an idea of them-- some very positive views comes from all this.
For one thing, my perception of the great need for a mandalic rather than patriarchal-dualistic understanding of human consciousness is greatly reinforced.
For another, Fakhoury's note that Corbin’s explanation of Suhrawardi’s claim to have revived the illuminative philosophy of ancient Iran, helps to clarify the nature of Corbin's own project. He is trying to do something very similar for our day.
As I mentioned earlier, Corbin says that in defining his spiritual lineage, Suhrawardi is not writing an objective history of philosophy or mysticism but a "history of souls." But I think it's not so much a "history" of souls that's being offered by Corbin's understanding of Suhrawardi as much as a psychology which is both non-static and non-dualistic.
In describing what's happening to people's consciousness, Suhrawardi is offering stories of soul-experiences, stories about the changes in humans' deepest awareness. And these inner transfiguration-events do not require us to remove ourselves from the world of time and space, matter and energy.
In many ways, I find it difficult to understand why this is such a big deal for many. Except that I realize, of course, that there are many-- academics and all who are greatly influenced by both rationalism and fundamentalism-- who still don't think too much in terms of mind or soul or psyche or conscious awareness. They think even less in terms of transformation, and not at all in terms of the dynamic means by which such transfiguration occurs.
They are still stuck in a static patriarchal psychology.
So what a delight it is for me to realize that this whole issue, of Corbin's use of Russian thinkers to make sense of Suhrawardi's recovery of the ancient Persian perspectives, ultimately comes down to what seems to me to be a especially successful attempt to describe both the methods and the efficacious effects of ritual.
We have the beginnings, at least, of a non-static psychology suitable for the New Cosmology!
=== +++ ===