The Prophetic Meaning of the Continuance of Israel and of the Revolt of Islam

Louis Bouyer
(Chapter 15 of The Invisible Father.)

Between the Absolute Gospel and the Relativity of Theology

Biblical Old Testament revelation is the final victorious breakthrough of that prophetism, that universal pressure of the Spirit, which we have seen behind every religious form in history. The vision of God at last definitively escaped from those mythical confusions, which were the reflection of the human and cosmic fall. God came down, by way of his Word, in search of alienated humanity and finally formed a people who would witness to himself. In Israel his Spirit succeeded for the first time, not just in temporarily cracking the carapace of a world hardened in its fatal introversion, its magic or its idolatry or its narrow, rationalizing skepticism, but in lifting this peopleís vision and aspiration, despite many relapses, towards the expected fullness of the divine manifestation, the re-establishment of the Reign of God over everything.

In Christianity, more precisely in Christ, this fullness is attained, although the Kingdom as yet appears only in his divine but definitely incarnate person. Then, taking its origin from him, from the eternal Son now become, at the high-point of history, the Head of regenerated humanity, the Spirit radiates out. He does not just lay hold of a series of witnesses to his continual inroads into the human heart. He begins to gather all men, as it were, into the heart of God by integrating them into the risen body of the Son made flesh. Thus an unveiling takes place. Man – in principle every man, in fact, progressively, all men of good will – comes to know this supreme mystery of God recognized, welcomed, re-established in his mystery at the source of all our thoughts and affections: the mystery of the Father.

As we have seen, this Gospel of the Father – de Patre, already present in the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount and expressed fully in the Johannine catechesis – is the Gospel of love: evangelium amoris. For it is by learning to love with that unique love which is the revelation of God's own life as communicated that men can discover God's fatherhood, being made sons in the Son, receiving from the Son the Spirit of the Father which rests on the Son.

This is the Gospel properly speaking. The dogma of the Trinity was progressively defined so as to provide the necessary safeguard of eucharistic experience in the face of every threat of deviation or incomprehension. In that experience the mystery of the Father is made known to the Church; we are brought into contact through the Son with the reality of that love "poured into our hearts by the Spirit who has been given us," thanks to the saving cross which has expressed the mystery of the Father by impressing it onto, into sinful flesh itself. But only theological effort could define and then justify the dogma. We have traced the two "ways," calling them for simplicity's sake, but of course simplistically, the "Greek" and the "Latin." They are not logically reconcilable, but both were inevitable and ultimately are inseparable. In them critical reflection on the Word of salvation took its irrevocable course. But neither the one nor the other can encapsulate the vision of eucharistic faith. This, as it proclaims and celebrates the mystery, breaks the bonds of all our logic, and its mystery inevitably comes like darkness on our earth-bound spirit in order to cast us towards that inaccessible light in which God dwells.

The act of faith is, in any case, death for our understanding, even if this death be only a prelude to transfiguration. But even if faith needs theology and its gropings to keep itself pure from error, there will be a fresh difficulty, and an extra trial when theology flies as close as possible to its ultimate object and inevitably yields a defective image of that object.

Certainly, to accept in faith God's fatherhood, with everything that the faith (which reveals it to us by applying it to us) can show us to be required of us, does by itself, in its very integrity, call forth and confront the obstinate pride and the terrified egoism of sinful man. And this suffices to explain many cases of refusal of the Gospel, even by the Jews who seemed all set to welcome the Messiah, and, later, the Islamic rejection, despite Islam's veneration of Jesus and its cult of Mary which at times all but equals that of Christians for her who, more than anyone, "believed." Yet both the Jewish refusal and Islam's rejection, which among the most thoughtful of both Jews and Muslims have focused most explicitly less on the Incarnation than on the Trinity, have been massive in character. And this fact should deter a Christian theologian from such an over-facile explanation. Islam's protest, like that of Israel and perhaps even more so, confronts him with a prophetic element. Doubtless, it will have been mingled many times with a real refusal to believe or at least with a sloth towards and a repugnance for believing. But no less often, perhaps even more often, it will not have been so adulterated, and the Christian theologian must bow before the fact.

The Protest of Israel

In the first place, it is not true, as we are inclined to say too often, that Israel as a whole has rejected the notion of a Messiah suffering for the sins of the people. Even when the scribes did so, they would then usually transfer to the people as a whole the mysterious need for innocent suffering if the world were to be redeemed and the Kingdom come. The faith-perception of God's compassion for the sinner, of God's assuming of sin itself, as St. Paul says, in those he sends and above all in the One sent par excellence, even went so far as the paradoxical perversity of Shabbatai Sevi – no doubt for having failed to acknowledge its legitimate expression in Christ Jesus. Such a pseudo-Messiah is a curious, even scandalous witness to this, but a witness who cannot be set aside. He did not just suffer but sinned deliberately, in order to draw upon himself the full force of God's just condemnation of sin, and so let loose a limitless flood of mercy.1

Above all, it is not true that Israel has as a whole rejected the interiorization of the Kingdom, if one understands by that our adoption by God, our entry into, our sharing in, in total reciprocity, that very love, that hesed which binds him to his creature, even when fallen, and which finally unveils to us the fathomless depths of his own inner life. Perhaps the clearest proof of this is the way in which Hassidism has centered the whole of Israel's piety on devekut,2 that is, confident abandonment in everything, in an all-embracing, unceasing spirit of thanksgiving, abandonment to that love of God which waits for, calls for, actually arouses our own love.

And this shows how much the prophetic glorification of God as Father, which ran through the whole of synagogue worship even before Jesus appeared, has continued to extend and deepen itself.

In fact, these elements have continued to function as a ferment within Judaism, preparing and frequently producing quite unexpected conversions to Christ and his Gospel. Most of the time, the witness of Christians and even of the Church itself have only played a very secondary role in all this. The example of E. Zolli, the great rabbi of Rome, is symbolic here. His conversion climaxed in an illuminating vision of Christ appearing to him in front of the ark of the Scriptures at the moment when the attendant was taking the Torah from it so that he could read and interpret it.3

Conversely the great hurdle for those who follow this way, and doubtless for many who embark on it naturally but cannot resolve to see it through, is the appearance of relapsing into idolatry and above all into polytheism, thanks to the unsatisfactory expressions that we propose of the Incarnation and especially of the Trinity.

For how many Christians does not a certain "Jesus-ism" tend to replace authentic Christianity by holding up a simple man turned into their god by men instead of the Son of God made man to redeem us? How many forms of piety, such as were already denounced by Origen and which continue all the way down to what is called, with perilous ambiguity, "the cult of the humanity of Christ," do not provide ample justification for the legitimate Jewish suspicion of idolatry?

But once past this stage of an infantile or senile Christianity which is usually regressive to the extent it thinks itself progressive, we encounter what is perhaps the greater hurdle: our habitual presentations of the Trinity. The so-called "Greek" formulas, whatever one makes of them, persistently suggest the image of three associated gods whether we speak, like St. Basil, of the colors of the rainbow blending into white light or, like St. Gregory Nazianzen, of three suns whose threefold brightness is one or even, like St. Gregory of Nyssa, of three torches lit from one another (although this admittedly comes closer to the traditional, properly apostolic proclamation). As for the Latin formulas, they are even worse: as if an abstract Godhead only took on a genuinely personal appearance in God-made-man.... And it is best to pass over those deformations so justly stigmatized by Thomas Mozley, and which seem to suggest that the Trinity adored in practice by Western Catholics is not that of the heavenly Father, the Son and the Spirit, but that of the Mother, Child and Foster-father!

Figures such as Martin Buber, André Neher and Robert Aron, to mention only these, are abiding witnesses to what we can call the prophetic and certainly providential role of Israel, even if the quality of their protests is not always sustained. Abraham Heschel, given the extreme discretion of his anti-Christian polemic, is perhaps an even better witness. And they should prevent us reconciling ourselves quite as easily as we do to the degradations in our piety. Above all, they should compel us to admit the inadequacy of our so self-confident theology, even when at its most correct and which in its very orthodoxy remains terribly abstract and inassimilable for piety unless converted into images which are almost disastrously deceptive.

Yet it must be said, and we will see the same with Islam, that, as long as Israel refuses the Incarnation and the Trinity, its own sense of the divine vitality, of the fatherly generosity of God's communication to men, seems incapable of expressing itself without falling into a dubious gnosis. It can only avoid careering into a heretical, non-biblical gnosticism by the constant check of that unyielding sense of divine ineffability which is the great legacy to Israel from the ancient prophets. No one, in our own time, has expressed this so vividly as the philosopher and mystic Ludwig Wittgenstein. But as is shown by the continual absurdities of his most vociferous disciples, it is not easy, even for so great a mind, to adhere faithfully to such radical apophaticism without falling into simple aphasia.

Yet that there is, nonetheless, a genuinely prophetic element behind Israel's refusal is attested by the definite persistence in post-Christian Israel of that biblical mysticism, the two poles of which are the Shekinah and the Merkabah, between which one could say that the whole internal development of the Old Testament takes place.

The Meaning of Jewish Mysticism

In this context, it is in fact inadequate to speak of persistence. There has been in the Israel contemporary to the Fathers and in the medieval and modern periods an undoubted doctrinal development, in the sense of an irrefutably genuine unfolding of biblical data. This presupposes genuine mystical experience. We should further specify that this experience – as in Christianity, though less intrepidly, Pentecost being something Jews hope for rather than know – simply repeats the exceptional experience of the prophets in some no less exceptional personalities – from those visionaries of the Merkabah in the first Christian centuries down to the miraculous rabbis of Polish Hassidism. Yet it does increasingly tend to propose itself as the normal term of the piety of each of the faithful. This piety fills his whole life. It shapes it through constant recitation of the berakoth, which apply the Word of God – permanently relevant, inexhaustibly effective as it is – to every circumstance of the earthly life of the priestly people. It concentrates on the kawanah,4 that is, on the perfect assimilation of a prayer that simply echoes the Word in faith and love. As Rabbi Simeon bar Jochai is supposed to have said so superbly, everything thus becomes a dwelling-place ready for the Shekinah.5

It is this that gives such value to the theosophical speculations nourished by meditation either on the Bereshit, the biblical account of creation, or on the prophetic visions of the Merkabah, and where the ultimate meaning of God's plan for his work ad extra is unveiled in the dialogue between Lover and Beloved in the Song of Songs.6 In other words, God's relation with Israel has become the revelation of that com-munion of mutual love to which God wishes to draw, by means of the chosen people, every soul and the entire cosmos.

Doubtless, taking these speculations literally means registering in them the very same decline from Apocalypse to Gnosticism that Grant observed at the time of Christian beginnings. In the second century we see fantasias built around the letters making up the creative Word, in the Sefer Yezirah. Later, in the twelfth century, first in Provence and then in Spain, we find developments to the doctrine of the sephiroth, i.e., those elements of the Torah and of creation considered as divine thoughts generative of all else. First the Bahir, then the Zohar are representative here. Finally, the Renaissance Cabbalists and then those of modern Poland expand all this curious theosophy at will. In other words, once the living stream of a revelation moving towards its eschatological fullness has been arrested, as it were, the themes proper to the Word regress towards myth. The history of creation, its fall and redemption, is replaced by the purely imaginary journey of the soul torn between this world, identified with the corruption of the divine, and the higher world to which the soul thinks that it has always belonged, despite a temporary forgetfulness, and which is no longer distinct from God himself.

But even if those who indulge in such speculations have in fact fallen into the old temptation, a genuine Jewish mysticism remains in the midst of it all despite everything. In other words, we should take it as no more than apocalyptic haggadah. It is a simple image, utterly inadequate of course, of the tension between on the one hand that flight of the Merkabah which enables God, even when communicating himself to his closest intimates, to escape all their efforts to grasp him and in fact to ravish them after him towards what is at once an ocean of flames and a depth of darkness, and, on the other hand, the reality of the Shekinah which even now, like the Lover to whom the Beloved opens her door, dwells with them or, better, in them, already united to them in the total reciprocity of the one perfect love which alone is capable of engendering a love like its own.7

Jewish mysticism, we are sure can reach such a point, and in many cases certainly has. And if so, then the refusal of the Christian formulations of the Trinity and Incarnation (formulas which, even if corrected to the nth degree, fall far short of adequate expression of the mystery) has not prevented an initial living of that mystery of eternal love extended to creation, even if it has never been possible for Jewish mysticism to express it fully to itself.

Two elements at least, if only by way of an inventory, should be singled out from the more perilous speculations which, in Cabbalism, Judaism's esoteric tradition, have been able to enclose this experience and have tried to translate it, though at the risk of traducing it. Especially from Renaissance times onwards, they have exercised a continual fascination over certain Christians. The first element is the distinction, which can be found as early as the Zohar, even the Bahir and can be traced back perhaps to the Sefer Yezirah, between the En-soph, i.e., God considered in his pure infinity, God always outside our grasp and, on the other hand, that quasi-corporality in which he makes himself accessible to us either in the sephiroth or in the Adam Qadmon:8 that ideal humanity which is the filial reflection of his fatherly countenance. There is no need to stress how close this distinction is to that found among Eastern Christians, between the invisible, incommunicable divine essence and the energies through which it reveals and communicates itself.

The second element, no less influential beyond the confines of Judaism, comes from Isaac Louriah, the founder of the school of Safed. This is the zimzum:9 that sort of contraction or voluntary kenosis by which God is thought of as penning himself in, as it were, in order to leave room for the creature to exist and be free. We shall see how indebted to Louriah are Christian kenotic speculations, especially those of the Germans and Russians.

Of course, one can find neo-platonic antecedents to these intuitions, at least to the first of them. But, as we said before, this intimate alliance, especially in Plotinus' God, between immanence and transcendence, seems to have its source in a biblical, possibly evangelical impregnation of Neo-platonism, even if it took place at a semi-conscious or wholly unconscious level. Be that as it may, it is as true of late Jewish mystics as it is of St. Augustine, that such patterns of thought, whatever their origin, have been given new interpretation, new value in the perspective of the biblical God "whom the heavens and the heaven of heavens cannot contain," yet who has made it no less his pleasure "to dwell with the children of men."

Islam and Its Rejection of Christianity

If it is true, and what we have been saying suggests that it is, that post-Christian Judaism's refusal of Christianity is a genuinely prophetic protest, then that protest has been aimed at a Christianity which has spent itself in speculations that tend towards either tritheism or a kind of anonymous deism which only becomes personal in Jesus' humanity. But in Islam's rejection of Christianity we find instead a prophetic protest provoked by the degradation of popular Christian piety into polytheism and a real, if not theoretical, idolatry. The episcopal preaching heard by Mohammed must be included in this. There was in fact something astonishingly practical and popular in the person and message of Mohammed, and it is this which has given Islam its strength and which has survived often even among his most speculative disciples.

Going deeper still, in the wake of M. Hayek's perceptiveness,10 we can see Mohammed's and Islam's prophetic protest as directed at not just Christian aberrations, but the fundamental one of Judaism itself: that fatal tendency, hidden in the simple word "Judaism" and fully revealed at present in atheistic "Zionism," to reduce the worship of the one, transcendent God to the level of a simple tribal, racial, not to say racist religion. We need hardly underline how far the same tendency has unceasingly manifested itself in every Christian offshoot, i.e., in the recurrent relapses of the most diverse kinds of Christianity into mere nationalisms or religious ideologies replacing the Gospel while sheltering under its terminology. Even if, in Mohammed's final phase, that of Medina, the first prophetic intuition has been blunted and been overlaid by at least a latent panarabism, it remains undoubtedly true that in his first preaching at Mecca, there was a reassertion of that pure monotheism which the Word of God addressed to Abraham had begun to bring to life out of myth. From the time of Abraham's own hegira, his first departure for the desert, it was this which definitively exploded the structures of the hitherto ubiquitous and obsessive myths. And the undoubted charism of Islam has been that of continuously maintaining and continually renewing, in its full requirements, the lightning-like purity of that first Abrahamic intuition: God, the true God, the one and only God cannot allow any "association," as Islam's most faithful preachers have so justly and unwearyingly proclaimed. God cannot – as in defective Trinitarianism – settle into various sub-gods or, contrariwise, evaporate into concepts. Nor can he – as in an incarnationism which replaces the Gospel Christ with the apotheosis of a purely human Jesus – bifurcate into a transcendent God and a wholly immanent "good God." Even less can he be reduced to the status of supporting or glossing over the tribalism of neo-pagan conservatives or the sectarianism of revolutionary ideologues.

Here too what attests the truth, the original and lasting authenticity of the prophetic element, is the quality of the mysticism Islam has nourished. This prophetism abruptly exploded in what one can only call the sublime candor of Mohammed's first protestation,11 when he was prepared to acknowledge Jesus as not just the hoped-for Jewish Messiah but the fullness of the Word of the only God who had spoken to them in all the prophets; and prepared to acknowledge the descent of the divine Shekinah on his mother, with the Spirit who had animated all the prophets. But in the practical ditheism or speculative tritheism of a Christianity degenerating into Jesus-ism or getting lost in gimcrack speculation, he could not recognize the great God, the true God, the only God, nor find him – even less so perhaps – in the neo-idolatry of a Judaism as introverted as any exclusively Syrian, Byzantine or Roman Christianity.

Mysticism and Speculation in Islam's Two Traditions

In strictly Sunnite mysticism, i.e., that rigorously faithful to the legal Koranic tradition, we see the vision of faith underlying that tradition pushed to its ultimate consequences. Witness the modest, reserved yet wholly self-detached contemplation of God the Creator in someone like Ghazali. In Sufi mysticism, we see rather a bold even foolhardy drive towards an identification of love with the primordial Lover, even at the cost of death. Witness the writings and above all the sufferings of someone like Hallaj. But in either case, R. Arnaldez12 has surely been right in maintaining that these mystics did not rise to such heights by leaving the orbit of Islamic piety and succumbing to neo-platonic or Christian influences. Rather, it was by the depth and intensity of their realization of everything implied by the prophecy of him who remains for his faithful the "Prophet" par excellence.

And similarly, even if it is true, as H. Corbin has shown especially vis-ý-vis Suhrawardi,13 that the mystics of Shiite Iran link up, by way of Islamic prophetism, with that of Iran's first spiritual master, Zoroaster, the principles of the "gnosis" they have sought and found, just like that of the best Jewish gnosis, undeniably remains that of the prophetic "knowledge of God," that which springs into life at the victorious touch of God seizing the soul and which the Hebrew prophets were the first to define.

However, just as with post-Christian Judaism, so – and even more so, perhaps – with Islam, it is revealing that the moment this prophetic gnosis goes in for speculative formulation, it only gets anywhere, while avoiding Christian Trinitarianism and Incarnationism, by constant flirt-ing with heretical or, rather, neo-pagan Gnosticism, and often in fact fall-ing into its arms. In other words, once again there has been a sub-stitution. An imaginary journey, away from an essentially fallen world consisting of matter and bodies to the original inviolate world for ever identical with God: this journey of the soul rediscovering itself in its original purity and divinity has replaced the quest for God the Father who sends his eternal Son and Spirit to a world and man wholly created and wholly fallen, so as to lift them and divinize them gratuitously out of pure grace.

This misunderstanding – and it first showed its head in the exegesis of Zoroaster by his disciples during the Sassanid period – will only be definitively overcome by Islamic and Judaic mystical thought when they are able to see and accept in the Gospel of Christ Jesus, beyond the caricatures of the Incarnation and the Trinity drawn by Christians themselves, the religion of the Father.

Then the rather moving Moslem legend concerning Christ's return – the expectation of Islam as well as the Church – will come true in a higher sense. The Messiah will then wed his eschatological Spouse, who will bear him a new Moses and a new Mohammed. In other words, what the Apocalypse of John calls the Wedding of the Lamb – the consummated union of the eternal Son with the Church of the last times – will consummate the truth of the prophetic protest of Israel and of Islam,14 and do this within the pure confession of a Christianity which will have overcome every historical temptation.


G. Sholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. New York, 1946, pp. 287ff., and Le Messianisme juif, Paris, 1974, especially pp. 139ff. back

G. Sholem, Le Messianisme juif, pp. 303ff. back

See his autobiography: E. Zolli, Before the Dawn, New York, 1954. back

G. Sholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, pp. 275ff. Similarly, his On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, New York, 1964. back

Guy Casaril, Rabbi Siméon bar Yochaï et la Cabbale, Paris, 1961. back

G. Sholem, On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism. back

On all this, see the beautiful book of L. Gillet, Communion in the Messiah, London, 1942. back

See G. Sholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, the texts quoted in the index under these two terms. back

Ibid., pp. 244ff. back

Michel Hayek, Le Mystère d'Ismaël, Paris, 1964. back

See the chapter on Mohammed by R.C. Zaehner in At Sundry Times, and M. Hayek, Le Christ de L'Islam, Paris, 1959. back

R. Arnaldez, La Mystique musulmane, in the collective work ed. A. Ravier, La Mystique et les Mystiques, Paris, 1965, pp. 571ff. back

H. Corbin, En Islam iranien, vol. 2, Paris, 1971, and the whole four volumes of this fascinating synthesis. back

M. Hayek, Le Mystère d'Ismaël, p. 254. back