The Humiliation of the Word by Jacques Ellul
Jacques Ellul was Professor of Law and Sociology and History of Institutions at the University of Bordeaux. He has published several hundred articles and over thirty books. This book was published by Williams B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1985. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Chapter 7: Reconciliation
This, then, is our situation today: through the eruption of unlimited artificial images, we have reduced truth to the order of reality and banished the shy and fleeting expression of truth. Strangest of all, we are not dealing with the identification of truth with reality already found in science. Instead, this "reality" is really fiction -- literally simulated, depicted. This reality is falsified, but it constitutes the new visible human universe. It is a visible universe of proliferating images produced by all sorts of techniques. No longer are we surrounded by fields, woods, and rivers, but by signs, signals, billboards, screens, labels, and trademarks: this is our universe. And when the screen shows us a living reality, such as people’s faces or other countries, this is still a fiction: it is a constructed and recombined reality.
Modern people thus are deprived of reference to truth at the same time they lose their situation in lived reality. This situation is intolerable. It produces acute suffering and panic: a person cannot live deprived of truth and situated in fiction. He does not know exactly what makes him suffer, but despairing to be when he has no real being, he lives with a latent panic and an unconscious vanity. He must find a way out at all costs; he must restore truth. But truth cannot be separated from this reality, because of the devaluation, impotence, and captivity of the word. Since the only path remaining is sight, the truth recovered is constructed around images and visible things. This is one of the basic facts of our time: "We will make gods we can see, and they will go before us" (see Ex. 32: 1).
In this rational, positivistic, scientific world so devoted to economic growth, we observe the resurgence of the most ancient human impulses. But since our reality is no longer nature, the gods chosen for us to see are those of the technical and political world. They are the gods of consumerism, power, and machines, and they range from dictators to atomic piles. Now everything is invested with an extra dimension: it is not lived reality, but since this reality is visualized, it is magnified, idealized, and made sacred, through the symbolization accomplished by the mass media.
In this way a new idolatry or worship of icons is born in our midst. The process is identical to that of idolatry in the earliest times, but its object is no longer the same, since the earlier objects no longer exist. It is pointless to make ourselves an image of the powerful Bull to symbolize fertility: we need instead to magnify machines and electricity, through their images. Just as the king had magical powers, now movie stars and dictators have it. Propaganda gives us symbolic persons, such as Youth and Palestinians. Woman is given back her inverted role as absolute idol through images.
How could it possibly be otherwise? The irreparable rupture of sight and hearing is the irreparable sign of our "lost Paradise." Men and women will never again see either God or the tree of knowledge of good and evil. From now on they will search in the dark. Since they are excluded from Eden, all that is left is an echo of inaccessible truth. All the other signs of this rupture, which theologians have called the "Fall," are exterior or historical; only this one is inscribed in human "nature"; only this one stays with us from the first day to the last.
To see truth is impossible. "Neither the sun nor death can be looked at directly" is the modern, lay version of "No one can see God." This rupture leads to an infinite number of consequences in all of life, especially this: seen reality cannot be true. It exists, providing the framework and the milieu; it is useful and indispensable. But it gives human life no meaning. It provides no light concerning our own meaning or that of our actions. It gives us no direction to follow. It leaves us, as fragments of this reality, to flounder as best we can without a compass or a sextant, in the midst of the continually shifting waves of this world. Humanity encompasses the world in its view, but this world is utterly lacking in signs, unable to open itself, giving no clear direction.
The wonder is that humanity has not gone even farther astray. What it knows best remains empty and meaningless. Truth could at last give humanity the key to life, could calm its worries, provide the reason and the answer to the question "Where do we come from and where are we going?" Even better than an answer, truth could give us the direct vision of what our joyful rest will finally be. But this truth can be only vaguely heard, as a word transmitted in the midst of so much jamming, so many noises, uncertainties, and misunderstandings. This is mainly because the word is fleeting and never preserved, becoming at best a memory after it has passed. But who does not remember how untrustworthy and obsolescent memories are?
Thus the truth is known through echoes and fragile transmissions and never realized any more than the word. How often have we heard about the famous discord between the inspiration of one’s plans and their realization? The revolutionary, reflecting over the results of a superb, enormous movement, or the political leader, contemplating the field after the battle, will say "This is not what we intended." Is this simply the difference between a project that did not turn out as intended -- for lack of calculation or forethought -- and its result? Does this mean that projects and inspiration are not to be taken seriously, and that only the concrete, actual result counts? No, this difference goes deeper: it stems from the rupture between truth and reality. Projects, utopias, intentions, and doctrines -- all these belong to the order of truth, and are known and created by the word. Translating them into something realized, moving from them to action, has to do with the order of reality. In that explosive moment when truth enters into reality yet is never incarnated, everyone can see the results.
Thus I have not, at any point in these pages, intended to claim that hearing and the word are superior to sight and image. Let me explain: I would be more inclined to say the contrary. Only sight enables us to have full knowledge. Only sight gives certainty, enables us to be guided and get our bearings. In our present condition, in which we can no longer "see" truth, the word is the only locus of truth for us, and we cannot dispense with truth. The word is fragile and uncertain, but extremely precious. We are left with only the word. It is our last resort, but is irreplaceable for establishing communion between us, and also between us and something as indispensable to us as our daily bread. We will never live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the Father.
Thus, in our present condition, this word in its very insufficiency is the only gift we have to keep us from sinking into hell. Without the word, human life is hell. Sartre was right when he spoke of the look of others set on us. And his hell, his "no exit," is just that -- the look that cannot discover any truth, while words are vain and empty, conveying nothing and not permitting anything to be changed. The explosion is without remedy.
Repeatedly, as we have felt the gravity of this rupture, we have tried to find a remedy for it. Repeatedly we have tried to restore truth through sight, or to unite sight and the word in a bundle of corresponding factors, as if to restore the unity of our being. Such were the ceaseless efforts of mystics and Gnostics of previous eras; they centered everything on sight. Certainly what they saw is conveyed in words, but truth at last is seen; the orders of angels, "Paradise," and the procession of light all belong to the visual order. Theirs were efforts to reestablish at last the full relationship and the indisputable knowledge that are indispensable to us, and which we grasp only in shadows and figures. Such efforts are invariably failures. The mystic, even if his experience is true, can never enable another person to share it; he can only talk about it. Exactly! And all have experienced the tragedy of discovering that words are inadequate to express the fullness of what they have seen.
In our day, through technique, this reconciliation or possibility of access to truth through sight is no longer the province of mystics but of ingenious gadgets. And here we find the heart of the lie exposed above concerning audiovisual methods. They claim to mend what was ruptured and to restore unity of being through the precise relationship they foster between sight and hearing, thanks to increasingly sophisticated gadgets. But in reality they signify the final exclusion of truth, or else its reduction to some secondary, accessory use. Such methods empty the word of its value and reduce truth to efficacious, usable reality.
No gadget, however ingenious, will enable humanity to discover the meaning of life (and notwithstanding certain brilliant philosophers, we cannot live if our life has no meaning). Nor can a gadget enable us to recover a relationship of communion with other men and women (and we cannot live if we are hopelessly misunderstood).
The audiovisual venture is identical to that of the mystics, though in another epoch and different cultural context, with a different concept of reality and truth. In the period of the mystics, truth seemed transcendent and they needed for it to become real; it needed to be encountered fully, and only sight could bring this about. In our day, only reality matters; the important things are those that can be defined and measured. So we try to make this reality into truth, bring truth to it, include meaning within reality. And the word, as the only witness to truth, must thus be incorporated into images. This was the path religions took toward idols; it was the forbidden path. "You will not make for yourself any representation of things. You will not worship them" (Ex. 20:4-5, JE). The worship of reality amounted to the proclamation that reality was the only truth.
At this point how can we neglect the divine presence of light? "God is light" (1 Jn. 1:5). It is a frequently used metaphor! Light enables us to see. How could we fail to understand the entire Gospel of John, which speaks of nothing but this light? How can we fail to take into account the wonderful theology (believed to be the work of Dionysius the Areopagite)(See the wonderful study of this theology and its consequences by Duby, Le Temps des cathédrales.) of light springing forth in a series of leaps?
Duby writes of this theology:
God is Light. Every creature participates in this initial, creative light. Every creature receives and transmits light. Every creature receives and transmits divine illumination according to its capacity; that is, according to the position it occupies in the scale of being, according to the level at which the thought of God has placed it hierarchically. The Universe, which is the product of an irradiation, is a luminous bursting forth that descends by cascades. Light emanating from a first Being establishes each created being in its immutable position. But the light unites all of them. As the bond of love, it floods the whole world, establishing order and cohesion. Since every object reflects the light to a greater or lesser degree, this irradiation, by means of a continuous chain of reflections, causes a reverse movement, from the shadowy depths. This reverse movement reflects back toward the source of its radiance. In this way the luminous act of Creation itself establishes a progressive upward motion step by step toward the invisible and ineffable Being from whom everything proceeds. Everything returns to him by means of visible things which, at ascending levels of the hierarchy, increasingly reflect his light. In this way what is created leads to the uncreated by a scale of analogies and harmonies. By elucidating these relationships one after the other, we advance in our knowledge of God. As absolute Light, God is more or less veiled in each creature, according to whether it is more or less resistant to his illumination. But each creature reveals him to its own degree, since it liberates that part of light it receives in the eyes of anyone who will look at it with love.
This admirable composition harbors all the traps of sight as the aim of truth. For it moves continually from purely spiritual light (and the author speaks of light here only by comparison and analogy, because he is unable to find a better expression) to the sun’s light, which illuminates creatures, revealing their form, color, movement, and reality. The spiritual light becomes temporal, natural light, and Pseudo-Dionysius’s ambiguous theology will later inspire Suger’s very concrete structures. In the latter, the light of the Invisible becomes the light of the Sun. This theology needs sight and reality in order to express the inexpressible and to coordinate truth and reality in one overall entity (the Creator and his Creation).
How can we fail to see a reflection of all this in the Christian thought of the theology of the sol invictus? The sun is the source of light and life (this traditional religious expression becomes in our day a rigorous, precise scientific formula; it is no longer ecstatic poetic delirium, but the expression of the best of our world’s knowledge. All life is born of and proceeds from the sun).
What a tempting way to reconcile a broken universe. But we must constantly come back to this limit, the same one marked by the flaming cherubim at the entrance to Eden. The sol invictus is not the God who created the beginning, he whose word inaugurated the worlds. It is not Love, Meaning, or Truth. Its implacable flame can lead us only to "the divine Nothingness." This light is a matter of analogies and parables, nothing more. Nothing becomes visible because of this light.
We must return to the prologue of the Gospel of John, where the balance is correct. "In the beginning was the Word. The Word was the light of the world." Here unity is basic. Word and Light are united.
In Creation the relationship between word and light is established in a complete fashion: light is an effect of the word. God says:
Be -- light
Was -- light
Saw -- light
Separated the light from the darkness
Called the light -- day
The word and light, its effect, appear as penetrating each other completely and as utterly transparent. Form and content concur. But this takes place at the moment of creation, as in the prologue of the Gospel of John where the New Creation is considered, and it happens again in the book of Revelation. Undoubtedly light is the special being that gives access to both truth and reality. As a product of Truth, it literally gives rise to reality, since in Genesis the creation of light marks the appearance of time.
The creative Word causes light to spring forth the first time it is spoken. But this is a secondary light. It merely expresses the fact that there is no shadow, hidden place, duality, secret, mystery, or ambiguity in the one who speaks this word. At its origin this word is perfectly clear and involves no reservation. Light penetrates everything to manifest and make clear all that could be hidden. Up to this point, while we have no rupture, there is subordination of the light. It is the first creature, but it is a creature. Nowhere is it said that God is the light, and even less that the light is God. The light proceeds from him. The Spirit of God is a spirit of light and not of darkness; even less is he a blinding Spirit.
Life and light are clearly identified with each other. Life is the light of the world in the sense that what is alive must become the criterion of all judgment and evaluation. By the light we can understand and evaluate everything that happens. Life is light in that by it we discern; we have a touchstone which enables us to recognize, among other things, good and evil, because they are identical with life and death. But if someone tells us that God lives in inaccessible light, or if God is surrounded by unbearable light, or if "light lives with him,’, or the day of the Eternal God will be light and not darkness, and that this light penetrates everything and will make clear everything that was hidden, then we see that light accompanies God. It is associated with him and is truly his first creature. But the light is not God.
We can say to God: "God, you are my light." By this we mean that through God, through his revelation, we know what he chooses to reveal to us. Then we also see the world and ourselves from God’s perspective, differently than we see them naturally. Jesus says of himself, "I am the light of the world," but he also says "You are the light of the world," so there is no identification of light with the inaccessible God who is beyond all definition. As a person who bears the word of truth Jesus and all those who receive the truth become light. This word enlightens both the person and the world, both the mystery of life and the mystery of our relationship with Love. This light does not give us a view of anything; it gives us a revelation of our relationship to Creation.
Light is the first creature. Thus the Father is called the "Father of lights," and those who receive the revealed word are designated "children of light." The light goes from the Father to the children, and they become bearers of this new creation. But in no passage is this a matter of sight.
This light could have signified reconciliation and the reintegration of sight into truth. But this did not take place. "The light shined in the darkness and the darkness did not receive it.... This was the true light which enlightens every man as it comes into the world. It was in the world and the world was made by it, and the world did not know it. It came to its own and its own did not receive it" (Jn. 1:5, 9-11, JE).
Therefore the wonderful coming and going of light as seen by the Areopagite does not exist and did not exist at an earlier time. This movement was the norm in Creation, strictly its only norm. But it is no longer the norm of the world we live in. Night and darkness have become the normal situation; our sight is limited by this darkness that lets us see only as far as our hand can reach or we can see.
Light came, but as a streak or a ray, a beam that makes a hole in the darkness, piercing a thick darkness that remains dominant. Beyond our atmosphere, in interstellar space, darkness reigns: galactic night. And the earth moves through this night. A single beam of this light occasionally crosses the darkness, is reflected, and enables us to see something, but how long does it last? The same is true of truth and life.
The darkness did not receive the light. It did not show in a clear, evident, blinding manner that Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ, the Redeemer, both the Son of God and the Son of Man. Only his human reality, in all its human weakness, was seen and seemed certain, in the spiritual night. When we try to reduce Christ to his historical dimension as the exemplary person, Jesus, we confirm this primacy of sight. This process shows us only a poor, unfortunate, innocent Jew who was put to death. When we reduce Jesus to this historical figure, we obey not so much a concern for the truth as the dominance of images in our thinking, as they substitute themselves for truth. The image of the Incarnation is the violation of the truth by a visible reality. What is visible veils and hides the truth. We concentrate our sight on this carpenter’s son, on this wandering preacher, and thus we cannot understand the fullness of his message. We fail to perceive what is behind and beyond, but also what is in, his appearance.
We read enigmatic narratives in which the glory of God’s truth sometimes becomes visible. In the Transfiguration, for example, the human appearance, what is visible in Jesus, is maintained, but at the same time the truth of his participation in the divine bursts forth. The spiritual light becomes a physical resplendence. Indisputably, the disciples see this. God’s truth, which explodes in this negation of time, brings about the fusion of opposites. But, just so, it is unbearable that sight should make these people, who have been dead for a thousand years, appear as living and present. It is unbearable that the disciples, everyday friend should be clothed with the glory of God’s truth. Terror stricken, the disciples say foolish things. This moment cannot last. Immediately, Jesus becomes the ordinary person they knew so well. Nothing of this retrieved unity could remain.
The Emmaus pilgrims have the same experience: in this case they do not see a blinding light that encircles Jesus’ body. First he is surrounded by mystery: "Who is this person who talks like this?" And when the mystery is unveiled in the breaking of bread, when they recognize with their eyes that it is Jesus whom they had known so well but who had died -- then everything disappears. Everything disappears and they no longer see anything. This takes place precisely at the moment in which they arrive at the unity of reality and truth: when the Jesus they see and recognize, and who is quite real, becomes at the same time the one who bears this extraordinary news: "The dead person has been raised." At that moment truth is surrounded by death as a halo. This man who had accompanied them was dead. His resurrection is the encounter, the rediscovered unity of reality and truth. Jesus’ real life, which he had lived on earth as corporeal and visible, is reunited with his true life, created at the same time as light and truth.
For this reason I reject modern interpretations of the Resurrection, all of which try to avoid this scandal. They speak of the Resurrection as a myth designed to help us understand the truth of God. Or a Resurrection in the heart of the disciples who testify to the fact that Jesus is truly alive because they continue what he was. Or the Resurrection as simply the appearance of the Church. They offer us a Resurrection (which could not possibly be such a ridiculous event as a dead man coming back to life!) that is an image testifying to the eternal triumph of Life. Or the Resurrection as a political insurrection, or a manner of speaking whereby the disciples certify that their master was truly the bearer of life and truth for everyone.
All these interpretations evade and deny precisely what the Bible tries above all to make us understand: the reconciliation, reunion, and encounter of reality and truth, word and image. We said above that trying to reduce Jesus to his historicity amounts to following the separation by denying the truth. If this is true, this other desire to reduce the Resurrection to these mythical or political modes amounts to following the separation by denying reality and truth.
Such interpretations of the Resurrection amount to denying that anyone could see the crucified Jesus’ body alive again. They are thus a denial that the truth of life had rejoined the reality of the body that was dead. It is fundamental and crucial that Jesus came out of the tomb bodily. Although we cannot exhaust the meaning of the Resurrection, we must understand that first and foremost it was this actual return to life of the one who had entered the place of the dead, in the depth of the abyss.
Thus the Resurrection was a fleeting intervention of light in our darkness. It vanished as soon as it was recognized. We have the same announcement in the encounter between Mary Magdalene and the Gardener, which includes this enigmatic injunction: "Do not touch me, for I have not yet reascended to the Father" (Jn. 20: 17, JE). What is the point of this "Do not touch me"? Why does he give this reason: "for I have not . . . "? I think this is related to the heart of what I am trying to say: in this risen Jesus who can be seen, truth has completely rejoined reality. This is utterly new, because reality is penetrated by truth. And at the same time, truth becomes certain because it is visible.
But there is an insurmountable distance involved for those who remain in our situation; we cannot yet grasp in a lasting manner and hold on to this new thing in Creation (as on the mount of Transfiguration and at Emmaus). It disappears as soon as it is glimpsed, because the end of time has not yet arrived. "Because I have not yet reascended to the Father: you cannot lastingly see and grasp this until after the return; that is, when the end of time has come and everyone will see the accomplishment of this reconciliation." These words lead us to the last biblical discovery: the reconciliation of word and image, of reality and eschatological truth.
We will not go back to our brief consideration of visions and theophanies. We must try to go on from there. Visions of signs or visions as dreams are just things that precede a personal encounter with God. Furthermore, such visions are sometimes the same as words ("God spoke in a vision," of which nothing is known; nothing is said of the vision, but the word is reported: Gen. 15:1; 46:2; Num. 12:6; etc.). The encounter, in itself never visual, is always considered a moment of ultimate significance for a person.
A personal vision of God is considered each time to be like a death sentence: thus Isaiah receives the vision (Isa. 6) and must go through the purifying fire if this vision is to be a beginning and not the end. But the rupture is total. And the prophecy which results from it is a prophecy of condemnation and judgment, with a final promise (Isa. 6:13). Ezekiel does not say he actually saw God, but rather describes the fabulous accompaniments of his glory. The result of God’s presence seen in time is a prophecy of condemnation and final judgment. In both cases, the prophet announces that the people cannot hear the Word of God. Only the prophet listens to this word related to the end of time.
One cannot see God and live. A mutation in life stems from this encounter, because the prophet has entered a moment of ultimate significance. He has entered death and a new birth, which involves an absolutely new beginning. Something absolutely new is established with no continuity between what the person was before and after his encounter with God. The vision that preceded the encounter is an ultimate vision.
As for visions in which someone discerns a nonexistent object (Zechariah’s ephah) that leads to an explanation, or visions that unfold like a story (Daniel’s and Zechariah’s visions), these have to do with apocalyptic vision. We will speak later of these, but must note at this point that such visions always have a twofold dimension: historical (by which they are related to the concrete, existing situation, with a message for the people of Israel) and eternal and final: the vision is not just the announcement of God’s intervention in history but also the proclamation of ultimate truth. For example, the vision of dry bones in Ezekiel is clearly "historical," but how can we fail to see in it a prophecy of the Resurrection -- that is, an eschatological dimension? Zechariah’s visions all have this twofold dimension.
Indeed, how could we believe that God’s judgment (always contemporary in these visions) would be limited to a temporal judgment and nothing more? The God of Israel is the God who entered the history of his people, a God present in this history who accompanies his people; yet at the same time this All-Powerful God is also the Eternal God of hosts. His word and the visions he gives are not limited to a given time and place. All Zechariah’s visions (the horses, the measuring line, the lampstand and the olive trees, the ephah, etc.) are visions of judgment. The vision of the New Jerusalem in Ezekiel, or in Daniel the vision of the animals, the shining man, of Michael, etc.-- everything that is seen is always related to a final combat, final judgment, a new creation, or a resurrection.
I believe this rigorous and constant relationship between what is seen and eschatology to be extremely significant. Sometimes it is explicitly expressed: Joel proclaims that in "the last days . . . the young men will have visions and the old men will dream dreams" (Joel 2:28, JE). And Job declares: "when my flesh is decomposed, my eyes will see him" (Job 19:26, JE). Thus visions are bound up with the end of time, and the possibility of seeing God in the fullness of his truth and reality can appear only when present reality -- ours and that of the world in which we live -- has disappeared in order to be replaced by another reality.
We find sight treated the same way in the New Testament, as when Jesus says, "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God" (Mt. 5:8). Seeing God does not take place in time, in our present reality, but rather is an ultimate vision, dependent on purity of heart. This expression indicates something absolutely new and radical in human life: not a renewal in a temporal and accidental, uncertain and transient sense, but a heart that has become utterly pure, like Isaiah’s lips -- these are the marks of the New Creation.
Likewise, of course, the Transfiguration is the sight of the resurrected Jesus already in his glory, as we will see him at the final judgment -- Jesus seen in eschatological perspective. The same thing applies to Stephen’s vision, when he sees the heavens opened as he is about to die. This is not a dream but the sight of what can only be seen as a new and ultimate reality.
Now we come to the book of Revelation. One of the characteristics of John’s Apocalypse is clearly the multiplication of visions. Sight plays a decisive role in this book. Everything depends on visions: of God’s throne, of the glorified Christ, of the very glory of God, etc. But, of course, these visions are suspect: they are considered to be either imagination with no foundation or else a sort of literary construction. In other words, apocalyptic writers, and John in particular, are thought to have had no vision; their writings amount to just a manner of speaking: a literary genre. That is, to express truth at that time and in that milieu, it was necessary to make it depend on vision.
Sometimes it is believed that the prophets really had visions: that Isaiah really saw the glory of God as he says. This could have been the basis of an extremely violent dispute among the prophets: those who really had visions, and those who did not and only claimed to have seen them. Thus visions have a reduced importance within the whole of prophecy, the essential matter being "God says," or "the Word of God."
Then, progressively, visions become more important. But they also lose their rigor. In the case of Zechariah, for example, visions appear to be so identical with what they are supposed to mean that they almost give the impression of being simply an ad hoc illustration. We might say that something like this happens: a prophet has something to say. In order to make it gripping, expressive, and troubling, he can do something (Ezekiel’s prophetic acts: the vine, public fasting, etc.), thus acting out the word in front of the public in order to make it directly understood. Take Jeremiah’s yoke as an example: he shows the people what the word means.
From this practice of a living tableau the prophets move on to the description of their vision. In this case a vision is presented as a sort of riddle or as a means of shocking people. It is not certain whether the prophet actually saw something, but he uses a tableau or a sign to illustrate his message. He appeals to sight to make the revelation complete. However, when a man of God says he saw something, surely it is a difficult thing to affirm that he saw nothing!
Interpreting this matter as a question of historical evolution is too easy. Scholars say that the prophetic concept of revelation was replaced by an apocalyptic concept. They often say this with a shade of contempt, as when one of them writes: "writers of apocalyptic are no longer prophets. Whereas the latter proceeded by means of free oral expression of the word, the former are writers, for whom vision and divine revelation are nothing but a literary form" Joseph Scharbert, Morale et Ancien Testament). It is hard to see on what grounds we would decide that apocalyptic writers had no real visions and that visions are a "literary genre"! (Is it believed that they are also a genre?)
The above quotation is significant, however, in that it makes clear that in apocalypses we no longer have any spoken message. Instead, a completely different process is used; one moves from visions to another form of expression: writing. Almost certainly the prophets became writers: they go from visions (which I believe they really had) to writing. So books or pamphlets are circulated. We no longer have a person dealing directly with a crowd to which he speaks.
True, visions are more appropriately described in a book than expressed orally in public. Probably Isaiah wrote down his vision immediately rather than speaking of it concretely in public. That is, a vision produces a text that is seen, since reading is a visual operation. Reading combines vision and word in that ambiguous form, the frozen text made to be spoken, as it waits to live again by being reconverted into speech.
A second facet to this, however, is much more important: if prophets had no visions, why did they use such a means to express revelation? Why reintroduce sight, since everything was centered on the word, and since everything continues to exist only through the word? Why all these detailed concrete descriptions? For we must consider the fact that the proportion of visual elements increases as we go along. The book of Revelation is entirely constructed on the basis of visions. It is probably the highest point of apocalyptic literature, not only by virtue of its content, the strength of its thought, its continuity, and the progression of its message (whether historical-critical exegetes who are clever at slicing a text up into thin layers agree), but also because of the interpenetration and rigor of its images. Everything is presented in such strongly visual images that the reader cannot help "seeing" them, and the word formulates the images. The word does not just declare truth but relates to the image and its background. The word relates not to the direct meaning of the image but to its symbolical and permanent meaning. The message does not itself become an image -- seeing is not enough for understanding; but the message comes from an intertwining of what is seen and the word, which alone is able to reveal the surreality of the image. By this I mean that we are not dealing with just literary talent or a novelist’s trick.
Sight must be stimulated, and even an imaginary vision must be represented as image. But apocalypses usually are a proclamation of the "last days": the Judgment, and the New Creation -- at least those apocalypses preserved in our biblical canon are.
Gnostic-type visions refer to a static divine system (an organization of celestial hierarchies or "Heaven") and enter into "Eternity"-- and we might say that Ezekiel’s vision, for example, of cherubim, animals, etc., is of this type, very rarely found in the Bible. Then we have the truly apocalyptic visions, which are inserted into a movement, a progressive series destined to move toward a final moment. This final moment can be an encounter with God in the absolute (which calls an individual into question existentially); or the discovery of the God who acts in history but places his people in a situation of ultimate significance; or the apprehension of the last days, with a view toward the "end of the world" and a completely new creation.
In all three cases, the apocalypse or apocalyptic visions express an irreversible radicalism. And I think that the process of the vision expresses this: up until that time, a Word of God entered history with the unpredictability of the word. It penetrated a reality that was foreign to it, and at the same time placed humanity in a contradictory situation. An apocalypse, on the contrary, uses vision, precisely because it announces the last days and the end of this contradiction. It amounts to toppling over everything into the new creation, where reality returns to the status it had "before the Fall." At this point (but only here) it becomes possible to see what could not be seen during the course of history.
Thus apocalyptic vision is not a more or less dubious literary device, nor a fashion of its time; rather it is perfectly consistent with its object. When it bears witness to the final reconciliation, the recapitulation, this reconciliation clearly encompasses all of reality. Therefore sight’s apprehension of this reality, along with vision, becomes with and like the word the adequate mode of expression of this revelation of the work of God.
3. The Rediscovery of Icons
We ended up earlier with a very harsh judgment on icons, but here we see that reconciliation affects them as well! It is actually quite remarkable that everything in the theology of icons is perfectly acceptable from an eschatological perspective, as long as it is a present affirmation of what will ultimately take place. Icons become part of an eschatological liturgy: they relate to the encounter of future life (Evdokimov, p. 23). They take us into the Lord’s advent. They show us "the anticipation of the transfiguration of the whole human being." They enable us to penetrate the mystery of the "eighth day": "Icons from the perspective of religious experience give us a foretaste of the vision of God in the light of the eighth day" (but this theology forgets just one thing: that we have not yet arrived at the eighth day!). Evdokimov himself says precisely this: icons are an "eschatological task," an "art allied with the apocalyptic vision of the last things."
At this point we can agree again: this use of sight, this reconciliation of Vision and the Word is uniquely eschatological. It is promised and it is the promise of the end of the Fall; but it has not yet been fulfilled. As part of the theology of the last things (belonging only in that theology!), it certainly is not in a direct line with speculative thought, but neither can it produce a present "demonstration."
One can try to defend icons by saying "they explain the ultimate consequences of the Incarnation: the sanctification of matter and the transfiguration of the flesh." It is good to explain this, but certainly never good to show it as an accomplished reality, since the flesh is not yet transfigured. Paul explicitly states that we can know nothing of what this transfigured flesh will be, or what the immortal, incorruptible, glorious, spiritual body means. We know nothing of what all this means, and we are even less able to show it.
I fully agree that we can say "the face-to-face vision of the future time will be the vision of the incarnate Word," but the reference here is future. Even symbolically, we cannot visually represent this incarnate Word in his glory. In other words, icons remain false in their pretension to be symbolically shown reality. But they are acceptable as the recall of a promise and as a reference to the reconciliation of sight and word not yet accomplished, but simply announced. They are acceptable on the condition that they remain at the level of recall and reference, that is, with no reality, no liturgical role, without attracting piety or prayer (but this is precisely what they have not done!). They must be simply a signpost we consult to know in what direction God is leading us. But no one meditates on a signpost: we continue on our way!
Throughout his theology of icons, Evdokimov declares at each step that icons show something eschatological, that they are the actualized presence of the end times. This is highly significant. In other words, as an eschatological theology announcing the reconciliation of truth and reality within that of word and image, this theology of icons is perfectly correct and true. But this absolutely does not authorize us to make real, concrete icons, showing what is concretely invisible to our carnal eyes. No analogy or mirror, no allegory or symbolism can give contemporary people on earth an image of the invisible God before the new creation. He was incarnate once in Jesus, who will come back in a glory that we can in no way depict for ourselves.
4. The Gospel of John
As we consider the announcement of the Reconciliation, we must deal separately with John’s Gospel, since it is the biblical book which most continually deals with the matter of sight and vision (but not images!). The verb "see" recurs continually (more than one hundred times) and is undoubtedly one of the essential themes of this book. This may be because "John" belonged to the second generation, which had not seen the Lord in the flesh. This generation questions whether sight is important. Paul dismisses the matter in short order by asserting that whether one saw Jesus alive makes no difference (2 Cor. 5:16).
John grapples with the issue in order to demarcate and establish the status of sight. This relates, of course, to his theology of light. To what would light correspond and whom would it show, if sight did not necessarily exist to receive it? What light and what sight are involved here? Four themes seem to intersect: (1) the discrepancy between what is seen and what is said about what is seen, together with the whole problem of seeing invisible things; (2) sight as a limit and degree of certainty on the part of the witness in his testimony; (3) the ambiguous and contradictory relationship between sight and faith; (4) sight as promise and eschatological dimension.
However, all these expositions, which insist so much on sight in this world (through the carnal experience of encountering God in Jesus and in the course of history) are nevertheless framed by two great statements: one at the beginning of this Gospel, the other at the end. The first is: "No one has ever seen God" (Jn. 1:18). The last one is: "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe" (Jn. 20:29). In other words, the whole long development of this idea should be read between those two poles. This whole thought process concerns sight, the importance of vision, its relationship with revelation, and the question of the status of things visual. All this is situated and relativized by the theological statement and the exhortation at the beginning and end of John’s Gospel.
"No one has ever seen God." We must realize, then, that nothing in this Gospel can refer to a direct vision of God. This confirms all that was already stated in the "old" covenant. God is not knowable to the same degree that reality is. He is not observable through this sense that gives us a guarantee of certainty. This can produce a negative theology, and in fact there exists here an insurmountable barrier to our pretension to knowledge and recognition.
John adds: "the only Son . . . has made him known to us (Jn. 1:18, JE). Thus knowledge apart from sight is involved. Just as he can never be seen, God cannot be recognized. He is always unexpected, does not fit into our human panorama, perspective, or totality. He cannot be situated in any reality or be the object of any of our treatises based on evidence. Sight necessarily refers to something other than God.
As far as Jesus is concerned, we need something other than sight in order to call him "God." John’s Gospel will lead us to identify him in this way. Its preliminary statement prohibits us from speculating about our intrinsic possibilities, and from proceeding to construct a God who would necessarily be analogical with what we can see. This is so true that this Gospel -- sometimes called Gnostic and said to be influenced by Gnosticism -- is undoubtedly from its very beginning the most anti-Gnostic, because the path of Gnostic light for knowing God is closed off. The entire Gospel must be read in this perspective.
At the other end of the Gospel, the point of arrival, sight is blocked in the name of faith. Sight is devalued in comparison with faith, and it becomes impossible to legitimize sight in a universe governed by faith. Only those who do not see are "blessed"; that is, only those who have not seen, and who therefore have the only possible true relationship with God (because it is not based on sight, and seeing God is impossible).
Jesus declares us happy if we did not know him according to the flesh, during his lifetime, in his reality, because he requires of us the absolute leap: the risk of faith that is the only guarantee that we love him. We are blessed if we did not see him resurrected, if we did not place our hands in the scars of his wounds, if the Resurrection remains outside that reality for us. This is so because he asks us to enter the folly of this Resurrection that can be received only by faith; it ceases to be folly if it can be verified. And we are always trying to rationalize it (by saying that the Resurrection is the Church, or the poor, etc.) in order to stop the scandal -- that is, we always try to come back to sight.
Thus John’s entire teaching on sight is located between these two basic statements; we must continually go from one to the other. Clearly it is no accident that this Gospel begins with this statement and comes to a close with this benediction. It is obviously intentional, and John enables us to move ahead on the basis of what he gives us as starting point and testimony.
(1) Throughout this Gospel we find a clear discrepancy between what is seen and what is said about what is seen. This is because the reality that is seen is invisible. First of all, we have Jesus seen by John the Baptist. He sees Jesus and says: "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" (Jn. 1:29). John the Baptist sees simply Jesus the person. He describes him in such a way as to clothe him with a truth which does not come from sight. "Behold" -- not Jesus, the person I see, but the Lamb of God. The reality he sees is encompassed and transcended by what he cannot see. "I saw the Spirit descend as a dove" (Jn. 1:32). No one saw this: God is invisible, and the heaven from which the Spirit comes is not the atmosphere, but the invisible heaven. The word as means that it was not a real dove. Seeing is not seeing. In effect John saw nothing.
The same thing occurs when Jesus "sees" the profound truth about a person; he discloses what is not visible in the person: "Jesus looked at him, and said, ‘So you are Simon the son of John? You shall be called Cephas (which means Peter)"’ (Jn. 1:42). "Jesus saw Nathaniel . . . and said of him, ‘Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!"’ (Jn. 1:47). Jesus declares the hidden truth about the person who comes to him. He has seen only what anyone can see, yet what he says goes beyond and reveals "the essence of being," which sight could not possibly reach.
We find the same relationship in Jesus’ final conversation with his disciples, when he announces that he will send the Spirit: "the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him" (Jn. 14:17). The World -- carnal individuals -- can know only what it sees. One must see in order to accept. And this Spirit is one of the invisible things; that is, he is not part of accessible reality. Thus the world cannot receive this Spirit, because it confuses what is visible with truth. The Spirit of truth cannot be grasped by sight.
This text is central to the opposition we have outlined between the order of reality (grasped by sight) and the order of truth. In the same way, two verses later, "Yet a little while, and the world will see me no more, but you will see me; because I live, you will live also" (Jn. 14:19). When he is dead and gone, Jesus can no longer be seen by the world; he no longer belongs to the domain of visible reality. But since he will be alive, he will be seen by those whose "sight" extends to what is invisible; that is, they will move to another kind of sight -- not of reality, but of what is hidden.
This kind of sight is not without its dangers. Jesus’ enigmatic comment to the Pharisees shows this: "If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains" (J. 9:41). If a person remains in the sphere of reality, of what is accessible to sight, and makes no claims beyond that, Jesus says he is blind (blind to God’s truth) and without sin, because he does not claim to lay hold on God, to pierce and to know him through sight. Such a person does not claim to identify seen reality with truth, which is infinite, absolute, and mysterious. Since this person does not claim to define God or to make gods for himself, that is, to possess the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil ("then their eyes were opened," (Gen. 3:7, JE), he is without sin.
The religious person, however, claims to see. He claims to encompass truth within the reality he sees. He claims to see by his own means -- with his fleshly eyes he sees the invisible God (sees him, discerns him, makes him clear, etc.). Because he makes sight intrude into what is not its domain, such a person is a sinner. Beginning with himself and depending on his sight, he tries to accomplish through his own approach and strength something that can only be an extraordinary gift: to see the invisible.
The above passages from John harmonize with two others (showing once again the essential agreement of the Scriptures): one in Paul, and the other in Hebrews. Both passages focus on this same going beyond sight toward invisible things. "We look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal" (2 Cor. 4:18). This passage shows how completely visible things are identified with concrete reality, which is by nature transitory. In Hebrews we read: "faith is a demonstration [something shown!] of unseen things.... By faith we recognize that the world was formed by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made by visible things" (Heb. 11:1, 3, JE). This passage shows how completely the Word is related to what is not seen!
Although the above two passages reveal the opposition between visible things and reality on the one hand and invisible things and truth on the other, their central theme is the "sight" of "invisible" things. This appears to be an obvious contradiction -- a radical impossibility. Thus faith involves a kind of mutation which directs sight to a different domain than the one it deals with naturally.
Why speak of sight then? Obviously, we cannot use these passages to say that God becomes visible! They do not say that the invisible becomes visible! Or that our sense of sight acquires a "third eye." Why do these authors insist on sight? The letter to the Hebrews gives us a clue when it says that "faith is a firm assurance" (Heb. 11:1, JE). Certainly this sight of invisible things is not concrete, material sight of invisible things. And certainly it is not a matter of a "vision," like those sometimes found in Acts, for example, in which certain elements of the invisible are made apparent. What we have here, I think, is a metaphor in the strictest sense of the word; that is, as we have already said, sight when related to reality gives us complete certainty concerning that reality.(I remember, of course, that we know today that this certainty is false, that our sight is conditioned by cultural factors, and that an object is not seen "in itself" and as it is in itself. But it is still true that in common usage sight identifies an object and we cannot spontaneously doubt this reality.) Reality when seen is as obviously certain as the word when heard is uncertain. In this sense, these passages tell us that by faith we have access to a full and complete certainty, comparable to the certainty sight gives us in the domain of reality. Seeing invisible things means having an apprehension as of reality, a possibility of certainty, and a guarantee of such things’existence; just as when I look at visible things I am sure (through my sight) of their existence, form, color, and distance.
(2) Thus I can associate with this interpretation a series of passages that associate witness with sight: "John bore witness, ‘I saw the Spirit descend as a dove from heaven, and it remained on him"’ (Jn. 1:32); "And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God" (Jn. 1:34); Jesus answered "Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen" (Jn. 3:11); "He who saw it [the crucifixion] has borne witness -- his testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth -- that you also may believe", (Jn. 19:35).
Obviously, this relationship between sight and witness is not fortuitous. In each case the witness is related to sight (and I could refer to other, less significant texts that also link the two). Sight neither authorizes the witness nor provokes it; but John’s insistence is clearly based on certainty. A person can give testimony only when he is absolutely sure, beyond a doubt; I would say he must be positively certain. Sight gives us this kind of certainty, this indisputableness, concerning reality. For this reason, John refers to sight. On the one hand, "we know that what we say is true." But in testimony, this knowledge based on the word does not count; what matters is metaphorically visual certainty: we are as sure as if we had seen with our own eyes. Based on this, we can bear witness.
(3) The Gospel of John places us within the central problem of sight and faith, which is not a simple matter. Alongside passages that apparently say that faith is based on sight, others say exactly the opposite (one sees because he believes). Still other passages, and these are the most numerous, emphasize the misunderstandings and misinterpretations that sight produces in the domain of faith.
We will begin with the third type: "A multitude followed him, because they saw the signs . . . " (Jn. 6:2). What follows is the feeding of the five thousand; after this, Jesus observes: "you seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves" (Jn. 6:26). They have gone beyond the sight of signs and miracles, in order to enter an existential and living relationship, the choice of "eternal life."
In another connection, the dialogue between Jesus and Philip typifies the misunderstandings concerning sight: "’If you had known me, you would have known my Father also; henceforth you know him and have seen him.’ Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we shall be satisfied.’ Jesus said to him: ‘Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know me, Philip? He who has seen me has seen the Father"’ (Jn. 14:7-9). We will not get involved at this point in the endless debate over the identity of the Father with the Son! Let’s just notice that sight -- the fact of seeing Jesus in his flesh and bones -- brings with it no knowledge or understanding of who Jesus is. This is corroborated, of course, by Peter’s confession and Jesus’ response: "flesh and blood has not revealed this to you . . . " (Mt. 16:17). Sight does not eliminate misunderstandings.
On the contrary -- all sorts of misinterpretations are made possible by sight. Here we should note that John’s Gospel, which, as we have said, emphasizes sight so much, is also the Gospel of misunderstandings and misinterpretations! It can be considered the Gospel of misunderstandings because people have too much confidence in what they see! The spectator’s eye fools him, especially when he thinks he has grasped something through sight! This is the theme of John 9, and, as Maillot emphasizes, it is also Nicodemus’s problem: "Nicodemus, when he has seen Jesus’ works, thinks he knows who he is.... And Jesus reminds him that seeing is not enough if one is to know; he must be born again."
The rupture between sight and faith is plain in John 6:36: "you have seen me and yet do not believe." And this is corroborated by John 6:40: "every one who sees the Son and believes in him...." But this means "everyone who sees him as Son of God" (and not as Jesus the human being). And the terms "see" and "believe" are not correlated but separated by the word "and": it is not "sees and believes" (because he sees), but "sees and also believes." Thus this passage, which might appear to place special value on sight, is on the contrary an affirmation that sight must be spiritual, and that faith does not depend on it. When Jesus is asked to do a miracle so it can be seen and thus lead to faith (Jn. 6:30), he answers by speaking of bread from heaven which makes no concession to sight. Finally, sight can provoke hatred of Jesus: "now they have seen the works I have done, and they have hated both me and my Father (Jn. 15:24, JE).
In other words, Jesus’ works drive us to a decision and oblige us to take sides. But when we base ourselves on sight, that is, on the sight of his works, without going beyond their appearance, this sight inevitably leads us to consider them frenzied, preposterous, morally unacceptable, etc. Thus we are led not just to indifference but to hatred of the one who has such pretensions.
At this point we come to a controversy that is not yet ended. For in the last analysis, the attempt to apply "scientific methods" to revelation and to Jesus amounts to trying to make them part of the visual domain. Since we are situated strictly in the sphere of reality we try to reduce Jesus to a visible, concrete reality. This may involve sifting his actions so as to leave only what is possible scientifically, or applying historical or structuralist methods in order to arrive at the point where everything about Jesus is explained. This process can only lead to rejection of Jesus as Lord and Savior. Our eyes see reality but not truth.
If sight were complete and enabled us to see the invisible, then such a process would lead to different results. But for this to work, sight would have to be something more than sight. This is the meaning of the famous passage: "He has blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts, lest they should see with their eyes and perceive with their hearts, and turn for me to heal them" (Isa. 6:10, quoted in Jn. 12:40). Conversion and faith become in some sense impossible when their eyes see what they see. The eyes given us for the purpose of seeing the glory of God in its reality have been closed by the Fall. There is indeed no need for a new intervention by God in order for people to be blinded concerning the truth. People refer continually to sight as the ultimate criterion, but it is blind to ultimate things.
The "seeing of invisible things" of which we spoke above is a new dimension in sight. This shows us another relationship between sight and faith: sight becomes true when it proceeds from or is transformed by faith. Faith discerns real things that are not present to ordinary sight. The entire narrative of the discovery of the empty tomb is striking in this connection (Jn. 20). Simon Peter enters the sepulchre and sees the linen cloths on the ground, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head "rolled up in a place by itself."
The other disciple also sees, and he believes. He sees the emptiness, the empty tomb, ascertains that the body is no longer there, that the wrappings have been undone, and that the cloth from the head is on the ground. This is all he sees; that is to say that actually, in the domain of reality, he sees nothing. And he believes because he has discerned something invisible in this visible spectacle. He apprehends the Resurrection because the body is no longer bound by the wrappings, and because Jesus’ face is no longer covered by the cloth (according to a traditional allegorical exegesis, this means that the body is freed from its earthly weight and that the glory of the divine face is no longer hidden behind a veil of flesh). Based on this empty reality that he sees, he believes.
But faith preceded sight in this case. The disciple believed in this Jesus; he believed that he was the Son of God, so that he sees reality, and in (and at the same time beyond) this reality he sees the Resurrection. Thus the prophetic promise made by Jesus to Martha is fulfilled: "Didn’t I tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?" (Jn. 11:40, JE). The possibility of seeing this glory is based on faith. First there is recognition of the truth, belief in the revealing Word, and then, as a consequence of this, the sight of invisible things, the sight of the glory of God, becomes possible. That is, reality and truth are joined here, yet sight is restored to its fullness.
The passage from one to the other is especially emphasized by the last passage we will quote: "A little while, and you will see me no more; again a little while, and you will see me . . . because I go to the Father" (Jn. 16:16-17). The disciples fail utterly to understand this statement. From our vantage point, the thought is clear: "you will see me no more in the flesh, with your sight based on reality. But I am going to the Father, and because of this, you will receive the Holy Spirit. He will transform your sight, making you capable of seeing invisible things." Thus they would see him again, but in a different way, with a plural dimension: they would see Jesus himself glorified, but they would also see him in the body of Christ which is the Church, and in the Eucharist. They would also see him present in the poor and the suffering. We see because we believe. We see because even the most carnal eyes have now been opened to a surreality -- to something beyond reality that is nevertheless not to be neglected.
(4) Jesus expressly and explicitly calls his disciples to see him by means of the word. He invites them not to seek beyond sight, trying to grasp some further or more secret mystery of God. Jesus calls them to see his reality as the totally revealed truth of God, and the word remains weak. The roles are reversed: previously, images illustrated the word; now, the word is a mere explanation of the fullness of the image given in Jesus. This importance of sight is radically confirmed in John’s passages on the Resurrection: the first disciple entered the sepulchre "and he saw." This is repeated throughout the encounters with the empty tomb or with the resurrected Jesus. Mary Magdalene sees two angels. She sees Jesus standing. And when she returns to the disciples, she bears this message: "I have seen the Lord" (Jn. 20:18).
John’s Gospel insists on sight as long as Jesus is present. His presence on earth is an exceptional time, a unique moment in which it is possible to encounter the fullness of truth by means of sight. The final fulfillment is already taking place. The end of time is present and being accomplished. But with Jesus’ death and his going to the Father, this period is closed. The Incarnation has occurred but is no longer visible. People saw the Father in Jesus, but Jesus is dead: "a little while and you will see me no more; again a little while, and you will see me again" (Jn. 16:16, JE).
Thus sight is truly essential. Fundamentally, John presents Jesus’ presence on earth, the Incarnation, as a sort of continual transfiguration (whose narrative he omits). But Jesus’ death brings us back to the previous situation. We no longer have any way of seeing Jesus and thus of seeing God. We only hear things said about him. We come back to the word alone, and the relationship of faith ("Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe," Jn. 20:29). Thus Jesus’ visible presence on earth also relates to the end of time. It concerns the situation in which the reconciliation has taken place, in which word and sight are united, and sight gives a more direct, assured, indisputable view than anything previously experienced.
Thus as far as I am concerned, everything in Scripture that refers to sight sends us back to this promise concerning sight in the last days, or else to the fact that sight’s reconciliation with truth is an eschatological matter. At present this reconciliation signals the presence of the end times. We can distinguish two emphases in the Gospel of John: one involves the assertion that Jesus’ presence is in itself the end of time. The time is fulfilled because he is present. The other emphasis contrasts knowing and seeing, thus underscoring that a temporary situation prevails.
Jesus is present with the first disciples, and he says to them: "you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man" (Jn. 1:51). "You will see"! Thus ultimate reality will be seen: heaven opened, indicating direct access to the Father, the moment of the final restitution, the triumphal entry into a recreated Eden, and the angels: the genuine coming together of "earth" and "heaven," of reality and truth. Thus sight is restored in its fullness, but this is possible only at the end of time.
All this takes place because Jesus is present. Precisely the same condensation of History into a single dot of ultimate significance, the condensation of time into reality, enables us to understand "your father Abraham rejoiced that he was to see my day; he saw it and was glad" (Jn. 8:56). Here again sight is involved, but in the way it will be at the end of time, when everything is present in the same manner. Sight no longer will involve a succession based on the succession of reality.
Everything related to "seeing" the Resurrection belongs to this same order. The Resurrection is in itself our entry into eschatology and the entry of the eschaton into our reality. After this, nothing can happen to change what has been accomplished. This applies to the apostles when they see "nothing," as we have indicated (Jn. 20); it also applies to the statement "They shall look on him whom they have pierced" (Jn. 19:37; they will see him in his glorious reality; that is, at the end of time), which is situated in this proclamation of the end. Lazarus’s resurrection, with the statement "if you believe you will see the glory of God" (Jn. 11:40, JE), is also a prophecy of the ultimate resurrection. In that resurrection, the vision of God’s glory is bound up with the presence of the eschaton; that is, the time when ultimate truth will be clothed with the evidence of visible things from "here below,’, from here and now. We must most assuredly connect the certainty of the Witness, of which we have spoken, with this future certainty.
In the meantime, Jesus enables us to know. His presence leads us to the knowledge of God: "No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known" (Jn. 1:18). But this ambiguity remains: Jesus did not enable us to see God, but he has transmitted knowledge of God because in the flesh he was God and visible. He is the knowledge that is described in the previous verse as "grace" and "truth." This knowledge is alluded to in many statements about glory (the Son of man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him).
This knowledge, however, is not something based on sight but rather on his very presence. In Jesus, truth rejoins reality, and reality becomes true and the bearer of truth. Visible reality no longer belongs exclusively to the domain of the practical or of human separation. Instead, there is fullness. Because of the Incarnation, "Heaven" and "Earth" are joined, but this new situation is only temporary -- while Jesus is visible and concretely present on earth. He is the premise, the "pledge," the point of departure, and the firstborn from among the dead. But we must live this as a promise while we await the reconciliation with him of our divided being. Then truth will become visible and evident and will no longer be the truth of the hidden God. With respect to images and the word, this is what we await. But this relates to the New Creation, to which we will return.
The Gospel of John thus locates sight’s position perfectly with respect to revelation, and does not clash in any way with the rest of Scripture. John situates the final point at which reality and truth rejoin. In the Kingdom of God, there is no more separation. The rupture brought about by the Fall of Adam is obliterated. This rupture involves the opposition (not only this, but this in addition to other things) between truth and reality, so that there is no more truth in the real world where Adam lives. This is because God is no longer in this world. And there is no more reality in truth, because the Creation is separated from its Creator, and has refused him. And in his love, this Creator did not annihilate it or replace it with another creation.
The end of time is the point at which reality and truth reunite. In this sense we can say precisely that the Incarnation was already the end of time. But its presence was temporary! In the New Creation there will be no more opposition between the two orders. This is expressed by the phrase "God will be all and in all" (1 Cor. 15:28, JE). Truth will rejoin reality perfectly, will penetrate reality perfectly, will inhabit it totally. But this also means that sight will rejoin the word, that we will see face to face what we have heard about (in the earthly kingdom, we could only hear about it, since God chose the word as his instrument).
We will see: this is exactly what is promised to us by the Resurrection. When our "corruptible flesh is clothed with incorruption, and our mortal body is clothed with immortality" (1 Cor. 15:53, JE); in this text also we find that sort of glorious transmutation of reality clothed with truth. Then sight will attain to truth, because it will no longer be separated from reality.
Then "we will know as we have been known" (1 Cor. 13:12, JE), for it is true that God sees us perfectly. But we are continually reminded of this important difference: God sees us, though we do not see him. He knows us not only according to our truth but also according to our reality. And we are promised that "then" we will know in the same way. But since this is in effect one of the important characteristics of this new world to come, then it is clear why sight is especially chosen as the mode of revelation concerning the end of time; this will be the meaning of the New Creation.
Thus it is possible to see, but we can see nothing that concerns the truth of today, nothing for the present time. The unity of the word and sight relates only to the end of time. And this unity characterizes these new heavens and this new earth. Already this unity is manifested in the mode of revelation used in the apocalypses.
However, this confirms what we observe concerning the present Time: the radical and decisive opposition between the word and sight. If it is true that the two forms and objects of knowledge meet only at the final moment of history -- if nothing less than the end of this Eon and the creation of a New World are required for sight and the word to be reconciled -- then this implies that there is in the order of truth a deep, total, and essential rupture between word and sight in the present age. It is artificial to pretend to reconcile them, vain to believe that they complement each other, and wrong to hide one’s face in horror at their hostility.
Thus the certainty of the great reconciliation (between sight and hearing, vision and word, what is shown and what is said) at the time of the New Creation -- but only then -- prohibits us from mingling them. But also this confidence situates us in a perspective different from the one of traditional theological research. Two theological concepts contradict each other: that of the synthesis of hic et nunc and that of the final reconciliation lived now in hope. This contradiction is probably best made explicit at this point in our argument. I might say that the concept of synthesis is characteristic of all the philosophical theologies, usually Catholic or Orthodox. The concept of contradiction is specifically a biblical concept.
In the first concept one always seeks to reconcile contradictory factors (or even poles) by means of a directly accessible synthesis. But the contradiction is resolved sub specie aeternitatis, in the present moment and permanently. In other words, when achieved, a stable synthesis results that necessarily takes on a metaphysical appearance. Scholars thus try on this basis to resolve the contradiction between image and word, and seek to escape the prohibition against making images (by saying that only worshipping them is forbidden). This is the road to visualizing Mysteries, to icons, to the Golden Legend, etc.
The Bible, on the contrary, shows us the reconciliation between image and word, between reality and truth, as the end point and the metahistorical moment reached after the historical process of contradiction. In the course of History we have no exclusion, divorce, or radical strangeness; but encounter and synthesis are impossible. In the course of History there is only evolution through reciprocal influence: the contradictory relationship (but it is a relationship!) that is necessary if there is always to be something new. This new thing, however, can never be included within a structure or expressed in an institution, for these congeal all possibilities of evolution and change. This relationship can be lived only in the integrity of contradiction and in the hope of reconciliation. But it must always be a present hope: a hope that changes the situation now, or that prevents a situation from occurring, since the basis of this hope is something already accomplished.
"Thus we must beware of congealing salvation history in a pattern that kills more than it expresses. We must remember the priority of history. The only way of preserving what God had to say to us is respecting as much as possible the events (words) by which he said it to us. The word became flesh, and it is accessible to us only through the ‘flesh’ of history as it is preserved for us" (Maillot). What consequences does Maillot’s statement involve for today? The word is a vital center in our world, the main locus of the general crisis, the living sign of our alienation -- our era’s palpable SOS.
The word is greatly mutilated, cadaverous, and almost dead, but we must become conscious of what this means: our whole civilization is loathed along with the word. The word signals our civilization’s possible death and provides the channel through which the poison can get in. Anyone wishing to save humanity today must first of all save the word.
The word is the place to begin. It is humiliated, crushed, and meaningless. We must restore its royal domain and its demands. The enormous mutation made possible by biblical revelation assures us that this effort does not amount to a pointless venture or an attempt to try out a risky path. The final reconciliation between image and word, between reality and truth, essentially won in the person and work of Christ, is given and promised in its fulfillment. Based on this assured, absolutely certain reconciliation, which, however, is not yet visible or accomplished, we must devise our works and paths. We are not alone, for we have the company of him who consummates this reconciliation. We are not rash, since we know the clear direction of this reconciliation.
Thus the rediscovery of the sovereign word cannot work against images by excluding them or by trying to humiliate them in turn or cast them into outer darkness. Could we do this, even if we had a passionate desire to do so? Each thing should be honored in its function, in its respective truth or reality.
At the same time, however, we must continually remind ourselves that although the reconciliation comes at the end and only at the end, it is both already given (in the knowledge and conviction of what will take place at the end) and not yet realizable. We must maintain this distance and specificity without fusing things. We must not pretend that the end has already come and that we can therefore fuse and synthesize. We must not convert eschatology into a reality by producing the reconciliation here and now, arbitrarily, through our own determination and means.
We come back repeatedly to the same struggle between ourselves and God. On the one hand we must do what God has decided must be done. But we must not begin ahead of time, before the fulfillment of the time willed by God: the kairos. This is extremely difficult. Jesus provides us with an example of the most profound obedience in that he not only does what God expects, but he does it at exactly the proper moment. We must not act like Abraham who, in his impatience to have the son promised to him, decides to have him with Hagar, since his wife is too old. But the time was not right. Nor should we do as the disciples did: they wanted the Judgment to take place right away, hic et nunc. Jesus’ response is that if they pull out the tares now, they will also kill the divine seed.
Thus the long-awaited reconciliation of image and word and of truth and reality is certain, but we must not try to manufacture it with our techniques and metaphysics here and now. What we must do in this time and place, based on the certainty of reconciliation, is to hear the command to iconoclasm, which resounds continually. We must insist on the necessity for an understandable language for communication and work for the continually renewed opening up of everyday language.
(1) The command to iconoclasm:(Goux has given a perfect demonstration of the importance of iconoclasm. But amazingly, he considers our era iconoclastic, thanks to Marx, Freud, and abstract painting. These destroy philosophical images, he says! But the real invasion of everyone by images is what matters, so we must proceed to a real iconoclasm and not a fictitious one such as what Goux accepts. Vahanian, on the contrary, has understood the problem perfectly. He shows how real iconoclasm is an inevitable result of faith (Gabriel Vahanian, La Condition de Dieu [Paris: Seuil, 1970]).
However, in a remarkable insight, Goux (in Les Iconoclastes) sees that the messianic world is the world of nonrepresentation. But his whole thought is doubly flawed: (1) he considers in isolated fashion the commandment against making graven images, and therefore considers that the abstract paintings of Pieter Mondrian and Wassily Kandinski obey this commandment. He arrives at this conclusion without realizing that the central issue of the commandment is not the fact in itself, but the contemplation and bowing down to worship. Abstract, nonrepresentative painting doesn’t change a thing!
(2) Goux’s second error involves believing that the messianic world is presently realizable (for example, by way of abstract painting). He has not grasped the messianic world’s eschatological character, involving a promise for the end times, which brings with it not the absence of all representation but the reconciliation of image and word. Goux quotes S. Zohar: "the messianic world will be [and I agree that it is future!] a world without images in which no more comparison will be possible between an image and what it represents." But this has nothing to do with painting; Zohar refers to the world of reconciliation, in which "God will be All and in All" (1 Cor. 15:28, JE). we must commit ourselves continually to this difficult eviction of images from the domain of truth. They must remain what they are: useful, unexcelled means for reality and action, good in this realm. But they must not claim to go beyond this, not claim to evict the word, not lead people into worshipping images. Thus we are committed to combating this worship: in television, the skimming of newspapers that consist mainly of pictures, the reducing of thought to comic strips (even if they are wonderfully clever -- especially so if they are), the framing of thought, research dependent on the results and possibilities of images, and the allurement of sketches and diagrams, but also the hypnotic effect of the automatic functioning of computer terminals.
All these attitudes are genuinely religious, though by no means is this apparent! A visible miracle takes place before our eyes. Since it has become an everyday, repeated miracle, it is all the more gripping. The command to iconoclasm must first of all firmly attack audiovisuals, whose lie we have exposed. We must warn of their great danger. When the word is integrated into a rigid series of images, it mobilizes at the same time both our view of the movement and our hearing of the explanation. This involves our entire field of perception in passive participation. Discord is abolished -- the very discord that had produced (by means of contradiction) reflection concerning the individualized situation of the "thinking" subject. The word no longer evokes anything. On the contrary, it becomes a force for reduction, since it is reduced to the field of displayed, fictitious, and simulated reality.
The individual’s margin of interpretation is reduced or even annihilated through audiovisuals, since symbol and content are fused in a realism which tends toward perfection. At the same time, the real situation thus recreated leaves the spectator without any possibility for active intervention. The audiovisual image no longer furnishes any stimulus to action. The word furnishes no stimulus to reflection. The result is absolute paralysis. Audiovisual techniques are "thus a new stage in human evolution; a stage that bears directly on the most human of characteristics: reflective thought" (Leroi-Gourhan).
The lie that ought to provoke our iconoclastic decision goes on: we are continually told that audiovisuals will bring about human perfection by economizing "imaginative,’ effort (in the etymological sense of taking the word and forming images from it). For the audiovisual image is ready-made: it is there, and the word fits it perfectly. We forget all too easily that imagination is the basic characteristic of intelligence,(Without going too far back, I refer the reader to the works of François Laplantine, Les Trois Voix de l’imaginaire: Le Messianisme, la possession et l’utopie: Etude ethnopsychiatrique (Paris: Editions Universitaires 1975)- Cornélius Castoriadis, L’Iustitution imaginaire de la société (Paris: Seuil, 1975); The Crossroads of the Labyrinth (New York: Urizen, n.d.); and Lewis Mumford, The Myth of the Machine (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1967). so that a society in which people lose their capacity to conjure up symbols also loses its inventiveness and its ability to act. Each person loses his ability to produce symbols imaginatively; gone are the vital operation links in relation to the body’s expression and to the beyond. Iconoclasm is indispensable with respect to this appalling antihuman war machine, which is what audiovisual techniques have become. In every way they are comparable to ancient idols, which required human sacrifice before they would show their truth. We must denounce this and show our scorn for the way they destroy. We must continually begin again, calling for individual reinterpretation.
But audiovisuals are not the only area in which iconoclasm proves necessary. We must also explode the illusion of the image as truth by obstinately refusing to believe "evidence," refusing to be deluded by statistics, graphics, or the products of computers. Only a word that is not the word can declare that "the computer says.... " A computer must never, ever be accepted as an ultimate reason.
Computers are sometimes useful in their narrow domain (very narrow, despite their many possible applications). We must be iconoclastic with respect to computers, which are pretentious devices that arrogantly substitute themselves for the word and for reason. Our iconoclasm must attack all abusive scientism, everything that tries to pass itself off as truth, except for the word, which is characterized by chiaroscuro and hesitation. It is filled with meaning and is evocative and provocative.
We must oppose triumphant methods, the elimination of ambiguities, and the resultant foreclosure of possibilities for the truth (which slips in through the gaps of coherent discourse). No gaps, of course, are left in computer language, algebra, and scientific certainty. The frozen surface of our intellectual world is like a smooth glacier. Rich and superabundant images have invaded everything; but then left only a desert. They have become the very key to science. We must radically deny that science can account for everything human, because truth always may be expressed through human beings.
Scientism (be it psychological, sociological, or psycholanalytical), biological intervention in the embryo, test-tube babies, modification of chromosomes, personality changes through chemotherapy -- all these are the result of identifying reality with truth. All depend on the triumph of things visual over the word. Our firm refusal must interpose in each case, in order to reestablish the possibility of risk associated with the word and meaning. Naturally, we are not called to object to science as such, but only to its idolatrous pretension to be exclusive, substitutive, and reductionist.
We oppose science only when it becomes merely an image, basing itself entirely on images and translating everything into images, yet claiming to integrate everything in the world, and myth in particular. Psychoanalysis’s aim to be a science and at the same time to integrate myth (Oedipus, etc.) is extremely significant and disturbing. At this point we must say no. Myth, like anything else, can be considered an object of science, of course, but we must realize that in this way the essence of myth is lost since it is robbed of meaning (Levi’Strauss). But when myth becomes an instrument of science, the result is that such a science can never be established. Deleuze is right: if analysis is to be scientific, it must exclude the Oedipus myth
We must challenge science as a spatial entity: when it claims to include time while reducing it to something spatial. We must challenge science as related to reality: when it pretends to be the whole truth by limiting and excluding everything that goes beyond it. Science tries to exclude anything it cannot reduce. Hence we must also challenge this reductionist process itself: "everything" is defined as what can be categorized or reduced by the scientific method.
Finally, we must interpose in the religious realm. In view of the eruption of modern religious feelings and multiple religiosities, we must challenge visual mysticism. This includes the inward look, gurus, physical-spiritual exercise, transcendental meditation, neo-Buddhism, and apocalyptists. People must become clearly conscious of these movements, since all belong to the order of visual mysticism. All cultivate the famous interior silence, so that vision can develop! At the same time, the corporeal emphasis invades: frenzied shaking in religious meetings, trances and hysterical singing (ostensibly to express joy), organized pseudocelebrations, cults in which snakes are ecstatically shown and manipulated all this claims to give strong expression to religious truth but only signifies the invasion of hypnotic images. It amounts to the exclusion of the word and the annihilation of revelation. God’s path toward us is hermetically sealed off, replaced by people possessed of some visually expressed power. Our no to all this must be radical.
Certainly our iconoclasm should not work against images in themselves, since they are perfectly legitimate, good, useful, and necessary for life. We oppose their imperialism and pride, the covetousness and spirit of conquest they inspire, and their pretension to be without limits.
(2) We must not forget, however, that the promised reconciliation has value today. We should now be living not its beginning but its reality as a promise. This means that iconoclasm can attack only the transformation of images and visual things into idols: objects of belief, worship, and mysticism. We should not attack images when they are reduced to their proper level, function, and role. People unquestionably need esthetic expression, for example. This need, expressed through the creation of a beautiful image, receives its validation through the promise.
The problem comes when this beautiful image becomes the bearer of all truth for its creator -- when it expresses the whole person. Andre Malraux’s hypostasis of art can serve as an example. Sight, images, and representation are indispensable and covered by the promise. The first Christians’ or the sixteenth-century Reformed Christians’ iconoclastic fury took aim at worship of images rather than the object itself; they opposed confusion rather than reality. They were trying to return reality to its proper limits.
Images constitute our indispensable environment, on the condition that we see them as they are. Ecologists carry out the work of the promise simply by considering our human environment in its genuine reality. They judge reality on the basis of truth.
Reality is also an inevitable vehicle for truth, however. We must relive the conviction that truth amounts to nothing without this incarnation. We must live out again what Marx correctly affirms: the decisive importance of Diesseits, which prevents us from losing contact with reality. This expresses exactly Jesus’ saying about praxis. Unless put into practice, truth is nothing; and praxis alone amounts to penetrating visible reality, as in the case of visualization. Thus again, sight, image, and reality should be restored to their authenticity, beyond iconoclasm. But this can be accomplished in this world only if we understand that God’s promise also covers sight, image, and reality, since the same promise that authenticates them also limits them precisely.
(3) The third major ethical direction concerns the necessity of comprehensible language. Language is made to be heard and understood. Language brings the word to us. Only vanity and idealism believe that a pure, absolute word exists that is not clothed in language. The word exists only with and through language, and language is designed as a means of communication, as understandable, reasonable, and coherent. The lack of comprehension of something said signifies the absence of language.
Since truth can be conveyed by the word, we must defend coherent language energetically. At this point I would like to call to mind what Paul says in 1 Corinthians, precisely on the subject of these impassioned, frenzied words that were believed to conceal a deeper revelation than rational and comprehensible language. If languages that express demon possession exist, there must also be a language that expresses possession by the Holy Spirit: the famous "speaking in tongues." Paul does not reject it; rather, he critiques it:
Make love your aim, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit. On the other hand, he who prophesies speaks to men for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church. Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. He who prophesies is greater than he who speaks in tongues, unless some one interprets, so that the church may be edified.
Now, brethren, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how shall I benefit you unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching? If even lifeless instruments, such as the flute or the harp, do not give distinct notes, how will any one know what is played? And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle? So with yourselves; if you in a tongue utter speech that is not intelligible, how will any one know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air. There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning; but if I do not know the meaning of the language, I shall be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me. So with yourselves; since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church.
Therefore, he who speaks in a tongue should pray for the power to interpret. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful. What am I to do? I will pray with the spirit and I will pray with the mind also; I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the mind also. Otherwise, if you bless with the spirit, how can any one in the position of an outsider say the "Amen" to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying? For you may give thanks well enough, but the other man is not edified. I thank God that I speak in tongues more than you all; nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue. (1 Cor. 14:1-19)
Clearly Paul in his critique of glossolalia does not express himself like a mediocre, commonplace rationalist! Furthermore, the present fashion among Christians and theologians of rejecting Paul, of being suspicious of him, is utterly characteristic of all eras of intellectual carelessness and incoherent faith. Paul disturbs by his rigor and precision. It may be possible to rave deliriously and to say anything at all about the Gospels, but with Paul this is much more difficult!
As I said, Paul does not express himself like a mediocre rationalist: his judgment against speaking in tongues is based on love of neighbor. Language (not in all circumstances, but in the Christian understanding) must serve to construct, exhort, and console. It must enable the other person to edify himself in his relationship with his brother. You can console only if the word you speak is clearly understood. You can strengthen the other person only if he receives some meaning from what you say. You can help edify the other in his faith and in the truth only if he can use what you say for himself. Apart from this there are only confused and incoherent noises that serve no purpose. It would be more accurate to say that, yes they do serve a purpose: they startle people, lead them to believe the moon is made of green cheese, keep them at a childish level, and spread either terror or worship, both of which are absurd. All this is unchristian.
For Paul language is thus not just a common instrument of communication but the vehicle of a revealed truth that is common to everyone. Therefore it should be used for the benefit of all. It should always bring us back to concern and love for the other person, so that we take into consideration what can serve him. Paul alludes precisely to the common people: the humble people who do not have great spiritual gifts and whom we must help to advance.
Paul does not deny that speaking in tongues is an expression of the Holy Spirit ("I speak in tongues more than you all"). But he does indicate that this incomprehensible, incoherent, mystical language involves a direct relationship with an incomprehensible God. If it is true, therefore, that Christianity is a life of love, how could it be lived in solitude, face to face with God? Thus, out of love for others, speaking in tongues must be made understandable to everyone.
Speaking clearly and reasonably expresses love of neighbor, whereas today’s passionate efforts to destroy language express nothing so much as the basic solitude of modern people. Undoubtedly I would greatly surprise our modern intellectual philosophers and poets (though they will never read these lines!) by explaining to them that their hatred of understandable language merely confirms the basic catastrophe of our society: human solitude and the technicalization of relationships. Thus (in a very routine fashion, incidentally) these members of the intellectual elite content themselves with carrying to extremes the worst social tendency. They make things worse by allying their intelligence with such trends and justifying things as they are. Intelligence has surrendered its strongholds and abandoned the fight.
No truth, depth, wisdom, or opening (into unknown worlds!) can be found in these pseudolanguages of lunatics and little children. Such languages fail to open into any world that might be behind this one and truer than this one. The most we can accomplish is to listen to the stammering of the unconscious, an echo of primitive times (which are in no way better because they were primitive!) through these languages. We experience a kind of emotion, explosive force, or truth in listening to these languages, not because it is really present in them, but because this brutal rupture causes something we used to have to spring up in us.
Personally, I have a great appreciation for surrealist poetry. But I know perfectly well that if an expression strikes me, if a word sequence calls up visions within me, it is not because these things are present in the poetry. Rather, the thing was in me, and the sound of the poetry was the trigger that set it off. The vocation of language is different.
Hatred of language, fanned into flame by miserable talk that rationalizes it, amounts to nothing more than hatred of human beings -- of everyone but ourselves, of course -- and the refusal to communicate. I enclose myself within a magical universe of symbolism without symbols, which opens for me alone onto vague and vain terrains. Hatred of language and worship of the language of people who are mentally ill are of precisely the same nature as a heroin addict’s attitude. He is enclosed within his basic solitude and confirms this definitively through drugs.
Furthermore, everything Paul says is completely confirmed by what we see in the Old Testament: we know that prophets spoke in tongues and entered into trances. But nothing of this has been handed down to us. Only understandable prophecies using language were preserved for us as God’s word for his people. Similar is the case of Jesus: never do the Gospel writers (We know, of course, that these Gospel writers are "suspect," just like Paul. Like him, they represented the dominant ideology, so that they translated Jesus’ revolutionary message into bourgeois phraseology. See Jacques Ellul, L’Idéologie marxiste chrétienne (Paris: Centurion, 1979) allude to convulsions, oral ejaculations, or "prophetical" or Pythian trances! Never! Jesus speaks everyone’s language: the clearest, most everyday language. His everyday, commonplace language encounters his stories -- the extravagance of his parables -- and thus an extraordinary element springs forth and explodes with new meaning (Ricoeur). Thus in Jesus we observe the same determination to use reasonable language, as the perfect vehicle for the absolute Word. He avoids hermetic language, double meanings, and elliptical expressions. Parables are rather a means of conveying meaning.
In conclusion, as Christians, we must support firmly the value of understandable language, which alone can communicate the Word. We must challenge energetically all the snares and temptations of mysterious, mystical, delirious, and fiery language. In the world as it is today, the recourse to such languages amounts to surrender and betrayal of humanity.
(4) Within this requirement of an understandable language, however, another possible orientation exists (I do not claim to exhaust all the possibilities; the reader must make the effort to find out for himself in what areas this requirement can be applied in our day! The analysis of lying advertising language is an example!). We must struggle (in a Christian way!) for an open language.
If language is to be a vehicle for the word and a possible translator of truth, it can only do so as an open language. That is, a language that permits a continual adventure. This is the only positive facet of the actions of the people I have just attacked, who invoke the language of insanity in order to destructure social language. They want an open language that is not stereotyped, and they are right to oppose wooden or leaden language. But their remedy produces a disease that is just as bad. For while this passion for the language of mental illness destroys reasonable language, it produces utterly closed discourse.
The admirable thing about language (and undoubtedly for this reason the parable of God’s self-revelation refers to God as the word) is precisely the contradiction, conflict, and tension between the fixed structures of language, the fixed meaning of words, and the grammatical relationships, on the one hand; but on the other, the ability of these exact means to accomplish something that is not at all fixed. They can transmit the most fluid, the newest, the most secret, and the most heartrending things that exist in us and in the world. Each time it is used, stereotyped language can become the living, innovative word. But in order for this to work, language must remain open; that is, it must remain susceptible of being newly filled with unexpected content.
We could say (being especially careful not to force the comparison) that we have here the perfect tool, with which the sculptor can produce and bring to light something that did not exist. This tool does not condition the will, intention, or skill of the sculptor. The problem with this language (which is both marble and chisel) is simply the necessary resistance of the material and of the tool. The demands of expression must be stronger than the resistance, so that the resistance will manifest the seriousness of these demands. Language both structures and verifies the truth of the word, which remains unspoken if it does not bear a strong, expressive charge. But in order for this structuring and verification to remain possible, language must not be closed. By this I mean that the means must not prevent innovation; nor may it determine the work in an exact fashion. The magic chisel must not sculpt by itself, independent of the sculptor’s hand.(This is simply a comparison. I do not mean to say that all language is simply a tool or a machine for us to use.)
A tendency to close language exists, as does a tendency to reinforce this closure ideologically. That is, the tendency exists to realize the fears of the zealots of insane language. This closing comes from the social context itself: from ritual, repetition, and redundancy. As a result various forms of discourse are closed: political discourse; but also (as T. Kuhn has shown) scientific discourse (within what are called scientific methods, which exclude all innovation, or else within thought paradigms); ideological discourse (which limits itself to indefinite repetition); and catechetical discourse, whether it be Christian, Stalinist, or Maoist. Everyone convinced of the decisive character of the word -- and still more everyone who considers biblical revelation his authority and has understood that everything depends definitively on the Word of God -- must enter into combat against these closures. They exclude not only human language but also the possibility of the intervention of the Word of God.
We must insist, then, on two particular aspects of this closure, which are too rarely emphasized: a religious aspect and an administrative aspect.(I omit the closing of language through advertising and propaganda, which I have studied at length in Propaganda) Although there is much chatter about ideological and cultural language, certain matters are insufficiently deal with.
Ritualization as a tendency and temptation of every religious universe is, of course, well known. We know of the relationship between myth and rite. Clearly there is value in such practices as repetition in prayer, of redundancy within worship and ceremonies, and of liturgy in the collective consciousness. Also evident is the necessity of fixed limits to give a sense of community; a strict framework in order to establish the relationship between the people and the celebrants (whether religious, military, inaugural, political or other types of ceremony are involved); and finally of stereotypes in order to avoid delirium just where it could so easily appear, in the expression of religious feeling! Ritual and liturgy are useful in producing a language that ceases to be evocative and thus avoids the risks of new elements. This language instead is confined to a soporific, incantatory, and reproductive role. Any open-endedness in religion, no matter what it is, is so dangerous that we feel a need to ritualize. But the ritualization of discourse amounts to the closing of any possibility for the word. Such ritualization always implies the transferral of the word to the visual universe (for this reason ritualization involves a considerable proportion of visible ceremony).
Here we are faced with a permanent characteristic of religions. And faith founded on Revelation through the Word alone (which refers to a God who only speaks) cannot tolerate this ritualization. Rites are fundamentally religious, whereas the biblical revelation is antireligious. Rite, like religion, involves fetters, closure, and framing, but the word is explosive and liberating. This is true of the word at work in language, and an understandable language at that; but it is true nowhere else and in no other way. Thus we discover a new contradicting factor between religion and biblical faith; this contradiction is beginning to be recognized and accepted.
We must not err in this: even when religion appears to be unfettered, it still remains utterly polarized and is never truly liberating. Thus, although we deplore the disappearance of festivals, we must not forget that festivals in traditional societies are never spontaneous: they are precisely governed by the ritual calendar. People broke loose in Saturnalia, Lupercalia, and Bacchanalia on a given day, at a precisely determined time; and at a certain hour, everything returned to normal. People freed their instincts on command, at the moment determined by the stars, the calendar, etc. This plunging return to a group’s origins, to chaos, was not invented; it was commanded. It has never been otherwise. This explosion of delirium and desire has only one goal: to make the social order better accepted and to make community constraints more bearable through a regulated liberating of the instincts.
Thus festivals also are ritualized: they are religious and amount to the establishment of new fetters, the renewing of old ones, and the possibility of integrating and tolerating repression. They are never liberating. Only the word, the proclamation of truth by the word, the invention of the word, the reference to God who is the Word and to the Word that is with God -- only these are liberating. They alone constitute the opening of an adventure, the position of an absolute beginning each time.
It is not by accident that freedom is a creation of the Judeo-Christian world. This very thing has involved us in the scientific and technical adventure, just as both democracy and socialism are products of this liberation through the word. But these always include the opposite threat of utter incoherence, either in politics or in thought, and the threat of absolute closure, in politics (dictatorship) and in thought (orthodoxies or scientism). Incoherence and closure are the two equal and complementary faces of falsehood. But every time the word surfaces again. Only today, vanquished by technique, has the word grown dim, become diluted.
Alongside this closure by ritual, we can find another example in administrative secrecy (which is the prolongation of secrecy in business and military or scientific secrecy; administrative secrecy is more serious, however, because it concerns everyone in the modern State and is the expression of a caste in power). Administration has created its own language and keeps secret its plans and projects, its decisions regarding action, and its procedures. Those who are subject to such administration cannot have any sort of open relationship with it. "Open house" or receptionists are just tricks whose function is to make the secrecy more acceptable without revealing any of the reality involved.
We are faced with a fight for freedom, for an opening of the word that is decisive for individuals and society. No rationalization can legitimize this secrecy. Everything must be explainable, discussible, and continually followed; and final decisions must result from a genuine dialogue -- not a fictitious one like the current "consultations." If we want to return the dimension of truth to the word, we must break down the triple wall of administrative secrecy (triple in its hermetic language, its appearance of regularity, and the objectivity of its decisions).
All the more difficult is the requirement of the opening up of language, the struggle against all closures and enclosings, because our temptation is to accept and even justify such closures. Our repeated lie declares: "That’s how things are. They can’t be any other way, so they must remain that way."
In our day we observe a reinforcement of the closing up of languages through the analysis of language’s nature (a closed analysis!) and through the philosophy that says "it must be this way." This reinforcement of closure comes from the reduction of everything to systems or structuralism and everything that gravitates around structuralism. Structuralism’s value as a method of analysis is obvious. It even contributes a valid understanding of texts, as do other approaches. Clearly, it makes a certain light sparkle that can illuminate aspects of language not often appreciated. However, it does not go beyond these values and can only be one method, one approach, among others. It has no corner on truth. Structuralism says nothing about meaning and should never close our minds to meaning. It cannot claim to be exclusive. We must refuse structuralist ideology, which excludes meaning and reduces language to nothing but the interplay of structures.
Meaning filters down precisely in between the structures -- in the gaps and incoherences. Furthermore, meaning is not something the speaker or writer fails to express, and that comes to light only in the structure, in the relationships between language units and their correlations and contradictions. Semantics and semiology, which reduce everything to the interplay of signs, are insufficient. The word goes beyond systems. But it can be imprisoned when the system is reinforced and the philosophical condemnation of the person speaking is just the other side of the coin, the reverse side being the power of technique’s means when joined together against the freedom of the word.
You say that the freedom of the word doesn’t matter much? You insist on freedom in action? That demand is all very fine, but in our day, recovering the freedom of the word and the word of freedom (that is, the truly innovative word) amounts to the whole of experiential liberty. In order to obtain it, we must be capable of risking our very lives. We will not recover the freedom of the word by some apparent audacity of crazy ideas or by some political adventure. Thus today, one of the aspects of our struggle is the refusal to reduce everything to a system, and the refusal of ideological structuralism.(But we must be on our guard! Any serious structuralist will agree with this suggestion and say he is prepared to reject ideology, claiming to be purely scientific. The two are closely allied, however -- so closely that I have never been able to find one without the other!)
6. The Freedom of the Word
"Negativism! Again this time, everything you have said is negative: iconoclasm, struggling against the closing up of language, fighting the irrationality of the lunatic’s language, and what else? What positive proposals do you have, and what program do you suggest?" I could answer in learned fashion with the positivistic dialectic of negativism: in the final analysis, only the No produces change and advance.
Again in this case, however, I prefer to refer to the simplest of images: a person is chained fast, by his feet and wrists, with forged chains. He has no way of freeing himself. You come with a sledgehammer and you break his chains. At the material level your act is purely and exclusively negative: you have broken some chains that were a fine product of human technique. You have destroyed the work of an artisan or of a large business concern that shows human progress. You are entirely negative -- especially since you do nothing else. You have broken a lovely iron object that is now useless. And there you stopped. You have constructed nothing positive, that’s certain.
But was I also supposed to take the freed prisoner by the hand, make him my pupil, and teach him what he should and could do? Doesn’t this purely negative deed produce freedom? Now that he is unfettered, the person can stand up, begin to walk, and choose where he wants to go; he could do none of this before. Well, let him do it! But only he can do it, and if he prefers to stay hunched up in his prison wishing for his chains back, what further positive deed can I do for him?
This is precisely our situation. Whoever accuses my analyses and research of negativism and considers iconoclasm and the criticism of structuralist ideologies or of romanticizing insanity to be a purely pessimistic orientation proves just one thing: that he loves his chains. He is not ready to risk the adventure of freedom that begins with the freedom of the word, which requires a great effort and an enormous commitment!
The only positive action we can take is to open a space into which we must dash forward. In this manner we can discover the word’s real nature, the unparalleled risk of truth and falsehood, and the extraordinary adventure of rationalizing or freeing from slavery. This is the open space before us. It requires a dialectical advance of our minds that are accustomed to the linear technological process; it requires the reintegration of the temporal into a spatially oriented civilization; and it forbids us to stop in our tracks.
As soon as the word becomes free again, we are involved in a whole set of contradictions. But they are necessary for life, particularly for life in the midst of division, such as the division caused by the smashing of the monolithic audiovisual world. Since the word is made to unfold and develop endlessly, we must continually refuse to stop. A spatial orientation presupposes stopping in the place which finally suits us. The visual world involves stopping; I must freeze and frame things. But the word stops no more than time does. No instant can last, nor can time be suspended. The word is the same. We must move ahead to meet what is advancing toward us: the great eschatological recapitulation of human history.(For Ellul’s concept of recapitulation, see his commentary, Apocalypse: The Book of Revelation; and The Meaning of the City. -- Trans.)
Today we live in division and contradiction the life that one day will be unity, balance, and peace. We live in tension the life that promises a flowering (this is especially true of couples, who exist only by means of the word and not by means of sex!). We live in dialectic what will be the calm of the lotus flower. We live in conflict the life that promises reconciliation. We must not refuse this single possible mode of living: division, tension, and dialectic, as they are expressed and implied by the word. For apart from this mode all that exists is petrification, rigidity, decomposition, and death.
We can live this life only to the degree that we know that the reconciliation is already won, and that in Jesus Christ word and sight, proclamation and experience, space and time, are united. We need to know that we will see this reconciliation, that we "will understand fully, even as [we] have been fully understood," that we will see "face to face" what we have heard about (1 Cor. 13:12). Job says: "I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees thee" (Job 42:5). Based on this certainty, without which we have nothing to live for and without which the conflict would be intolerable, we can return to the daily struggle to make the word resound, alone and unshackled. During the space of time that separates us from this final sight, may the word resound for human freedom and for God’s truth.
Dedicated to the memory of my friend
Yves Hebert who died July I2, 1979, as I was writing this last page.
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