Chapter 9: Prophetic Existence

The Structure of Christian Existence
by John B. Cobb, Jr.

Chapter 9: Prophetic Existence

In their axial development, the Indians turned their attention on the problem of salvation. They accepted the ancient understanding of a meaningless and endless succession of states and experience and undertook to find the way in which this could be brought to an end. The Greeks, by contrast, employed their growing powers of reason to order the world about them and then to discover the order objectively present in that world. They turned only later to the investigation of the soul and the quest for salvation, and when they did so, they employed the types of categories they had used so successfully in their understanding of the outer world.

The Hebrews adopted a third path. As their power of rational reflection grew, they accepted the tribal myth of a divine lawgiver, much as the Indians accepted the myth of transmigration and the Greeks that of their ancestral gods. Their critical and reflective activity was directed toward rationalizing the understanding of their relationship to this deity. This unconscious decision turned out to be just as determinative of their whole cultural and intellectual development as had the corresponding choices in India and Greece for those civilizations.

Old Testament scholarship is currently in a state of flux, such that any attempt to state just where and how axial existence emerged in Israel must be very tentative. Our future understanding depends on the outcome of new research on the relation of wisdom tradition to the cult and of both to the prophets. In any case, the shift of the seat of existence to reflective consciousness is witnessed to in writings dating back to the time of David, if not earlier.

Our interest, however, is not in the scattered and partial foreshadowings of the axial revolution, but in its decisive and distinctive embodiment. In India, this embodiment was to be found in the rise of the philosophical schools of the sixth century B.C. This presupposed an extensive preparation in the preceding centuries, a preparation already witnessed to in the Upanishads. But this preparation alone would not have transformed India into an axial culture, any more than parallel developments in the rationalization of culture and religion qualified Egypt as the seat of an axial revolution.

When the question is raised with respect to Israel in these terms, the claim of the prophetic movement of the eighth and seventh centuries to be the bearer of the axial revolution stands vindicated. Hence, this chapter is entitled, "Prophetic Existence." I see in the great prophets — and especially in Jeremiah — the decisive breakthrough into a new structure of existence.

Just as "Homeric existence" has been used to mean not only or primarily the existence reflected and expressed in the Homeric epics but, rather, the existence that came into being among those whose vision was formed by this literature, so here "prophetic existence does not refer to that which was distinctive of the prophets alone, but, rather, to that which became distinctive of Israel as a result of their impact. This impact was mediated as much through the Deuteronomic code as through the remembered and written words of the prophets themselves.

The idea of a divine lawgiver was a commonplace among ancient peoples, and it played some role in almost all religions. However, for Socratic man this idea was not determinative for the axial development. Insofar as the Olympian gods were dissociated from fate, their role as ground and authority of law declined. As the Greeks progressed in their application of reason to the understanding of law, they developed quite naturalistic ideas of how law arose in social community. If deity played any role, it was as reason, the immanent principle in man and the world. Insofar as the idea of the divine lawgiver remained among the Greeks, it was as a part of the lingering power of myth.

With the Hebrews, the situation was quite different. To them it was dear that they existed as a community by virtue of their relation to deity, and, indeed, to a specific deity, Yahweh. The essential task of reflection was to understand this relation, and that meant to understand the participants in this relation. Especially, this meant that man must understand the divine side of this relation.

To understand Yahweh was, of course, not to objectify and localize him as an entity to be observed. It was, rather, to understand what he was in his relation to Israel. How was the relation established? What was expected of Israel? What benefits accrued from maintaining the relation? How could specific events be understood in the light of this relation?

The relation of Yahweh and Israel was understood commonly in terms of the category of covenant. Again, this understanding as such, although far from universal among ancient peoples, was not peculiar to Israel. Other peoples also thought of their relation to their gods in terms of mutual obligations. They too expected that if they fulfilled their responsibilities to the god, the god should and would fulfill his responsibilities to them. They also understood plague and defeat in terms of failure on their part to fulfill their obligations to the god.

The Hebrew understanding of the covenant with God showed its distinctiveness much more clearly at the point of the divine initiative. I do not know to what extent other views of covenant relations of peoples with gods included this element of the divine initiative. But it is safe to say that with no other people did this become the foundation of the self-understanding of the community as it did in Israel. Israel understood itself as chosen by Yahweh for this covenant relation prior to any act or understanding on its own part. The covenant followed the election, its terms were set entirely by God, the people were confronted by one great choice — to accept or to reject the covenant freely offered by the God who had already chosen them without respect to their worthiness.

The kind of reflection that was involved in articulating this understanding of Israel’s relation to its God was at much the same level of sophistication as that displayed by Homer in his poetic objectification, aestheticizing, and ordering of the gods. It had, however, an entirely different consequence. Whereas the Greek poets and artists freed the Greek mind to enjoy the forms of the world as they were, the original Hebrew achievement determined that Yahweh, in his relation to Israel, must be the focus of concern of the whole people. Since this relation was an intelligible one of choice and offer on Yahweh’s part and agreement on the part of the people, it allowed for and encouraged further rationalization. But the kind of rationalization appropriate to the understanding of Yahweh’s choice of Israel and Israel’s proper response was very different from that of the Greeks.

The Hebrew understanding of Yahweh was thoroughly anthropomorphic, just as was the Homeric understanding of the Greek gods. Yet, the anthropomorphism involved was of a radically different kind. Greek anthropomorphism was fundamentally the picturing of the gods as ideal humans, and this, at the Homeric stage of development, meant humans who were beautiful, wise, and powerful. They existed as objects of imaginative visual contemplation. They engaged in more or less serious play with each other and with the destinies of men and cities.

Yahweh was completely unlike the Olympian pantheon. Even in those few remaining references from an early stage of the development in which he was pictured almost as a man among men, there was no suggestion as to his appearance. Yahweh’s relationship to man was almost entirely verbal. He commanded and promised, and, of course, he fulfilled his promises both for good and ill. He did not present himself to man for aesthetic contemplation but for dialogue and obedience. To put it quite simply, Yahweh was not seen, but heard.

This did not mean, in the first instance, some more sophisticated view of God — as invisible and intangible. Perhaps it even meant a less sophisticated view in the sense that reason did not dare to deal with the sacred power. God did not appear visually, not because he, in principle, was invisible, but because one could not see God and live. The Hebrews never domesticated Yahweh as the Greeks domesticated their pantheon.

However, the important question is not that of comparative sophistication but of further consequences for development. Yahweh was anthropomorphic in the sense that man attributed to him some of the emotions he found in himself — hate and love, anger and repentance. But Yahweh was far too sacred for Hebrew man to think of him at play or as engaged in frivolous pursuits. Also, Yahweh was not surrounded by a pantheon of other deities. His social relations were with the world and, specifically, with Israel.

I have spoken of the Hebrew view of Yahweh as anthropomorphic. In a sense this is true, but insofar as it implies the application to Yahweh of a preexisting understanding of man, it is misleading. Hebrew reflection about Yahweh led to an understanding of Yahweh as person long before men could conceive themselves in such terms. Certainly Yahweh is understood in the light of Hebrew man’s vague understanding of himself. But the clarification and development of human self-understanding was for Hebrew man a function of his beliefs about Yahweh. It is important to make this point because of the widespread assumption that man’s self-understanding develops autonomously and is projected on other things. But neither with the Greeks nor with the Hebrews is this a useful way of understanding the actual course of the development. In both cases, reflection developed its categories in its attempt to understand something other than man. In both cases, this activity had profound consequences for man’s self-understanding.

Although the explicit denial of bodily form to Yahweh was late, the early depreciation of interest in any such question forced Hebrews to think of God in some other way. This was a matter of utmost importance. To this day, and despite the immense impact of the Hebraic achievement on our psychic life, our imagery and conceptualization is primarily visual. When I think of a friend, some visual image presents itself to me, and although my thought of him may have many other facets, I tend to think that these other facets are to be referred to this visual one. Many people find that belief in God is impossible for them precisely because they can form no visual image of him.

Thus the Hebrews confronted an immensely difficult psychic task. Their rational attention centered on Yahweh, yet they had to think of Yahweh fundamentally without visual images. In India, also, it is true, the holy power was finally conceived as transcending all sensory forms, but there it was recognized that the contemplation of Brahman in this ultimate way could only be the fruit of intense psychic discipline accompanied by highly abstruse metaphysical reflection. Neither this psychic discipline nor the metaphysical reflection was available to the Hebrew mind. It was in this situation that a vague mode of understanding emerged among the Hebrews, which can best be pointed to. in our vocabulary by the idea of person. God was understood as the great "I," who spoke and acted, thought and decided.

Once we understand the Hebrew success in conceiving Yahweh as the great "I," we can see that Hebrew reflection, or perhaps better, Hebrew experience with Yahweh, led to the explicit rejection of the idea that he had bodily form or was localized in spatial terms. The great "I," who was bound by no form and hence by no place, was progressively understood to be fully independent of his people and their cultic worship. He dwelt in no man-made building, and he was incomparably superior to those deities which did. Indeed, those deities were not really gods at all, but merely objects made by human hands and absurdly worshiped. Yahweh alone was God.

Furthermore, this understanding of the great "I," who was alone God, made possible a new understanding of the relation of God and the world. When the gods were understood either mythically or in visual images, they could be understood as powerful forces in the production of the universe, but not in a radical sense as creators. They were too much a part of the world to call it into being. In any case, to the rational mind the attribution of the world to the activities of other visually conceivable entities could, at best, only push the question of origins back one step. Much more acceptable to reason was the other conception of the world as eternal and of the gods as ultimately part of that eternal world.

The Hebrew understanding of the great "I" allowed an alternative view. The decay that beset all visible things did not apply to him. He dwelt forever, independent of the existence of any other reality, and if a world existed at all, it was because he willed it. Perhaps some primal chaos also existed from all eternity. If so, God is still not to be viewed as participating in it or as dependent on it. But whether out of nothing or out of primal chaos, God called the world into being.

Since God was not anthropomorphic in the sense of having physical form, but only in the sense of being a subject who spoke and acted, the Biblical story of creation did not picture one who molded primeval matter into new shapes, but one who spoke and thereby effected his will. Here was a vision of creation that made clear the relation of radical dependence of the world on God and elevated the relation of creator-creature into the fundamental context for all understanding of man himself.

Israel understood itself first in the context of the covenant. It existed as a corporate body elected by God and confronted by him with a demand and a promise. In relation to that confrontation, it could make a choice of acceptance or rejection, obedience or disobedience. This choice was not necessitated by outward forces or inner psychic mechanisms. It was made in the encounter relation with God. Israel was fully responsible for its choice and must rightfully suffer the consequence when it disobeyed.

We have here, from an early time, the development of fundamentally ethical categories for understanding the human situation in a way quite different from Indians and Greeks. Of course, taboos played a large role in all three cultures, but in the axial period they were understood differently by each culture. In India, the movement into the inner depths of the individual psyche radically relativized the question of the taboo, leaving the taboo system largely effective in society at large but making it quite irrelevant to the enlightened man. In Greece, the taboos were there, and their force was acknowledged, but it was the path of courage, the task of the hero, to flout them. Among the Hebrews, the whole content of the taboo system was identified with the demand of God embodied in the covenant. Hence, obedience to the individual demands, however meaningless they might be in themselves, took on the character of moral virtue, because it meant obedience to the will of God. The goal of the community was to achieve righteousness, which meant conformity to the will of God.

Although from one point of view this exaltation of the taboos into the will of the personal deity was an impediment to rationality, in another respect it created the context in which rationality could enter into genuinely ethical reflection. Where the taboos were simply pushed aside by reason, as in India and Greece, rational reflection on the nature of the good life became possible, but the sense of ought, expressed so powerfully in the taboos, remained unrationalized, whereas among the Hebrews the question of what one ought to do preoccupied rational attention. Hence, despite frequent setbacks, the Hebrews began to rationalize the sense of obligation.

The process of rationalization reflected in the great prophets was not one of deliberate reflection. Rather, the apprehension of the supreme "I" was such that certain cultic practices and taboos associated with his worship appeared altogether irrelevant. They had grown up out of archaic religion and continued in little broken continuity with it. God, as now apprehended by axial man, was seen as radically opposed to all, that. He was seen as opposed to every practice or idea that implied some sacredness of its own or of some special time and place. God’s concern was with the communal life as such and not with any compartmentalized segment thereof. In particular, the prophets denounced the view that God could be kept satisfied by particular ceremonial acts, while the community as a whole forsook the patterns of life which the prophets associated with justice and righteousness.

The very intensity of the apprehension of God by the prophets led them to see this world as freed from the sacred meanings of the unconscious. Therefore, they could see God’s will, and hence man s responsibilities in this world, not in terms of the inherited taboo system, but in terms of what their new apprehension of God in itself indicated. This made possible rational alteration and interpretation of the taboos leading to the possibility of critical reflection about them.

This process was analogous to what occurred in Greece, but also very different. Among the Greeks, the world was objectified in such a way that the forms of rational reflection came to be determined by the forms given in the world instead of by the unconscious and its projections. Among the Hebrews, God and his will were recognized as other in such a way that it became possible to understand what man ought to do in terms of the new understanding of God instead of in terms of the taboos that belong to the unconscious life. In principle, the great eighth-century prophets already achieved this radical breakthrough, but we know that, as assimilated into the religious tradition of Israel, their impact was to modify and supplement the structure of law that still retained much from its archaic sources.

In the eighth-century prophets, the vision was still one in which Yahweh and the nation were the covenant partners. It was the people as a whole who had sinned against God and who must suffer the just consequences of their disobedience. But by the seventh century, the collective personality of the people was giving way to the individual. According to Amos, the justice of God would bring destruction on the nation. But Jeremiah wondered why God allowed individual wicked men to prosper while individual righteous men suffered. He could not accept the view that the children should suffer for the sins of their parents and grandparents. This shift from the understanding of the people as a whole as the covenant partner of God to the idea that God deals with individuals as individuals is of such importance that we must pause to consider how it may have developed.

I have suggested that the eighth-century prophets presented the dealings of God as being with his people as a whole. Nevertheless, the sins that they denounced were not only acts of which the corporate body, represented in its rulers, was guilty. They were also sins of individual members of society, the sins of the rich and powerful against the poor and weak. The earlier prophets may have thought of these individual sins as the sins of the community as a whole; nevertheless, in a civilized posttribal community, they could not be seen only in that light. It would be natural to make distinctions between, for example, some men who responded to the prophets’ message by taking such action as they could, such as the disciples of Isaiah, and those others who were indifferent and self-satisfied. The distinction of the obedient and the disobedient would run through the community.

Since God was now thought of quite personally, it would be natural to think of him also as recognizing the distinction between the obedient and the disobedient members of the community and, hence, of differentiating his dealings between these. Insofar as this was the case, it became a matter of the individual’s decision as to how to align his life. The decision for obedience or disobedience, which, as late as the eighth century, remained primarily communal, now became primarily individual. This meant that a man could no longer understand himself exclusively as a part of the community. Rather, he must begin to understand the community as composed of individuals.

Another factor of equal importance must be considered in this period. Down through the eighth century, although God was understood as Person, individual men were still thought of chiefly as they appeared to one another. This did not lead to seeing men in aesthetic categories as with the Greeks, but it did focus attention on overt behavior. Decision or choice was not understood as some inner psychic struggle but as the action itself. The laws that embodied God’s will, whether primitive taboos or the demand of justice and mercy, regulated overt acts. As long as the agent of activity was primarily the corporate body, nothing else was possible.

But as the individual found himself the agent of decision, new factors entered in. Placed in decision by the confrontation with God as mediated by the prophetic word, the individual was aware that decision was not simply an action, that it might involve a struggle prior to overt action, and that sometimes the conscious decision did not carry over into the action pursued. Men became aware of their "heart" as not simply the seat of emotions and feelings but as involved in willing or choosing as well.

Furthermore, since God was not thought of as himself a visible reality but, rather, as an invisible "I," God might be thought of as taking an interest in this inner struggle for and against obedience to his will. Indeed, God might be supposed to be related to man fundamentally at that point where he was most like him, that is, in his mind, soul, or heart, rather than in his observable behavior. Perhaps God judged men finally more by this inner invisible reality than by the overt actions in terms of which men judge each other.

We should not suppose that such extreme conclusions were ever widely and clearly drawn among the Hebrews. Their sense of corporate existence remained extremely strong, and their focus of attention, as far as man is concerned, remained on that which is overt and visible, that which has public consequences. Nevertheless, the concern for the heart, the inner man, existed and persisted as a subdominant theme of Hebrew life.

The combination of the understanding of the individual as the one addressed by God, and thereby placed in decision, and the awareness of the inwardness of the decision joined in producing that peculiar kind of responsible, self-conscious individuality which justifies the term "person." The person, in this sense of the term, emerged clearly for the first time in seventh-century Israel. Jeremiah is the striking example.

This new structure of existence is peculiarly difficult to describe for two reasons. First, whereas both the Indians and the later Greeks were able to analyze the structures of their own existence with remarkable detachment and philosophical skill, no comparable self-objectification or philosophical ability is to be found among the Hebrews of the axial period. Second, to this day, the meaning of "I" remains peculiarly elusive among those whose existence is formed through Israel’s history. Yet something must be said.

Obviously, the use of the first person singular pronoun or some grammatical equivalent is universal. Some way of distinguishing the speaker from other men is possible and normal in any language. The question is, What is thereby referred to? One possibility is that the referent be one organism among others, namely, the one that is speaking, and this possibility is actualized frequently, even among us. It may even be regarded as the "natural "understanding of "I," and this for the following reason.

Man’s conscious experience has as its ordinary object not itself but the world, and especially the sensuously given world. In this world, man distinguishes individuals on some of whom his comfort and well-being depend. Gradually, he becomes aware that these important individuals, in their turn, perceive him in the same way in which he perceives them. By seeing his reflection, he gains an impression of what he is in their eyes. He thus becomes conscious of himself as one among the many individuals presented to each other through sense experience. To differentiate this individual from others, he speaks of "I."

In Socratic man, we noted a further development of great importance. Man became aware of processes of desiring, feeling, and reasoning as something other than the sensuously observable. These forces were seen as separately individualized in a special relation to each human body. Hence, the first person singular could refer to the invisible soul in distinction to the visible body. Within the soul, further distinctions were made, for example, between reason and desire, and the seat of existence was identified with reason. This was not simply an intellectual theory about the structures of existence, but a new structuring of existence in which the nonrational forces in the soul were objectified from the perspective of reason. Of course, much of the functioning of the soul is unaltered by the presence or absence of theories about it, but in humanly crucial respects, the elements attaining consciousness and the roles which they play in consciousness are profoundly interrelated in axial man with the way in which he understands himself.

In characterizing Socratic man, use of the term "person" was avoided. This is because the soul, although clearly individual, was understood primarily as the product of nonpersonal forces. That is, passion and reason, though numerically individuated in each soul, were forces for whose characterization the individuality of the particular soul was unimportant. The souls were qualitatively differentiated only according to the relative power of the several forces within them.

The greatest of the Greeks, such as Socrates, did approximate to personal existence. That is, Socrates did in fact assume responsibility for the victory of his reason over his passions, a responsibility that is not intelligible if we think of his soul as only a composite of these forces. But in his own conceptuality, no place for such transcendence was possible, and he himself came to the conclusion that to know the good was to do it.

Where conscious thought and available conceptuality run counter to the idea of responsibility for one s use of reason and obedience to it, even if the transcendence involved in such responsibility remains incipiently present, it cannot emerge as the organizing principle of the soul. Hence, full personhood could not develop within Greek culture.

These negative statements may serve to illumine what positively the personal structure of existence was. It presupposed, of course, the emergence of rational consciousness and the location of the seat of existence within it that was characteristic of all axial men. It presupposed within the complexity of the conscious life of the soul a multiplicity of conflicting forces. But the seat of existence from which these forces were viewed, and in some measure objectified, could not be identified with any of them. It was, rather, a center that had no given character of its own other than that of being in each new situation concretely responsible for the soul’s total response. This transcendent, responsible center is the "personal I," and with its emergence every other element within the soul comes to play a different role. (It is tempting to call the new emergent the will, and this is plausible and even helpful. The difficulty is only that the term "will" suggests one factor in the soul alongside others. Reason and passion were in this way recognized as competing forces by the Greeks. But for the Hebrews, what emerged was not one more such factor but a new center, given as the "I," from which all choosing must be carried out. Only when this, in turn, was relativized from the perspective of spiritual existence can we speak appropriately of will.)