Constructing Tradition: Means and Myths of Transmission in Western Esotericism by Andreas Kilcher, Antoine Faivre, Matthias Heiduk, and Philipp Theisohn (Aries Book Series: Brill Academic) The question of constructing tradition, concepts of origin, and memory as well as techniques and practices of knowledge transmission, are central for cultures in general. In esotericism, however, such questions and techniques play an outstanding role and are widely reflected upon, in its literature. Esoteric paradigms not only understand themselves in elaborated mytho-poetical narratives as bearers of "older", "hidden", "higher" knowledge. They also claim their knowledge to be of a particular origin. And they claim this knowledge has been transmitted by particular (esoteric) means, media and groups. Consequently, esotericism not only involves the construction of its own tradition; it can even be understood as a specific form of tradition and transmission. The various studies of the present volume, which contains the papers of a conference held in Tubingen in July 2007, provide an overview of the most important concepts and ways of constructing tradition in esotericism.
Andreas B. Kilcher received his PhD. (1996) in German Literature, University of Basel, is Professor of Literature and Cultural Studies at ETH Zurich since 2008. From 2004-2008 he has been Professor of Modern German Literature at the University of Tubingen. His research interests cover the history of German-Jewish literature and culture, the relation between literature and science as well as studies in esotericism. He recently published Die Enzyklopädik der Esoterik: Allwissenheitsmythen und universalwissenschaftliche Modelle in der Esoterik der Neuzeit with Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 2010.
The question of constructing tradition, concepts of origin and memory as well as techniques and practices of knowledge transmission are central for culture in general. In esotericism and its literature, however, such questions and techniques play an outstanding role and are widely reflected upon. Esoteric paradigms not only understand themselves in elaborate mytho-poetical narratives as bearers of "older", "hidden", "higher" knowledge. They also claim their knowledge to be of a particular origin. And they claim this knowledge has been transmitted by particular (esoteric) means, media and groups. Consequently, esotericism not only involves the construction of its own tradition; it can even be understood as a specific form of tradition and transmission.
This was precisely the topic of the inaugural conference of the Euro-pean Society for the Study of Western Esotericism (ESSWE), which took place in Tübingen between the 19th and the 22nd of July 2007 under the title Constructing Tradition. Means and Myths of Trans-mission in Western Esotericism. / Die Konstruktion von Tradition. Praktiken und Mythen der Überlieferung in der europäischen Esoterik. The present volume contains a selection of the papers held at this conference.
The topic of this conference and of the present volume needs to be explained more accurately: in the construction of their own traditions, both pre-modern and modern esoteric paradigms-including magic, alchemy, Kabbalah as well as occultism and theosophy-claim to represent or restore an ancient, primordial wisdom tradition as a kind of "secret knowledge". The conceptualisation and realisation of such claims places a major emphasis on ideas of tradition, passed on either by oral transmission or by the discovery and dissemination of mythic or absolute books. In this sense, the questions of heritage and tradition, of origin and genealogy are crucial to the foundation of any esoteric knowledge. It defines, and moreover legitimates itself, through its origins, its ancestry, and its means of esoteric transmission. In so doing, esotericism seeks to invent its own tradition, to map its master narratives, to construct its myths of origin and its myths of transmission.
An example may provide a more concrete understanding of this phenomenon: Romeyn de Hooghe's Hieroglyphica of Merkbeelden der Oude Volkeren (1735), or in the German translation Hieroglyphica oder Denkbilder der alten Völker (1744). A well-known engraver of the late Dutch Baroque period, de Hooghe was by no means an esotericist himself, but nevertheless described and represented esoteric understandings of tradition. Through the numerous copperplate engravings of this remarkable book, he actually wanted to help writers and artists to form an appropriate picture of the ancient cultures and their now forgotten emblems or Merkbeelden ('Denkbilder, literally thought pictures), which he depicts as "hieroglyphs", as cryptic, mysterious and enigmatic pictorial characters. He thus understands cultural history as the accumulation of signs from different spheres and eras, which throughout the course of history became less and less comprehensible, more and more emblematic and mysterious. Consequently, the historical differences between different cultures collapse in these `Denkbilder', as they mingle in syncretistic amalgams transgressing the boundaries of distinct traditions, religions and languages. What de Hooghe therefore shows is the transition from one religion to another ('den Uebergang bei einen Religion zu der andern'). Based on this understanding, the book supplies its readers with pictures of hybrid spaces. It is in some sense a museum of heterogeneous Delphic objects and figures. Culture, for de Hooghe, seems to be a practice of engraving and decoding old signs. This leads to the ars hieroglyphica, which he explains as the art of making pictorial languages ('Die Kunst, Bildersprache zu machen'), as well as to a scientia hieroglyphica, which he explains as the science of understanding pictorial languages ('die Wissenschaft, dieselben zu verstehen'). In this way de Hooghe divides the cultures of antiquity into a variety of hieroglyphic arts and sciences, such as
One of these emblematic `Denkbilder'—which 'give little to the eye but nevertheless say a great deal in meaningful pictures' ('da sie weniger zu sehen geben, und doch in Sinnbildern vieles sagen')—portrays the founding of these artes hieroglyphicae in the biblical Orient. Among these types of esoteric writers he depicts the 'Chaldean magus, who engraves the elements in the pyramid' (letter D), which lies, as de Hooghe explains, in darkness to stress that these magical matters are barely comprehensible. As a similar type, he depicts Seth, the third son of Adam (after Cain and Abel), who is engraving on two pillars the history as well as the primordial knowledge given to Adam by God (letter A). De Hooghe gives the following explanation (subscriptio) for this section of the emblem (pictura):
Here in the distance there appear two round pillars [ ...], all around which in the whitewashed clay the patriarch Seth engraved and etched in emblems the facts concerning him, his father, his mother and his brothers, and presumably [.. .] this God-fearing teacher bequeathed them for his descendants, along with the foundations and laws of a certain divine service.
This reading of the "oriental" emblem is obviously poised to construct an esoteric tradition. Indeed, in esoteric discourse, Seth—like Adam before him and Enoch after him—is known as one of the biblical founding fathers of a tradition of hidden knowledge. He plays this role not only in Jewish magical literature and the Kabbalah but also in a specific Sethian literature associated with Gnosticism and Manichaeism. In this context Seth belongs (as shith-il) to the divine sphere; he turns into a powerful embodiment of the divine nous, a revealer and saviour, teaching a doctrine of intermixture and confusion. In this role, the biblical Seth seems to be fused (as he is in the Coptic magical texts) with the homonymous Egyptian god Seth and is thereby turned into a pantheistic Godhead of the world. Some of the Gnostic texts of the Nag Hammadi library are attributed to this type of Seth: for example, the Three Steles of Seth, which report what Seth inscribed as primordial and hidden knowledge on the pillars; or the Gospel of the Egyptians, a book supposedly written by Seth, who hid it in the mountain "Charaxio"—it is said that the book will be revealed at the end of time. Thus, when Hooghe shows Seth as a hieroglyphic engraver (obviously also mirroring his own work), he refers subtextually to an esoteric tradition of biblical antiquity, even suggesting a possible Egyptian foundation for Seth's esoteric knowledge. This mythopoetic invention of tradition is typical of esotericism.
Naturally, the esoteric construction of tradition needs to be described not only by examples, but also systematically. Indeed, many esoteric paradigms of early modern and modern times claim to represent or restore an ancient, primordial or lost secret wisdom. Precisely these claims place a major emphasis on processes of tradition and trans-mission, whether based on orality or the dissemination of sacred and mythic books. Thus, questions of heritage and tradition, of origin and genealogy, are crucial to the foundation of any esoteric knowledge.
In the construction of tradition, a differentiation can be made between concepts and myths on the one hand and the history and means of transmission on the other. The former refers to the more mythical or philosophical aspects of tradition, the latter to its technical, material and historical aspects. The investigation of these aspects brings together various methodological approaches and perspectives that compare the traditions of esoteric knowledge with corresponding concepts and practices in religion, literature or science. Indeed, the question of how esoteric knowledge may be examined either via its concepts or myths within the literature of a given tradition itself, or via the actual historical and sociological practice of esoteric groups in bequeathing their knowledge to posterity. Accordingly, one can distinguish between a) concepts, b) myths, and c) the historical practices and procedures of transmission in esotericism.
The present volume does not follow this systematic description of possible perspectives in an encyclopaedic manner. As it is not a handbook of esotericism but a conference volume, it participates in this field through a combination of general and exemplary studies, always following the theme of constructing tradition in esotericism. In this combination of general and exemplary analysis, the papers in this volume can be classified into three sections.
Returning to the Essential: Selected Writings of Jean Bies by Jean Bies (Perennial Philosophy Series: World Wisdom) Bies introduces readers to metaphysical, esoteric, and spiritual teachings from diverse scared sources. His words are rooted in the inexhaustible ground of the Perennial Philosophy, the language of the Essential to which this book invites us to return.
Excerpt: In the last few decades, the family of thought that has come to be known in the English-speaking world as the "perennialist school" has generally been designated in the French-speaking world by the two adjectives traditionnel and traditionaliste. These latter two terms have had the important merit of underlining a deeper and richer understanding of the devaluated and flattened word "tradition," highlighting both its sacred and integral implications by contrast with the all too common view that equates tradition with stifling custom and lack of imagination. One of the signal contributions of this school has been to introduce contemporary readers to a definition of Tradition that is indissociable from its divine and supernatural origin, and which emphasizes the imperative need of the sacred means that it provides in view of returning to the Essential. On the other hand, it must be acknowledged that these two termsespecially traditionalistecan be somewhat ambiguous or even misleading since they also routinely refer, at least in France, to that portion of the Catholic Church that has radically rejected the dogmatic and liturgical innovations of the Council of Vatican II.
Be that as it may, while the perennialist school has often been characterized in the Anglophone world as stemming from a triad of philosophical fathers comprised of Ren Gunon, Ananda K. Coomaraswamy and Frithjof Schuon, the cole traditionaliste has tended to be more emphatically and exclusively considered, in the Francophone world, as springing forth from Ren Gunon's seminal works alone. This holds true for a variety of reasons, all more or less related to Gunon's privilege of anteriority, and to the specifically French modality of the mindset through which he distilled universal principles. As has sometimes been implied, Gunon's work has the somewhat paradoxical characteristic of expressing the substance of Shankaracharya's teachings in the language of Ren Descartes, a language that has been associatedfor better or worsewith a sense of rational clarity which is particularly fit for metaphysical and philosophical exposition.
Ren Gunon's work first appeared in a country that had just passed from the celebrated status of "eldest daughter" of the Roman Catholic Church to that of a land undergoing radical and vehement laicization, as evidenced in the Law of 1905 mandating the separation of Church and Stateand this, following more than twelve centuries of quasi-constant union between the two. In the early twentieth century, the new "gospel" of the French Republic was disseminated through the secular and anti-clerical "seminaries," the Ecoles Normales, in which schoolteachers were trained to become the apostles of the new values that were to substitute the previously pervasive ones of the Catholic Church in matters of mind and soul. If the French Revolution was the end of what had remained of traditional France politically, the Third Republicwhich lasted almost seventy years, till the beginning of the Second World Warput an end both socially and culturally to what had still managed to survive this revolutionary onslaught, the industrial revolution, and the ascent of the bourgeoisie. The fact that France is today one of the most non-religious countries in the world is primarily a consequence of the ideological effectiveness of the Third Republic and its transformation of a whole society. It is indeed an irony of historyand no doubt also a compensationthat the initial steps of the perennialist school, or le courant traditionalistea current of thought that was to articulate the most radical critique ever of the modern worldwere taken in the very country that had shown itself to be arguably the most anti-traditional in the world, through its inauguration of both the intellectual Enlightenmentthe Lumires of the Encyclopdistes -and the French Revolution of 1789. Gunon him-self came from a Catholic lineage that was representative of what remained of the social and cultural Ancien Rgime, and his antagonistic relationship with the French academic structure and milieu was in a sense symptomatic of the opposition between two worlds. Be that as it may, it is all too rarely mentioned that the country of Voltaire is also that of Gunon, although it is obviously less often recognized as the latter than as the former.
In the wake of Gunon's work, the publication of which spanned over thirty years until his death in Cairo in 1951, a large segment of traditional works were published in French, and in France in particular. Most of this production issued from collaborators of Gunon or from individuals who were profoundly marked by his writings, and who often had connections with him in the form of personal relationships or correspondence. The works of Frithjof Schuon, Titus Burckhardt, Leo Schaya, Michel Valsn, Jean Borella, Jean Canteins, Jean Hani, Jean-Louis Michon, and others, were, with a very few exceptions, written in the same language as Gunon. They were, moreover, made available by French publishing houses such as Gallimard, Editions Traditionnelles, or Dervy. Among these works, only Schuon's and Burckhardt's, and to a much lesser extent Schaya's and Borella's, have been made available in English translations in print. The works of Jean Bis are situated in this intellectual lineage. He belongs to what could be called the second generation of traditionalist writers, the generation of Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Jean Borella and those others who were born between the two world wars. This generation makes the link between the generation of the "fathers" of the movement, who grew up in a world that still conserved some residual traces of traditional principles, and the generation of those who were born after the Second World War, in a world that had already become almost completely topsy-turvy.
Jean Bis was born in Bordeaux, but spent the first years of his life in Algeria, which he left when he was just twenty-four. The years of his youth in Algeria marked his first contact with the world of Tradition, in the context of an Islamic tradition that was then still relatively alive. Jean Bis' biography reflects a simple life that has revolved around writing, teaching, and meeting with remarkable men and women and many individuals in search of spiritual light; this has been punctuated by some essential intellectual discoveries and spiritual encounters (Gunon in 1951, Schuon in 1967, Mary-Madeleine Davy in 1981), as well as some inspiring voyages (Greece in 1958, India in 1973). Bis is an erudite scholar, and he was an inspiring teachersome of his former students, who have remained in contact with him throughout the years, have become well-known figures, such as the former French Minister of Education Franois Bayroubut he has always remained a very "independent scholar," shunning the academic establishment and ideological cliques.
Jean Bis' works remain unknown in the English-speaking world and this situation calls for some words of explanation. Less profusely speculativein the highest sense of the termthan those of Leo Schaya and Jean Canteins, less technically initiatic than those of Michel Valsn, less philosophical than those of Georges Vallin and Jean Borella, and less focused on a given tradition than those of Jean Hani and Jean-Louis Michon, Jean Bis' works have a room of their own in the house of traditionalist thought, and a voice of their own in the concert of perennialist works written in French. Compared with the aforementioned works, Jean Bis' opus is both more diverse, without in any way lacking essential unity, as well as more literary, without attaching to this term any aestheticist nuance. There is a mercurial mobility and diversity about Bis' writing, as well as a particular lightness of touch in dealing with topics of metaphysical and spiritual weight. Even when touching upon substantial matters of doctrine, Bis is never pedantic or cumbersome. One would be tempted to say that his is an understanding of literature as ll, a divine play that enlivens and enlightens. He shapes his aphorisms and formulae with a nimble brio that pertains to joy and grace; he does not disdain to play on words, as a contemporary adept of nirukta, in order to suggest subtle analogies and crystallize spiritual allusions.
He is a writer just as one is an artist or a craftsman. It is not only that Bis writes; the truth is that his pursuit of Reality and Beauty takes place through writing. He is a writer who treats of metaphysical and spiritual topics rather than a metaphysician or a sage who writes in order to disseminate traditional principles and ideas. This, perhaps, has been his main distinctive feature among French traditionalist writers. In a sense this concern for literary form has also been, by his own admission, something of a hindrance to the full dissemination of his works. It certainly makes their translation a more arduous task, and the current English translation of excerpts from his oeuvre, under the title Returning to the Essential, must be saluted as a very successful and meritorious labor of love. Still, the fact is that those who love literature as an art form tend to read his books because they are attracted by their poetic and stylistic qualities, while those who are in quest of spiritual knowledge will tend to bypass this aspect, and look for the doctrinal substance that they
provide. As a consequence, the latter may sometimes have a tendency to belittle the importance of his works because of the concern they display for aesthetic form, whereas the former may well enjoy the inviting beauty of Bis' pages without paying sufficient attention to the urgent message that they transmit. This is not to say that Bis would claim a kind of symmetry, or equivalence, between the form of his writings and the ideas that they convey. Principles and ideas obviously form the essential core, to which he invites his readers to turn, but he does not feel in the least guilty to join l'agrable l'utile, to reverse a French expression joindre l'utile l'agrablethat means joining the useful to the pleasant.
While there is no greater priority than the truth, writing is also a spiritual discipline that is akin to other kinds of qualitative creation, involving both the production of a beautiful object and the beautification of the soul. As with other forms of art, writing involves a form and an essence. The form is the material: the paper, the pen, the table, the physical posture, and so on. There is a certain qualitative aspect to the very act of writing, a quality that most of us have unfortunately lost sight of in an age of word-processors. Jean Bis holds fast to this dimension of his art. It is related to the equilibriating influence of nature and the normal pace of human activity. True writing, both as an act and a product of this act, involves a harmonious blend of meaning and beauty. One cannot reduce the words to the function of mere vehicles; they have to engage our sense of beauty, harmony, and music. This beauty is nowhere more accessible to a writer such as Bis than in and through nature. Nature distills the essences that are like the fragrances emanating from the Divine; and it is certainly not by chance that the catalyst for writing is, for him, none other than the contact he has with the peaceful landscape of the foothills of the Western Pyrenees, a landscape that has the gentleness of its green slopes but also a promise of the peaks outlined on the horizon. Bis' writing is akin to this gentle landscape that leads to metaphysical and spiritual summits. The daily contact of the writer with nature is more than the source of an inspiration as it was for tormented Romantic poets. It forms an integral context that balances and shapes the soul, predisposing her to the expression of Truth. Saint-Michel-la-Grange, the farm in which Bis has lived for over forty years, was first built in the seventeenth century and is a contemplative space that has become for him a creative haven; it exudes the very ambience in which his writ-ten work has come to being.
The literary output of Jean Bis is, according to his own indications, three-fold. There is, first of all, a doctrinal and speculative fold that consists in a series of essays in which Bis, like other perennialist authors, aims at transmitting tradition while introducing contemporary readers to the treasury or metaphysical, esoteric, and spiritual teachings and sacred sources. This segment of Bis' work is itself to be divided between academic studies devoted to particular figures or movements, such as Empdocle d'Agrigente Essai sur la philosophie prsocratique (1969) and Littrature franaise et pense hindoue: Des origines 1950 (1973), and works of exposition of traditional principles as a response to the spiritual crisis of modern man, among which one must mention Passeports pour des temps nouveaux (1982), Retour l'Essentiel: Quelle spiritualit pour l'homme d'aujourd'hui? (1986), and Sagesses de la Terre: Pour une cologie spirituelle (1997) .
The second grouping is comprised of more "experiential" works that may take the form of travel accounts, memories, and personal testimonies. The first work to be mentioned in this category is Athos: la Montagne transfigure (1997), a mystical and poetic account of Bis' journey to Mount Athos, full of the pristine light of the Mediterranean sun as a terrestrial reflection of the Byzantine Christ's glory. Then comes La Porte de l'appartement des femmes (1991), a more personal, but in a sense no less universal, book devoted to the spiritual presence and influence of women in the author's life, a kind of autobiographical celebration of the Eternal Feminine that highlights the function of women as manifestations of the creative energy. Finally, what is, in my opinion, the most beautiful and perhaps the richest of Bis' books, Les Chemins de la ferveur: Voyage en Inde (1995). This book highlights the spiritual treasures of India as the author encountered them along his itinerary in Vrindavan, Madurai, Tiruvannamalai, and Benares. It is the literary outcome of an authentic spiritual journey, the delicious and substantive fruit of a rare encounter between the author's profound familiarity with Indian metaphysics and his keen ability to see the essential in the most daily experiences. Bis' doctrinal knowledge of India is brought to life in and through his aesthetic and spiritual encounter with the motherly land of Bharata, which prompted Jean Herbert, one of the foremost European specialists of Indian spirituality, to write: "[Les Chemins de la ferveur] is the best work on India that I know."
The third grouping of Bis' work is perhaps the least well known, yet it is the most essential to the author himself. Jean Bis is first and foremost a poet: he considers poetry to be the most essential sectorof literature, in that it is the very essence of language. In Bis' own words, "poetry is certainly the last enclave of the sacred." Although real poets are rarely known as such in our day and age, Bis' poetry has not remained inconspicuous to those who have an ear for the lyre and a heart for the truth. He received the prestigious High rize of the Society of French Poets in 1970 and he was saluted by the Catholic philosopher Jean Borella as "one of the great and most authentic poets of our time." As a poet, Jean Bis distances himself from two of the most prevalent features of contemporary poetry: the rejection of rhythmic and harmonic forms, and the cultivation of the ego. These two tendencies share, in fact, in the same error; they sin out of an egocentric presumption and a lack of sensitivity to the normative message of nature and our true Self. The respect for formal imperatives is, in poetry, a kind of "metric reconstitution of the Self," to use Bis' well-inspired phrase. It is therefore part and parcel of the spiritual work to which it calls. Moreover, the mode of operation of poetry is akin to that of "magic," understood here in its broadest sense of a transformation by means of forms; and this is enough to say that words have to be carved and bound together so as to obey an invocatory, suggestive, or evocative music that is the secret of their ability to touch the heart. Although some of Bis' best poetry is personal in the highest sense, expressing the vibrations of the soul in contact with the mysteries of nature, eroticism, and above all, God's presence, Bis is too traditional to conceive of poetry as a kind of amorous cultivation of one's idiosyncrasies; far from that: he simply considers his poetic work as a humble attempt at "versifying the philosophia perennis."
If I had to highlight two among Bis' intellectual and literary gifts, I would opt firstly for his poetical sense, and then for the conceptual and linguistic precision of his language. These two qualities are illustrated by the frequent dual structure of his titles, the first part being suggestive, and the second explicative. Bis wants to suggest, but he also wants first of all to be understood. Precision stems from a respect for language, and for the reader. It is, as it were, a manifestation of the sense of the sacred with regard to language. But precision does not mean dryness or formal perfectionism. In fact, Bis' mode of exposition alternates between his ideal of ration-al clarity and his affinity with the musicality and the nuances of reality. He has himself acknowledged a certain development or evolution in this respect. His first books bear very clearly the mark
of Gunon's rigorous style, while his later books manifest a greater fluidity and subtletyas if his pen had been touched by a Taoist fairy. This is not only a matter of style but also a matter of substance. It is undeniable that, without compromising any aspect of the essential, the experiences of life and meditation on the most profound truths cannot but make supple, and subtilize, the heart and mind. The latest writings of Bis express a high sensibility to the unfathomable share of the Real, and to the somewhat irreducible complexity of human existence. However, what makes these writings so precious is their consistent rooting in the inexhaustible soil of the philosophia perennis: the language of the Essential to which this book invites us, inspiringly, to return.
PATRICK LAUDE, Georgetown University
of the Supernatural by Jean Borella (T&T Clark) Jean Borella
explores the modernist crisis in Catholic theology, its causes and implications,
and offers a solution to the fundamental dilemma of the Western Christian mind.
For three centuries, philosophers and theologians tried to preserve God's transcendence by denying continuity between the natural and the supernatural. This prolonged division allowed an illusory autonomy and an inclination towards totalitarian humanism. The writings of Henri de Lubac, referring to ancient and Eastern sources, were instrumental in dispelling this illusion.
In this remarkable book, Jean Borella lays the foundations for a theology of culture in the tradition of Newman and de Lubac, and recalls us to the adventure of the Christian vocation to holiness, re-opening 'the place in us where God awaits our waiting on him'
Secret of the Christian Way:
Contemplative Ascent through the Writings of Jean Borella by Jean Borella,
edited and translated by G. John Champoux, with a Foreword by Wolfgang Smith (SUNY:
State University of New York Press) A selection of key writings from the French,
traditionalist ala Guenonian religious philosopher, Jean Borella
Gathering key writings from the French religious philosopher Jean Borella's works, this book moves the reader from the immediacy of the physical world to a world deep within ourselves. Throughout Borella's writings, there is a "resurrectional" power to his words, a way of seeing things that "makes all things new," that endows us with an ability to look anew on Christ and his Body the Church. Translator and editor G. John Champoux has used a selection from Saint Bonaventure's The Soul's Journey into God to preface each of Borella's writings and to show how these insights can take us from our ordinary surroundings into our innermost world.
The "secret" of the Christian way as a journey through the writings of Jean Borella, is technically contemplative, for only through an act of contemplation is one able to behold a "secret," a true mystery. The Secret of the Christian Way: invites us to become open to the contemplative dimension in Christian faith. Generally Borella has not been well‑known in the English‑speaking world. To date only one of his books has been published in English (Sense of the Supernatural, Edinburgh: T&T Clark). It seems that Borella is currently becoming discovered both in England and in the United States. Borellas work is a sort of philosophic consideration of theological questions. For him the topic of God is the first‑and in a sense that needs to be clarified, the only reality so that even scientific quest of knowledge becomes a theological question. In this Borella is, first and foremost, a Catholic thinker that is newly traditional. As a philosopher he is, by his own account, "instinctively Platonist." It appears that at the age of fourteen he was already occupied with the Meditations of Descartes, and by the time he encountered the writings of the Sufi traditionalist writer, Rene Guenon during his college years, could discern that the latter was, in essence, expounding the Platonic metaphysics "such as I discovered in myself " Nonetheless, the encounter with Guenon has doubtless had a decisive impact upon the thought of Borella. Guenonian principles suffuse his intellect, clarifying the metaphysical intuitions that enabled him, at the same time, to acquire a fundamental grasp of Vedantic, Taoist, and Islamic doctrines, of an validity rarely to be met in the writings of a modern academic philosopher. It is however important to note that Borella has never acquiesced to Guenon when it comes to Christianity, and has remained all along staunchly Catholic in his religious and theological orientation. Yet the contact with Guenon and with the Oriental traditions must have provided a powerful stimulus‑a veritable imperative‑to deepen and universalize his understanding of the Catholic faith. It has thus prepared and empowered Borella to contribute effectively to the accomplishment of one of the major tasks confronting the Catholic Church today, which is to bring her teaching‑timeless in its essence‑into harmony with all that is true and profound in the doctrines of the East. Only by bringing this task to completion, I believe, can the Church realize and manifest her own God‑given universality‑her true "catholicity"‑and thus fulfill her divinely appointed mission.
Concerning Borella's stand in regard to the Second Vatican Council and its aftermath, I will note that it is this question, precisely, which has "provoked" his first book, La cbarite profanee (1979), a work that unmasks and definitively refutes the misconceptions rampant to this day within the postconciliar Church. Whosoever has read the prologue to that treatise will likely agree that no more penetrating and poignant denunciation of the contemporary betrayal has ever been penned. And yet‑as is already suggested by what has previously been said‑it would also be a mistake to classify Borella as a "traditionalist" in the current sense. He exemplifies rather a balance and an openness to all that is right and true that precludes any partisanship or factional identification. In this respect, too, it seems to me that Borella is fulfilling a major task of our time. His is a voice that rises above the bias, schisms, and polarization that presently afflict "the one holy catholic and apostolic Church," a voice that recalls to the fullness of the authentic Catholic tradition, and helps us, Deo volente, not only to understand, but above all to live the Catholic truth.
I find his work remarkable as much for the breadth of its scope as for the unity of its message and focus. In a single critical survey, for instance, which commences with a penetrating inquiry into ancient and medieval cosmology, and proceeds, by way of Nicolas Cusanus, to Kepler and Galileo, and thence to Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, Feuerbach, Marx, and Freud, and onto postmodernism, as represented by Levi‑Strauss Foucault, and Derrida‑a survey occupying some three hundred pages‑in this entire sweep, I say, Borella is making a single major philosophical point.' Such striking coherence, moreover, is altogether typical of Borella's work, whether we take it book by book, or as a whole. One has the impression that the entire gamut of discourse, filling so many volumes and covering an immense range of topics, is held together as if by a single strand of thought, a single vision of truth. Now, I believe this underlying vision‑this veritable master key to the writings of Borella‑has found its most direct expression in a metaphysics of symbolic reference, a philosophical doctrine of Platonist inspiration, which Borella on occasion terms symbolic realism. It is this philosophical doctrine that has earned Professor Borella the coveted doctorat d'Etat, and moreover forms the basis of a trilogy, of which as yet only the first two volumes have appeared. This follows already from the fact that it is a metaphysics that conceives of created being as a symbol, a word or logos, which as such is an image of the primary Logos, the Divine Word that itself constitutes an "image" of the Father. And if now we recall that "All words derive their meaning from the Word," as Meister Eckhart affirmed, we are led to recover, from a metaphysical point of view, the truth proclaimed by St. Paul: "And He is before all things, and by Him all things consist" (Col. 1:17). However, there is more to be said: for it appears that Borella's doctrine is not simply logocentric or Christocentric, but is, on a still deeper level, perforce Trinitarian. It constitutes for this reason a Christian metaphysics in the fullest sense, and one might well argue that as such it transgresses the cadre of Platonism, even as it likewise transgresses the cadre of the Oriental doctrines, and of what some have termed the perennial pbilosopby. But be that as it may, I would like to point out that Borella's doctrine, strictly speaking, transgresses the cadre of philosophy itself, so long as this discipline is conceived as purely rational and discursive. In its highest moments, Borella's teaching seems to appeal directly to sacred symbols as immediate "presentifications" of the Real. It thus regards the "offending" formulations of traditional theology in a manner exactly opposite to the reductionism of the "demythologizers": it perceives in the very fact that these dogmatic utterances are bereft of "scientific" sense an indication‑not that they need to be reinterpreted‑but that they are truly metaphysical symbols, irreplaceable as indicators of metaphysical reality. What in Scripture strikes the "critical" exegete as categorically unbelievable is precisely what can serve as a bridge that leads beyond the phenomenal realm, beyond what Hindus might term the world of maya. But needless to say, sacred symbols can fulfill this lofty function only for those who believe‑a case indeed of credo ut intelligam. This principle, however, constitutes an inalienable mark, not just of St. Anselm's thought, but of all authentically Christian philosophy. We find, thus, that in this respect as well, Borella's doctrine is profoundly Christian.But let us get back to the book at hand. The reader should be forewarned that the prologue is not an "easy" introduction to the rest of the book, but rather a necessary introduction, a prolegomenon that "situates" the content of this perforce-difficult treatise, and in so doing provides the key to its proper reception. For indeed, what Borella has to offer, as we have begun to see, is neither philosophy nor theology as these disciplines are generally conceived nowadays, but in fact constitutes what can rightfirlly be termed doctrinal gnosis something that is scarcely recognized, let alone understood, in the modern world. The very mention of the words gnosis or Gnostic moreover, as Borella points out, immediately arouses a storm of protest both from "the right" and "the left"‑from Christians "of tradition" as well as from Christians "of progress"‑while, at the same time, it invites confusion with numberless groups and movernents that have co‑opted these‑authentically Christian!‑terms. It is absolutely necessary, therefore, to clear the ground by making it plain what "gnosis" means (and especially what it does not mean!) before proceeding to the body of the work, even though this procedure has the disadvantage of broaching, at the very outset, a subject that is both difficult and troublesome. Yet there is no help for it, no easy way out of the dilemma. I will add that Borella's prologue culminates in an exegesis of another prologue‑that of St. John!‑an exegesis which, in its utter magnificence, more than justifies the admittedly hard and perhaps somewhat trying elucidations that have prepared the way. It appears in fact that Borella's philosophical reflections typically tend to culminate in exegetical commentary on some scriptural passage or theological theme; and I would add that when this happens one is invariable struck by the sheer grandeur of what is thus revealed. Whether it be on the Sign of the Covenant, or on Jonas, or on the Tower of Babel, or on the figure of John the Baptist, or on the Immaculate Conception, or the Wounds of Christ (to mention but a few major instances that immediately come to mind), one has the distinct impression‑whether rightly or wrongly, I cannot always tell‑that Borella's exegetical findings are highly of original, though doubtless traditional in spirit. These revelations have about them a freshness that I find precious, and arouse in us a deep response‑a kind of blissful excitation, I am tempted to say that I would count among the most sublime attainments of our life. The transition, moreover, from philosophical speculation to theological exegesis, is gentle to the point of being imperceptible; I know of no other philosophy that lends itself quite so naturally to theological use. And the reason is quite simple: An authentic philosophy of symbolism cannot but be inherently theological, given that it is in Scripture and above all, in the Incarnation!‑that the symbolic attains its highest possibility, and thus its purest form. Has Jesus himself not told us: "He that hath seen me hath seen the Father"? And has not St. Paul said likewise: "For in him dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily" (Col. 2:9)? But where is the philosophy, where the ontology, which can even begin to make sense of these affirmations? Judged in the light of common day, or measured by the standards of our accustomed rationality, nothing, surely, could be more absurd. No wonder Borella speaks of a "formidable challenge"! As I have noted before, what enlightens and delights the wise proves offensive to the fool, provoking derision and contempt. The venerable Simeon's prophecy has come true: "a sign that shall be spoken against" (Luke 2:34) 9 From a metaphysical point of view one sees that a sign or true symbol, by its very nature, exhibits a dual‑if not contradictory‑aspect, given that what it "presentifies" is also, in a way, "absent." The question now obtrudes itself. Are not the dualities and contradictions of human existence‑and of the spiritual way!‑-prefigured or somehow rooted in what Borella terms le mystere du signe? It is to be noted that the relation of Borella's philosophy to sacred symbols is itself dual: on the one hand, as I have said, that philosophy appeals directly to sacred symbols for its highest insights, while on the other hand, it serves as a hermeneutic, a key that unlocks the symbol itself. Here too, I believe, the words of Christ apply: "For he that hath, to him shall be given" (Mark 4:25 ). Nor let us forget the second half of this Christic logion, which carries a dire warning for the philosopher as well. Would it be too much to say that all specifically modern and postmodern philosophy‑from Descartes to Derridastands under the sign of this condemnation? I surmise that anyone who has read La crise du symbolisme religienx (1990) will answer this question to the detriment of post medieval thought.
TRADITION AND AUTHENTICITY In the Search for Ecumenic Wisdom by Thomas Langan University of Missouri Press
$34.95, cloth; 239 pages, notes, bibliography, index 0-8262-0800-2
Langan, one of the pioneer North American interpreters of Heidegger, covers in this volume the intricacies of traditional values and meanings in the face of major antitraditional forces and presumptions. This is a major contribution to the now less fashionable quest for world culture and the more fashionable reconciliation of the experience of modernity and with the received faith of tradition. Our emerging world system is bringing the great traditions and cultures it has spawned into ever more intimate and dangerous contact. Although many of the same processes of change and development are unfolding in different parts of the world, distinctive traditions seem to make conflicting, perhaps irreconcilable, truth claims. The material conquest of the world, through its planetary-scale institutions and through a scientific-universalistic concept of truth, tends to relativize the claims of all cultures. In Tradition and Authenticity in the Search for Ecumenic Wisdom, Thomas Langan argues that we must struggle toward a unity of discourse respectful of genuine experiences of varying civilizations if we are to live peacefully on one planet. Langan begins by raising the question of whether this search for an ecumenic wisdom is a valid project. He considers the "appropriation" of history in a most original manner, melding phenomenology's appreciation for the interpretative nature of knowledge with classical philosophy's recognition of the objectivity of formal truth. Drawing upon the thought of Heidegger and Voegelin, among others, he studies the role of explicit traditions in transmitting truths and distinguishes four genera of tradition--artistic, revelational, associational, and scientific-philosophical. Langan lays down the challenge of the "truth question" and shows how understanding the developmental nature of history helps realize such a project without "imperialistically" imposing one tradition's truth and rationality upon another's, but also without yielding to a skeptical relativism. Langan's compelling exploration of the interaction of different traditions and his ultimate search for an ecumenic wisdom will be fascinating to students and scholars of political philosophy, intellectual history, and theology.
Table of Contents:
I. Explicit Tradition in the Pursuit of Authenticity
1. On Finding the Way
2. A Space for Authenticity
3. The Structure and Kinds of Explicit Tradition
4. The Truth and Faithfulness of Traditions and Institutions
5. The Bad and Good Senses of Tradition
II. The Place of Traditions in the Emerging World System
6. The Elements of the World System
7. The Relevant Explicit Traditions
8. A Single Wisdom from Various Traditions
III. Tradition and Authenticity
9. The Ultimate Structures and the Problem of Ideology
Appendix A: Glossary
Appendix B: Combinations of Tradition, Institution, and Situation
Appendix C: Major Explicit Traditions Influencing the World System
Thomas Langan classic work on the
Meaning of Heidegger: A Critical Study of an Existentialist
Phenomenology is still available in a library reprint edition.
Published by Greenwood Pub Group. It
set the tone for aspects of the American post-War debate and American reception of the later Heidegger. Langan's own Being and Truth. Published by University of Missouri Press. Will be reviewed here soon. It continues the challenges set up in Tradition and Authenticity in the Search for Ecumenic Wisdom by insisting that integrating the kinds of truth handed down by various traditions. Langan argues that even though our experience is shaped by our traditions each of us still has direct access to reality, hence true moral agency. This is a major reconstruction of epistemology based upon a theory of being.
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