Mystical Atheism and the Absence of God in the Poetry of Ralph David Emerson

December 1, 2006 at 5:09 pm (Blue Kansas, Theosophical Museum)

We are fortunate to be able to share with you a copy of the talk given last night at the Theosophical Museum. -Lynn

Ralph David Emerson mixing the Pina Coladas in Biochem 301

By Reverend Katherine Talisman

I was very sorry to hear of Mr. Emerson’s disappearance, however, as you know, here in Stranger Creek, there is a lot of that kind of coming and going, so I am not especially apprehensive. His absence in fact gives his work a somewhat posthumous aura that I treasure. I do not think many of the local residents realize that there is more to this youthful poetry than is first apparent. I for one find a curious undercurrent of theological suggestion, and a subtle subtext of strange self-effacement, which I will try to convey in my short talk tonight.

As his definitive poem, The New Testament, reveals, Mr. Emerson wants to see “the foundation of the house”. What house could this be, but the House of God? Yet he is not allowed – “That wouldn’t be of any use to you,” the minister tells him. Neither the old nor the new know why they are there, why this opposition must occur. The minister knows there is in fact no foundation to the house. He holds up the weapon of the Church – but he cannot deny the truth of the Spirit, and so must step aside.

“The New Testament, ” I said handing it to him, “You can read it while we look.”
And with that we slid past him and opened the door. He offered no resistance.

What exactly is the New Testament that Mr. Emerson wants to share with us? I do not think it is the one we are familiar with. It is not a form of religious Christianity, rather something akin to mystical atheism. Some of the older residents will remember the few turbulent years when Death of God theology commanded attention. While I do not imagine Mr. Emerson has much knowledge of ancient theology, and in fact appears to be more inclined to a sort of dynamic tribalism, there are undeniable signs in his work, that existentially he has reached the same space.

The ‘Death of God’ theology was many things, but almost always a forceful and sustained attack upon the conceits of religious Christianity – it was a radical Protestantism in every sense. As Thomas Altizer, one of its foremost proponents wrote, in his 1966 work, The Gospel of Christian Atheism, “From the point of radical Christianity, the original heresy was the identification of the Church as the body of Christ.”

In this line of thinking the creation of a universal Church, of any universal Church sets Christ in opposition to humanity, and its spiritual immediacy, and reverses the true freedom Christ offered and revealed in his life. For Emerson the ‘old way’ is symbolized by the minister with the blood-stained and rusted scythe for whom there are no denominations, only the monolithic Christian Church. But the Christian Church, consumed by its will to power, its imperialistic desire to rule the embodied world, binds the spirit, and silences the incarnate Word – a Word that to be true, must be allowed to manifest in all situations, not merely those that are institutionally proscribed.

The old order, crossed and partialized by its fixations, is irrevocably linked with violence and futility:

As we cross the border
Driving north towards the snow
We pass fields of debris
Jetliners torn in pieces
Houses and stores smoldering
Crumbled power lines
Dangling in the trees
Overhead, torn flags
Flutter uselessly
The republic is dead

Progressive spirituality cannot abide in a specific, fixed form. There is a continual descent of the Word into flesh which is a continual breaking of form. The living Christ does not permit solidification. He cannot be fixed into a presumptive role as ‘judge of the living and the dead’. The immediacy and presence of Spirit requires a continual forward movement into fuller and more complete deconstruction of all forms of conceptualized Spirit. The presence of God is only fully realized in the absence of God.

Soon you realize
That there are no roads
No towns no cities no lakes no rivers
Nothing with a name

We continually try to create a home in the homeless. Spirit animates appearances but cannot abide in appearance without denying its freedom, its being as Spirit. There is a suggestion in these poems of a radical ‘priesthood of all believers’, a challenge to become a direct conduit, to become ourselves spirit made flesh. Faith is not dogma, but inner transformation. All externalities have meaning only as symbols of this transformation.

There is no point in driving any further
Everything can be seen from here

But what is seen? Nothing at all. That is the cleansing presence of pure Spirit. It is the imageless that has given the image its face. This has radical implications for our theology. Rather than continually seeking a ‘re-imaging of Christ’ we should perhaps look to the ‘de-imaging of Christ’ as the authentic response to the challenge of the incarnate logos. The radical call is to dismiss all false imaginings in favor a mystical atheism, a theology of absence which contrary to all positivist claims witnesses the profound self-effacement of divine impotence, divine nonintervention and divine indifference.

The shopkeeper is impassive
Seated in the cobra chair
With a bell and rattle in his lap
He could be a thousand years old

Freedom in Christ lifts us up from the bondage of the Law. Not just Hebraic Law but all Law – all fixation, permanency and certainty, all conformity including religious conformity. Christ did not free us from one law to bind us to another, but to ‘judge not’, to put an end to all moral judgment, to suspend belief before the sovereignty of God’s absence. As the prophet Isaiah is told, “Behold I create new heavens and a new earth; and former things should not be remembered or come into mind.”

If we do not understand the freedom that is being offered to us, then all is lost:

When the images erupt
And the numbers reveal themselves
You will want to know
Which road leads where

For those who journey into the nothingness of God, direct experience is the crucial authority, the deciding value, with primacy over both religious myth and religious tradition. The sovereignty of God as a whole cannot permit any partiality, even the partiality of religious affirmation. As the French philosopher Georges Bataille said, “I live by tangible experience, not by logical explanation.”

We walk…
But never arrive
The horizon receding
Further and further away
With each step we take

This path is not a path that yields anything approaching an answer. As the Swiss evangelical Karl Barth said, “Religion is an abyss. It is terror. There demons appear…Religion compels us to the perception that God is not found in religion.” When God commands Adam and Eve not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil it is a command to not make a religion out of Spirit. The religious impulse itself is what has caused us to fall out of paradise.

Rather than forge a religious identity, entering into the nothingness of God requires us to abjure from any identity. As the German theologian Paul Tillich cautions in his 1963 work, The Eternal Now, “You cannot reach God by the work of right thinking, or by a sacrifice of intellect, or by a submission to strange authorities, such as the doctrines of the Church and the Bible. You cannot, and you are not even asked to try it.”

Entering the nothingness of God, one affirms the reality of spiritual presence, but does not claim to know what this presence is. There is nothing to believe nor disbelieve. There is nothing to accept nor reject. We do not need to bind ourselves to any dogmatic formulation, any conceptual idolization at all. Man’s free choice is to dwell in his thoughts or in God, in his preoccupation with religious and spiritual identities or in his empty being, void of all identity. As Bataille says, “I cry out to the sky ‘I know nothing’ and I repeat ‘absolutely nothing’.” Yet:

I know you are real
As real as the voices
That drift across the great sandbanks of dreams
Stretching out endlessly in front of me
As real as the white gulls
Flying overhead
Like angelic birds of prey
Your coy, terrible, and swift

Mystical atheism denies any affirmation of name and quality to God; it doesn’t try to explain away the mystery of our being by resorting to appeals to scriptural authority or churchly tradition. We are given nothing but the immediacy of experience, the Dionysian ecstasy of stillness in which to hear the voiceless voice.

Until you start falling
Into the weightlessness
That is like a dream or like
Any of a thousand other things
Suddenly present
You won’t even have a clue

In his 1943 work, La Somme Athelogique, Bataille posits that inner experience is opposed to action, to project, and to the intricate blend of action, project and discursiveness that animates our lives. In this regard, salvation is just another project, and until we divest ourselves of the idea that we are by virtue of belief, or faith, or religious identity privy to some privileged spiritual access we simply deceive ourselves. In fact, it is because Christianity has turned the living word into a project of scriptural exegesis, real compassion into a project of compassion, and natural grace into a project of salvation it has itself become a non-mystical atheism, by killing the living God it seeks.

As Bataille writes, “Further on, always further on… further on there is sacrifice, madness, the renunciation of all knowledge, the fall into the void, and nothing, neither in the fall not in the void is revealed, for the revelation of the void is but a means of falling further into absence…and above all: no more object.” Or as we read in Emerson:

The images will start to swirl together into a great blur
Of sound and color
And then a warm tunnel of light will open
And you will start to fall and fall and fall and fall
Any direction you take
Will lead to the same destination
No place at all

And yet there is a suggestion, that although inner experience has neither goal nor authority to justify it, that once the discursive is relegated to its proper place, as servant of experience, not its master, that this very ‘not-knowing’ is itself a form of ecstasy. “Inner experience is a conquest for others,” Bataille writes. Or as Emerson says:

Don’t worry
If you exist or not
Or whether
You know anything
Special or useful
Simply float and see
The unimaginable beauty of it all

To experience God as God, we must let God be as she is, in the immaculate sovereignty of her absolute nothingness. We must realize that experience has no categories – it has only immediacy, only Spirit. In this way we do not create a project to escape projects, we do not subscribe to projects at all, but in non-action recover the pure being and unbound freedom that is ours. That journey, the journey into the absence of God is one we must make alone – with nothing but God to guide us.

In the center the virgin smiles
From a faded unframed print
It is not clear what currency
You must use
To make a purchase here
Nor why you would want to go
To this land where the moon rises
From the ground
And the sun disappears
Into red oceans
Something in her eyes perhaps
A thin thread
From before the war, before the peace
Before everything
A thread left dangling
In some impossible wind

I think the closeness of Emerson’s dialectic and that of mystical atheism occurs because mystical atheism is very much a Protestant form of cemetery magic, a reformed cemetery magic. The icons are taken away and just the bare space remains. The parishioner is surrounded by this space, floats in this space, is dissolved in this space. Yet space is also infused with light – the radiant light that lies just off the spectrum of the visible. Everything is alive yet never is the silence broken. The true logos is never spoken at all. It is truly an impossible wind.


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