Divine rakham (2)

Rakham is a revealed divine attribute. Like any non-technical term it has outlier uses, but at its center it’s love with a note of affection, and affection with a note of being blind to or looking past anything that would count against the affection. So the rakham of the father makes him run out to his prodigal son, either not seeing or seeing past all that the older son sees in him; the rakham of Joseph makes him forget all that his brothers had done to him and weep to see his brother Benjamin again; and the rakham of the true mother of the child in the story of Solomon’s judgment makes her prefer giving her child away to letting him die.

That last example spotlights what is central to rakham, though to make the point we have to wade into the stupifying darkness of modern political controversy. One of the reasons for women choose abortion over adoption is that they prefer termination to the emotional pain of having to grow a child within one’s own body only to give it away to another. One can neither make light of this pain nor fail to notice that preferring to end the life of another rather than endure a heartbreak oneself is exactly the choice rejected by the true mother in Solomon’s test.

Seen from this angle, rakham is an absorption in the goodness of another to the point of the forgetfulness of one’s own desires or interests. Here again motherhood seems to be the paradigm for rakham: in her absorption with the life of another the woman is to some extent made forgetful of morning sickness, vulnerability, inability to pursue career-fulfillment, labor, the loss of youthful figure, isolation from friends, (and, yes, even the possibility of having to give the child away to be raised by another). Applied to divinity, rakham is integral to God’s saving mission, which takes its point of departure from those who offend and detract from the manifestation of his glory.

Divine rakham seems to argue for universalism, and the universalist is correct that divine love can’t go from overlooking sins to suddenly pouring out this wrath upon sinners. I’ve argued in the past that grace simply can’t be given after death, and so divine wrath against the damned is a metaphor for the impossibility of grace, but there seems to be an element more a propos to the matter at hand. God saves through his rakham, which is a certain losing oneself in the goodness of the object of love. It follows that God can’t act as though the choices of the person can be disregarded and a soul can be saved as though its own choices did not matter.  While it is obviously true that God can give grace to everyone in life, this is to consider only his power in abstraction from the formal character of the salvific act through rakham, consisting as it does in a kind of forgetfulness of oneself in the face of another. What I’ve said here obviously doesn’t rise to the level of refuting universalism, but it points to an interesting set of considerations.

Divinity, sexuality, and divine rakham

It’s axiomatic to us that God has no gender,* and we usually are comfortable taking this to mean that Scripture’s repeated references to divine masculinity are metaphorical. We often leave the axiom at this because asking the logically next question presents a thorny dilemma.

Here’s the next question: Are we to understand divine genderlessness as meaning that human masculinity and femininity have no analogue in God, so that our experience as men and women reveals nothing at all in the divine life?

If we say yes then it becomes absurd to say that we are in the divine image as male and female, but this strains Genesis 1:27 to the point of incoherence: In the image of God he created them, male and female he created them. This is a typical Hebrew parallelism suggesting that being “in the image of God” is found somehow – perhaps first of all – in human sexual dimorphism. In spite of centuries of commentary that suggest otherwise, the text doesn’t say in the image of God he created them, intellectual and volitional he created them or in the image of God he created them, able to speak their own word he created them. 

If we say yes we will also lose an important element in centuries of commentary, since we will no longer understand why Song of Songs is part of the canon. The whole premise of commentary on that book from Origen to Bernard to last week (and there are more commentaries on Song of Songs than any other Scriptural text) is that what is characteristic of human sexual love is somehow -and perhaps first of all – characteristic of God also.

If we say no, however, our theology will have to decide what is characteristic of men and women, and divinize these characteristics by eminence and analogy, which means divinizing stereotypes.

I don’t know how to resolve the problem, but an interesting place to start is the divine property of rakham. As a locus classicus we’ll take it from the first verse of Psalm 51.

The psalm is introduced as David’s penitential prayer after Nathan has outed him for adultery and murder. Tellingly for us, David has managed to pervert all intimate gendered relations: abusing his authority to seduce another man’s wife and then deceiving, abandoning, and murdering a friend and fellow soldier in his army.

In crying for forgiveness David appeals to two characteristics of God: hesed – a mysterious word for which all translations are inadequate – and rakhamwhich means both mercy and womb. 

The great illustration of rakham is the judgment of Solomon on the two women. In resolving a custody dispute between them over a child:

24 The king said, “Get me a sword.” So they brought a sword before the king. 25 The king said, “Divide the living child in two, and give half to the one and half to the other.” 26 Then the woman whose child was the living one spoke to the king, for [e]she was deeply stirred over her son and said, “Oh, my lord, give her the living child, and by no means kill him.” But the other said, “He shall be neither mine nor yours; divide him!” 27 Then the king said, “Give [f]the first woman the living child, and by no means kill him. She is his mother.”

I Kings 3 : 24-27

The “deeply stirred upon her son” is “warmth/ yearning in her rakham”The woman is identified as mother from just this stirring, as though to identify compassion and the womb. It’s this that David appeals to as a divine property when he calls out to God in his moment of greatest humiliation and degradation.

But to complicate or balance things, Scripture also relates a beautiful story of rakham in a man. It comes from the story of Joseph, which is too complex to summarize and so I’ll assume a familiarity with it allows you to visualize the moment where Joseph, as an Egyptian magistrate who has been separated from is family for years, finally catches sight of his beloved younger brother:

29 As he looked about and saw his brother Benjamin, his own mother’s son, he asked, “Is this your youngest brother, the one you told me about?” And he said, “God be gracious to you, my son.” 30 Deeply moved at the sight of his brother, Joseph hurried out and looked for a place to weep. He went into his private room and wept there.

Genesis 43: 29

The “deeply moved” is the same phrase used to describe the maternal feelings of the mother in the story from 1 Kings 3.

So where does this leave us? On the one hand rakham identifies maternity, on the other it is an experience which, though men might find embarrassing, they nevertheless can identify with. This male embarassment in the face of rakham suggests it is something which they both have some access to and yet identify with the feminine. And it might be in this sense that rakham must be made eminent and analogized to divinity.

Rakham is also used to describe loves of fathers for children (Ps. 103: 13), but, again, this seems to be the sort of warm, affectionate, love that is paradigmatically feminine. One can get rakham from a father or mother (and both the story of the prodigal son and good samaritan tell of it in a man) but it is difficult to visualize it as a continual or eternal trait without seeing it as maternal. In fathers,  rakham seems always balanced against other traits. This too opens a discussion of what exactly rakham looks like as a divine trait.


-I use “gender” throughout since to use “sex”, even if more proper, sounds like one is talking not about sexual dimorphism but coïtus.

On one way of understanding the fundamental postulate of Biblical criticism

On or around the first day of a class on modern biblical criticism – and I’ve taught the class – you find out that the point is to read The Bible like you would read any other ancient text. It’s the fundamental postulate of the discipline, coloring and guiding all that comes afterward.

Like many fundamental postulates it can be understood in subtly different ways that soon make for large differences. I here want to mention one way in which it leads to a performative contradiction, and though it’s not the only way of understanding the postulate I think it is a common one, and noticing its contradiction illumines an important link between faith/religion and reason/history/science.

If The Bible were just any other ancient text then I would be reading it as thought it were a randomly chosen sample of from that group. Now I know something about the sort of person who would be happy to study any randomly chosen ancient text, who would, for example, be just as happy to translate sales receipts written in ancient cuneiform as to learn verb forms in Linear B as to count the number of times Osiris is called “shining” in the Pyramid texts, etc. There aren’t many such persons, and I find it physically impossible to imagine what it would be like to be one of them. So if I understand the fundamental postulate in this way, then the idea that governs my study of the Bible leaves me unable to understand why I’m reading it in the first place.

Again, if the Bible were any other ancient text, why am I getting paid to teach it in an introductory theology course? I’d be crazy to go to my school’s administration and pitch the idea of a class dedicated to studying the competing hypotheses on the nature of Harappan script, but if The Bible is any randomly chosen ancient text, then this is exactly what the theology course would be.

And how could I believe the fundamental postulate in a church? If my whole career were dedicated to translating tomb inscriptions on Minoan ossuaries I would be extremely confused to find hundreds of buildings within miles of my house where people go every Sunday to hear lectures and readings from the stuff I studied during the week.

Notice that we can’t dispel this by distinguishing the Bible of the believer from the Bible of history.* When I read the Egyptian Book of The Dead I don’t feel any polemical desire at all, but it would be emotionally perverse to read it in the same way if I were surrounded by millions of passionate believers in the text. Maybe I’d believe it with them and maybe I wouldn’t, but I’d have to do one or the other, and so could not avoid the need to make some a deeply significant response in a way that is not forced on me when I am actually reading a randomly chosen ancient text.

I don’t live in a world where The Bible can be just any ancient text any more than a Saudi lives in the world where the Koran is just any Arabic text or the Israelites around mount Pe’or could treat Ba’al as just any ancient god, and I’m moreover committed to the idea that a world that would treat the Bible in this way is less desirable than the world in which I find myself, and this is integral to why I am teaching and studying it.

*The opposition between “The Jesus of history and the Christ of faith” can be read as one application of the fundamental postulate, and runs into the same sort of performative contradiction if we interpret it in the same way.



The biological and conventional in a simpler case

Suppose we all woke up convinced we had to divide politics or language or ping-pong into what was biological and what was conventional/ socially constructed. 

Maybe language is the low-hanging fruit. Examples of the conventional or socially constructed seem easy to spot: the meanings of terms; the order of subject, object and verb; what the gender of “moon” is; whether one has a word for “beech tree” or “brunch”, etc. Here’s some candidates for what would count as “biological” or “natural” in language:

1.) Interjections like yelps of pain or mourning wails (They’re all elongated vowel sounds?)

2.) Chomskyan Universal Grammar.

3.) Some expressive verbal system later developed into writing, hand-signs, Morse code, etc. As verbal, it is based off the ≈20 simple consonant sounds that the human vocal apparatus can form, as “later developed” it can also include hand gestures, facial expressions, and who knows what else.

4.) A nexus of logical noun and verb with attendant modifiers thereto.

5.) The fact that human beings speak.

Looking over the list, it looks like

1.) This would be “biological” because done spontaneously or without coaching, and maybe for being a behavior shown in non-human animals.

2.) This is a theory that argues for language having a natural basis because, inter alia (a) language behaviors are so quickly formed off limited evidence by not-so-clever persons that they must have some in-built biological basis and (b) thinking that language is purely mimetic and conventional to the exclusion of biological mechanisms is like thinking that puberty is conventional to the exclusion of biological mechanisms.

3.) This grounds the biological character of language in an analysis of the structure of the organs of speech, and then seeing the ways in which biological structures can generate adjuncts and derivative senses of using organs to do similar things.

4.) Language is natural in this sense because that’s how it’s defined, but it would be really odd to call it “biological”. This seems to show that “biology” isn’t a great way at hitting at all that is natural or necessary.

5.) This sense is biological

a.) As a behavioral phenotype. Pigs root, birds nest, humans speak

b.) As a normative description. If your child can’t speak X number of words by age Y, he goes to speech therapy.

This last sense is interesting in that even under the hypothesis that one divides speech into the conventional from the biological, both the conventional and biological elements will count as biological so far as speech as speech is here seen as “biological”. One suspects that, if this is the case, one loses the value in trying to distinguish convention and biology.

Identity and distinction in knowledges

1.) Knower and known are distinct in one sense and in another sense unified. How?

2.) As a starting hypothesis, in the knowledge of a central nervous system (CNS) the distinction is a physical separation on the one hand, and a unity of act and potency on the other. The fox and the chicken are here and there, and the one causes a physical change in the sense organ of the other.

3.) Because sensation is a unity of act and potency it is a mix of the objective and subjective and sensation has no ability to tease out which element comes from where, so much so that purely CNS knowledge can make no distinction between one’s own and another’s. The mosquito that flies at me to feed isn’t flying to a conscious mine distinct from a conscious his, even if various mosquito behaviors (seeking self-preservation) are predicated on a distinction between one’s own and another’s.

Maybe in higher non-human animals the rudiments of “mine” and “his” enter more clearly into consciousness, but if they came fully into it we could share property law with non-human animals, or at least argue about it.

4.) So far as intelligence knows in CNS knowledge what is peculiar to CNS will remain, but this will explain nothing about intelligence as such. All the same, intelligence must have knower and known distinct and unified. How?

5.) Intelligence seems to require that some levels of designation involve no physical distinction between knower and known, at least under the idea that a physical distinction is between things in different places. “Cat” is just Garfield less-designated, but at this level the difference between Garfield and Tibbles on the one hand and Garfield and myself on the other is no longer between an object in one place and a subject in another, as it is between CNS knowledge and its object. At the same time, because I can recognize the difference between subject and object the known and knower cannot be related as act to potency.

6.) But saying that the distinction between knower and known is the difference between subject and object only says the same thing twice. Subject and object are just technical terms for knower and known. We know they are relative terms, but what exactly is their unity and difference?

7.) We can know it by negation: knower and known are not as act to potency. It is not a physical union, even if the action is somehow in time and is somehow multiple and so has potency in some sense.

8.) Positively, it seems to be best describable by something like Thomas’s trinitarian theory, where distinct terms of a relation sharing a single act of existence (esse).

9.) The rule in play seems to be that immateriality (i.e. the action that transcends the action of act to potency or act in potency) gives rise to relations that share a common act of existence. At the limit of this immateriality one finds the Intelligible paradigm of Father/logos and the voluntary paradigm of Father-Logos/Spirit.

Goodness from truth, and an objection

Truth and knowledge have a lot of meanings, but start with an idea of knowledge that is broader than truth, i.e. the mosquito flying around the room knows about a large warm object (me) but being aware of large, warm, tasty objects is not the same thing as being aware of truth. Being aware of the tasty is a source of feeding behaviors but being aware of truth is a source of science-acquiring behaviors, and bugs show one behavior all the time without ever showing the other.

So truth in this second sense would be actualized in science-acquiring behavior, and this seems to limit truth to humans and whatever arrives on the next spaceship.

In this sense truth extends to all things, and since anything true is some sort of perfection of mind it is also desirable. In this sense being as being is both true since it is the case and also good.

The truth of being is therefore relative to intellect, and its goodness consists in its being perfective thereof. Since nothing is perfective relative to the divine intellect or will, both truth and goodness as here understood are entirely relative to the created intellect and will, even though God is true and good in this sense. This explains why Thomas appeals to God’s efficient causality when he proves the divine goodness, sc. because it is in God being a source of things other than himself that he is perfective in reality and therefore good.

Objection: The status of being-perfective-in-reality is a perfection. But God becomes a being with this status only by creating. Therefore, God acquires some perfection by creating and so creation stands to God as perfective.

Response: It’s integral to the notion of creation itself that any account of it as becoming is only in the mode of understanding and not to the act of creation. Creation is from nothing both in the sense that it is not from some undeveloped potency in creation and not from an undeveloped  potency in the creator.

Undeveloped potencies are peculiar to time: I act now and not then or later and so actualize something now that was not actualized then or later. If I stop cutting it effects neither what I have cut nor will cut. However the past or the future in reality (and outside of the divine mind) exist, they will continue to exist if I stop. If God ceases creating, however, then all temporality outside of divine thought, no matter what being it has, would entirely disappear.

Aristotle’s critique of Naturalism and Dualism

While contemporary philosophy of mind sees one’s fundamental options as Naturalism and dualism, Aristotle views both as two versions of the same mistake. Given that mind is a kind of life, for him the correct account of it is

The substantial form of a body potentially alive.

Naturalism, however, translated into Aristotle’s terms, holds that life is

The accidental form (namely an arrangement or ordering) of a body potentially alive (i.e. non-living matter)

After the same translation, dualism says that life is

The accidental form, (namely the passivity or being moved) of a body potentially alive (i.e. non-living matter able to be moved by a living spirit)


Consensus truth

John Meier explained his definition of a “historical Jesus” as the result of imagining the results of what an “unpapal enclave” of what a Jew, Christian, Aganostic, etc. could all agree about Jesus. In other words, the “historical” is formally what can win broad consensus. The historical shares this formal characteristic with the scientific.

Science is consensus-truth, scientific truth is what you can get your own “unpapal enclave” to accept, and short of this it is at best capax scientiae. Not all truths can be like this: If someone decided he was only going to believe what was communly accepted he (a) wouldn’t be able to act politically, be religious or irreligious, have definite beliefs about mysterious things in nature, write a legal opinion, critique a movie, etc and (b) he’d be living according to a belief that itself had no community consensus.

And what if we wanted to prove that consensus truth was superior? We’d have to show consensus was truer, which can’t be done without an account of truth broader than consensus. So maybe we ask everyone to guess the number of balls in a jar and find that taking the average guess is almost always better than taking any individual at random. This is fine, except that the whole meaning of “better” requires some access to a truth for which consensus is irrelevant, namely opening the jar and counting the balls. Even without this formal problem there would be clear scaling problems: not all cognitive work is like guessing the number of balls in a jar. So it’s It’s pointless to argue, as Tim Maudlin did, that science is better than religion because it is better at producing consensus – it’s like arguing that knives are better than forks because they are better at cutting. Science is designed to produce consensus by excluding a priori all sorts of beliefs that can’t be “boiled down”  or for which there is no “least common denominator”.

Consensus inevitably involves some degree of boiling things down, so its value for truth only extends to the sort of truth that can be distilled and not evaporated. Distilling truths tolerates a degree of superficiality for the sake of a kind of self-evidence, though in the usual case the superficiality consists in the truth in question not being the sort of thing for which one could live, die, kill, pray, be celibate or fast for but which gives value to life in other ways.

Said without metaphor, consensus truth is a sort of abstraction or separation from truth as we actually find it. In real life there is an interpenetration of what we can get consensus on and what we can’t.





Psalm 90: 7

By your wrath we are troubled. 

The original has two words, one that unambiguously means fury or wrath, the other (bahal) which seems to indicate any negative response we have to finding the world other than we would wanted or expected it. Sometimes the world has scary things and so bahal means afraid, sometimes it has annoying things so bahal means annoyed or vexed, sometimes it has confusing things or utterly amazing things and so bahal means troubled or amazed. There is some restriction with how it is used in v. 7 since though Mary was clearly bahal at the annunciation in the presence of an angel no one would claim she was an object of wrath. In 90:7 the wrath is extending to those who want the world other than it is, not just those who expected it otherwise.

In this sense God’s wrath is in the experience of being annoyed, troubled or vexed that the world is not as we wanted it. Put another way, the wrath of God is what the world feels like when we refuse to accept it as it is. Sometimes this refusal is just and not directed at ourselves, and so God’s wrath is also just and not directed at us, but in normal experience the refusal is simply our wanting things otherwise – less traffic, more free time, other company, fewer duties. In this sense, the refusal isn’t a matter of justice but of preference, and at these times to escape the wrath of God means simply to accept the world as it exists, and to be crushed by the wrath of God is to sulk and flee from the world as it comes.

I’ve never tried to count my vexations or moments of annoyance but I expect I’d never have to go back a day to remember the last one. In this sense I suppose I am living continually under divine wrath. Contrarily, all sin involves some refusal to take the world as it is: coming as it does with limits on pleasures that fall short of the infinite satisfaction we want them to provide and with the attendant pains that can’t be sloughed off from the goods we want to achieve.

Fill in the blank modern holidays

Father’s Day. Is it the day we remember the heroic martyrdom of St. Father? No… Is it when we remember the heroic sacrifice and fortitude shown at the battle of Father? No…

So is it at least a day with a paradigm of fatherhood that we can celebrate or rededicate ourselves to? No….

What’s happening in a wish for a happy Father’s Day? That it was a way to sell cards and increase consumption is clear, but the wish is not for consumption or card-buying.

The meaning of the day is designed as self-defined, i.e. what we communially celebrate is the collective blank we all confront after the prompt: describe what you celebrate in your father and/or the idea of fatherhood. On the one hand, there is a presumption that fathers are to be celebrated – and without this we could have no communal celebration at all –  but on the other hand what is celebrated is self-defined. By way of contrast, it would be absurd for a Christian to see Easter in the same way, or a WWI Veteran to see Remembrance Day as a blank space in which everyone fills in his own meaning.

The “blank space” is comme il faut for modern celebrations. The moment of silence is a blank space as is Santa Christmas, Pumpkin Halloween or candy-heart Valentine’s Day.

The blank space allows for pluralism and for self-definition of meaning, and in this sense it both ratifies a central modern belief and/or still meets our minimum need for collective activity. That said, it clearly comes at the cost of ontological depth. What one is celebrating in Rudolph-Frosty Christmas or Sweetheart Valentine’s is attenuated and abstract, and what once required a theophany now only requires a mood.


« Older entries