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
Emissaries

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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Sand Cliffs

November 29, 2006 at 1:18 pm (Blue Kansas)

 This is the last of Ralph David Emerson’s Blue Kansas series. 

                                                                             -Lynn Alexander 

I move out slowly
Across great fields of drifted sand
To reach the pavilion
Where you calmly sit
In your white dress and white hat
Looking out over the shimmering lake
Which stretches to the horizon
I am not sure if I will reach the edge
Of the cliff before sunset
As the sands draw my feet down
Deeper and deeper
And the thin grass
Becomes even thinner
In the late afternoon wind.
Even your image has become faint
Silhouetted against the sun and the sky
Perhaps you are just a mirage
A translucent fragment of glass
Sparkling briefly at the boundary
Of earth and water
Yet as I draw closer
Almost close enough to see the light
At the edges
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
Emissaries

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Cottonwood Falls

November 28, 2006 at 6:02 pm (Blue Kansas)


 

Driving into wind and rain
Shadows of hills blurring
Into a single main street
Lined with quiet stores
At the end of the block
An immense Victorian courthouse
Rises like the Parthenon
Over the town below
The cemetery is full
The streets are empty
In a tiny museum we look at sepia photographs
In a deserted hotel we drink tea
And watch the grass sway in the wind
As the rain falls harder
We walk up a trail toward a one room schoolhouse
Through a creek thick with willows and cottonwood
We climb and climb through the tall grass
But never arrive
The horizon receding
Further and further away
With each step we take

 

 

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Book of Revelations

November 27, 2006 at 4:41 pm (Blue Kansas)

When the last train
Leaves from the coast
Shortly before the flames come
You will want to read this book
You will want to remember the names
Of all the saints
So that you can pray
You will want to pray
When the images erupt
And the numbers reveal themselves
You will want to know
Which road leads where
When the familiar forms
Are no longer
Within your reach
When you realize everything
Is just dangling on a thread
When the fire of judgment
Singes the ground beneath you
You will especially
Want to remember
What the white angel said
Just before
You plummeted to earth

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The Maps of Kansas

November 26, 2006 at 6:19 pm (Blue Kansas)

The Reverend Talisman has kindly provided us with four additional poems by the recently missing local poet Ralph David Emerson. This is the first of them.

 

The maps of Kansas show roads
As if it were like any other state
But soon you realize
That there are no roads
No towns no cities no lakes no rivers
Nothing with a name
Just vast space
All the roads in
America end here
Somewhere in a wheat field or a prairie
A few make it as far as an abandoned farmhouse
Or a rusted windmill
Then turn into tall grass
It is all unexplored, unclaimed space
To reach
Kansas
Is to have all your thoughts run empty
To open a book
And find all the pages blank
You turn off the car engine
And step out into the sunlight
There is no point in driving any further
Everything can be seen from here
The oaks and the hedgerow
The vacant white church 
The blue hills in the distance
Any direction you take
Will lead to the same destination
No place at all

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The New Testament

November 15, 2006 at 10:23 am (Blue Kansas)

 

We entered a reception room
Plain, in the style of the last century
With just a few pieces of simple, solid wood furniture
A long table, a few chairs, a smaller end table
A large oak barrel in the corner
And a painting of Jesus praying 
Sitting in one of the chairs was a minister
In a plain, dark suit with a collar
He stood up and walked towards us
Coming up very close and looking us over
Curious and yet calm
“Where might you be going?”
“We would like to see the foundation of the house. Can we go downstairs?”
“No, that’s not allowed,” he said abruptly. “You don’t need to go there. It wouldn’t be of any use to you.”
“You don’t know why we are here or what might or might not be of use to us.”
“And you don’t know why I am here, ” he answered sternly. “No, you must turn back.”
We took a seat by the table and opened a pack of cigarettes.
“Would you like one? ” I asked.
“No, never smoke,” he replied.
“Of course.”
We sat quietly a few minutes smoking.
“Of what church are you? ” I asked.
“Christian.”
“Yes, but there are many varieties. What denomination are you?”
“To you there may be many varieties, but in that you are mistaken.”
“I see”. There was another long pause. “Well, we must push forward.” I said moving toward the basement door.
“I’m afraid not,” he replied pulling out what appeared to be a scythe. It was quite old and the blade was covered either with rust or dry blood, or perhaps both. He showed no emotion, it merely held it in his hand as if the gesture itself should prove a sufficient deterrent.
I responded by pulling out a thin, leather covered book from my pocket.
“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.

Randolph David Emerson 

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Desert Fathers

November 14, 2006 at 10:49 am (Blue Kansas)

Within the book it is written
That the words of the Lord
Come as a river of fire
A vast desert of fire
Windswept with anchorites
Who gaze through the flames
Toward a distant endless sea
A sea that sparkles
In the unstoppable sun
A sun that burns all desire
Everywhere
The scent of madness swirls
As a windstorm envelops the sand
The white monastery
Perched on the mountain cliff
Is lost in an ocean of its own
The ocean of a god
No one remembers
For once the names disappear
The names of the Father
The names of the Son
The names of the numbers between zero and one
Only then in the translucent light of paradise
Does the unsought appear
Unhurried, nearly invisible, nothing at all
Yet to reach that place
That place no one has ever been
Old men, white as stones
Will stay awake night after night
In expectation

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The Master’s Hand

November 13, 2006 at 8:30 pm (Blue Kansas)

At the Abby I meet Sister Louisa
Who works in the gardens
Incredible gardens, flawless vegetables, unblemished fruit
Not a single weed or insect to be seen
It’s a bit uncanny
What do you use to keep everything so intact I ask
It is a secret she smiles
Over time I pry it out of her
The Master’s hand she says
That is what guides everything to perfection
With this she glances shyly towards the sky
I am sure the Master who guides souls
Has many means to His disposal I reply
But here in the garden you must do the tending
Am I to believe you attain such results with prayer alone?
She smiles
The Master’s hand touches everything she says
I look over the neat rows of unnatural perfection
Everything precisely, abundantly alike
I become concerned
If we were to be touched like this garden…
I feel a sharp pain in my heart
I look at the rich dark soil
Suddenly it comes to me

Show me this hand, where have you buried it?
She looks at me coldly and turns away

I leave quickly
Perhaps I have misunderstood
Perhaps I haven’t

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Crossroads

November 9, 2006 at 5:11 pm (Blue Kansas)

In the back of the general store
The black girl
Sells torn maps
Of countries without roads
On the walls are hearts
Drawn in chalk
On the floor old ladies
Lie twisting and moaning
The shopkeeper is impassive
Seated in the cobra chair
With a bell and rattle in his lap
He could be a thousand years old
The counter has bottles of dark liquor
And dishes of bright food
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

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Salvation Army of the Dead

November 8, 2006 at 5:24 pm (Blue Kansas)

 

They all return here
All the band members in their uniforms
Moving quietly down the dark empty streets
Their instruments held loosely at their sides
Their frayed leather bibles close to their hearts
And every word is written by God
And every word is true
But the voices are frail, the instruments worn
The stray person walking out at night
Hears only a vague rustling of the wind
And doesn’t see the thick shadows
On the crumbling brick walls
All night long they march
Storefront after storefront, street after street
As one by one the lights fade
In the upstairs apartments
And the tenants drift off into sleep
Only then
In the midst of endless dreams
Are the first hymns heard

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Republic of Ghosts

November 7, 2006 at 12:56 pm (Blue Kansas)

 

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
The empire lurches on
The conversation drifts
Into a sea of white noise
We pass shopping malls
Full of politicians
We buy newspapers
To wrap sandwiches in
And continue north
Driving aimlessly
With no particular
Destination in mind

 

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The Depths of Tiredness

November 1, 2006 at 6:17 pm (Blue Kansas)

 

The depths of tiredness
Are like a dark pool at the end of a long winding path
In a still and quiet forest
Where the shadows of thousands of leaves
Form an impenetrable archway overhead
Looking into the pool
You see vague reflections
Which remind you of the ridged patterns
On Greek pottery
And images from a half-remembered poem by Baudelaire
Or sunlight reflecting on the auburn hair
Of a girl you knew a long time ago
You sit down under a thick cypress tree
And stare into the mirror of water
Until the reflections disappear
And there is nothing
Nothing but a thin line of numbness
Running from the back of your throat
Through your arms and chest
Into nothing
And the pool and numbness
Are both the same and there is no further ground
To step back on
The last layer is revealed, laid open
And there is nothing
Nothing but a slight wind
Which seems cold
And a feeling that from somewhere far away
Sleep and darkness are rumbling towards you
Like a heavy iron train at the distant end
Of a long fathomless tunnel
You only vaguely knew existed

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Library of the Dead

October 31, 2006 at 7:23 am (Blue Kansas)

After you die
They will give you a typewriter
And a quiet place
Where you can write down everything that happened
Everything you saw
Everything you felt
You can take as long as you want
Your memory will be perfect
All the details will be there for you
As crisp and clear as the moment they first occurred
When you finish the book
They will find someone to publish it for you
The only publisher left actually
The house publisher for the Library of the Dead
Once your book is printed
It will sit on the shelves with the others
Many others – too many to count
Curious, you might want to look through some of these
You might especially enjoy those you wrote
In your previous lives
You will find the catalog system superb
Telepathic in fact
You won’t just read words
The images and events will all appear as if they are real
So real you will forget whether you are living or dead
Whether the book you are reading is from a former life
Or one that has yet to be lived
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
All the way down into the womb of the Great Mother
Who loves writers so much
She gives birth to them constantly

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Blue Kansas

October 30, 2006 at 11:00 am (Blue Kansas)

How do you know
If you don’t go
Where the black cat
Is leading
Into the field
Of nearly solid darkness?
How do you know
If you don’t surrender
To the open sarcophagus
That lies in front of you
And listen to the hymns of the dead?
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.
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
Even if the ravens and ibises
And crocodiles of the next world
Offer to make everything clear
Be sure you understand
The hieroglyphs
Before you converse with them
Or hope
That since you
Are one of the few
That can see
What the pictures never show
The daughter of the sun
Will find you

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