MR: Yeah. Well, that tradition can and does veer into a kind of eco-fascism.
DBH: Oh, yeah, sure, if it becomes a matter of preserving the fragile and the local by denying the universal; but none of them was guilty of that, and certainly not Tawney. There’s a person who would do everything he could—who fought—to see refugees welcomed into British society and protected. But this is always the danger, right? I mean socialism can be, in fact, so detached from our notion of right and left that it can be appropriated, obviously, as we know, by nationalist movements and eco-fascist movements.
MR: All this is why I rest on the anarcho-communist left, what Lenin denounced as the infantile disorder of left communism. But we should move on. I do want to mention Blake, whom we were talking about the other day, for whom the one worshipped by the names divine of Jesus and Jehovah is Satan. Obviously, you know, as a metaphor here.
DBH: Well, you know, truly, Satan, thou art but a dunce.
MR: But I said to someone just recently, you know, if the 80 percent of evangelicals—I’m sorry, 80 percent of white Evangelicals—
DBH: That’s another thing about American Christianity. It’s the most segregated version of Christianity in the world.
MR: If the 80 percent of white Evangelicals who voted for Trump in the last, I think the last two elections—if they are Christians, then I must be a Satanist.
DBH: I would hesitate there, however. Don’t go saying that too much. Someone might be listening. He’ll try to convince you that well, you might as well go all in—in for a penny, in for a pound.
MR: Yeah, well, I listen to a lot of black metal, so I’m inured to Satanism.
DBH: And I listen to too much Wagner.
MR: Let’s talk about Blake. I don’t remember who it was who said if William Blake was a Christian, no other man ever was. And that was not intended to impugn his Christianity, but to express what Kierkegaard called the difficulty of being a Christian in Christendom.
DBH: No, I think Blake was very much, obviously, an idiosyncratic Christian, and he’s been appropriated also—I knew Harold Bloom, by the way—
MR: Yeah, I noticed you’re cited in his last books a few times.
DBH: Yeah, right, he mentions me a few times. That’s the fruit of the conversations we had about the New Testament. He was actually quite pleased to learn that the Apostle Paul really was not opposed to works of love as the way of sanctification. And there are other things about my translation of the New Testament he liked. Obviously it would appeal to him, because I keep bringing out all the archons and powers on high, and pointing out that Second Temple Judaism’s angelology is crucial to understanding certain passages. But one of the last conversations we had was about Blake. And he asked at one point, “Do you think Blake would be closer to a Christian of the first century? He was concerned for the poor, he cared about little children, he had a fierce sense of justice. He denounced any religion that is the religion of powerful and the hypocritical.” Bloom was very interested in this question, because, of course, Blake was part of his, you know, his Gnostic pantheon for years and years. And in the conversations we had at the end, he was more and more open to thinking that maybe, actually, there was an aboriginal Christianity that he had misunderstood. He was very open-minded, I have to say, for a guy who published these gigantic books making huge claims all the time; he didn’t seem to have any problem saying, “Oh, I may have been wrong about that.”
MR: You know, he was important to me as a young man. He became progressively less so over time, and then I found myself by the end absolutely opposed to to his thought.
DBH: He did help free me from the spell of T. S. Eliot, from the critical writings. He was the one who, when I was young, made me go back to the Romantics and see that there was a lot of absurdity in Eliot.
MR: Yeah, I took the opposite course. I began in the Romantics with Bloom, migrated to Eliot and the Metaphysicals, and then rejected both Bloom and Eliot. They’re both so annoying. But I held on to the poets. I’ve come back to the Romantics after a long time away, partly because my friend Anahid Nersessian recently published a tremendous book, Keats’s Odes, and made me revisit a poet whom I hadn’t thought about in twenty years.
But I wanted to say that Bloom wrote in some ways a very bad book called The Shadow of a Great Rock. It’s great as a commonplace book of passages from the King James, comparing them to Geneva and to Tyndale. His generalizations are as sweeping as ever. But he gives really short shrift to the New Testament—and he’s a Gnostic Jew, you know, who can blame him. But he simply has no patience for Paul, he basically accepts Nietzsche’s view of Paul. He doesn’t seem to have read even E. P. Sanders.
DBH: That’s what I mean, that’s what I found interesting about these last conversations. He got in touch with me after he’d read the New Testament translation to talk about just that. The last time we corresponded was the night he died, actually, or the night before; I don’t know if he died the next morning. But he had read That All Shall Be Saved. I couldn’t believe it; I mean, why would that be of interest to him? He said he found it very moving, but he did not agree with it. Well, why would you agree, why would you have any opinion? You know, you don’t have to say what is or is not plausible within the context of Christianity. And I was really fascinated by that. I wanted to know what he thought, but then he said, I’m not feeling well today, so we will have to revisit it in future.
MR: And, well, if you were right, then you can talk to him about it at some point.
DBH: That’s true. In fact, I fully expect that.
MR: But Bloom’s lack of concern about the Christian afterlife brings me to a very broad thing that I wanted to say. I wonder if there is a tension between the claims of the Christian faith and the broader theistic tradition, say, of Brahman or of the One, or what have you. And it hinges of course on the person of Christ. You’ve been accused of pantheism. You’ve been accused of not even being a Christian of late by various—
DBH: Yeah, I know. What I think most funny is when it comes from Evangelicals, because I’m always wondering exactly where they are getting their doctrinal authority from. Because if they think what they believe could just be taken from Scripture...in fact, where are they getting their authority for believing that Scripture is revelation?
MR: And people have said similar things to me, and my response is always: that’s fine. I’m happy not to be a Christian, you know, I’ll just be a follower of the Way. But there is a sticking point, where I hit a kind of apophatic wall, which is that if, as I’ve certainly confessed many times in my life, Yeshua of Nazareth was God, then it becomes difficult to square the truth claims of Christianity with those of, say, Islam or Judaism or Hinduism, which I do believe are no less valid.
DBH: We’re now getting into territory that can easily become a three-hour disquisition on on all sorts of things. I have also of late tried to convince people that the concept of “religions,” in the plural, is a modern anthropological concept that would not have been intelligible in either antiquity or the Middle Ages. Even in Thomas Aquinas religio is a singular, it’s a virtue that everyone practices; we’re all involved in the same practice, with obviously varying degrees of knowledge and varying degrees of a hope of salvation. So the first thing you have to do is step back from the modern context in which we’ve created this artificial category, you know. What would have been called cultus in the past have become something like separate propositional systems.
MR: So let me just see if I’ve got this right. So the idea of “the one true faith” would not even be legible in the earlier conceptual grammar.
DBH: “One true religion” wouldn’t have been, and even “one true faith” would have been problematic. Better to say faith with greater or lesser degrees of illumination. And not always in a purely consistent way. For Thomas Aquinas it’s clear that on certain aspects of the doctrine of God a Muslim like Ibn Sina might have got things right more than any of his contemporaries in the Christian world, and he has no problem saying this. You know, go and read Nicholas of Cusa on the true faith, and see what you discover; and read that alongside his Cribratio Alkorani, in which he’s trying to discover how much revealed truth or wisdom and spiritual nourishment can be found in the Qur’an for Christians.
MR: Let me just point out that you have a chapter on Nicholas in You Are Gods.
DBH: Well, Nicholas is very important for me in a number of ways. There it’s because he’s a phenomenological genius regarding the nature of rational desire, and why its only end can be infinite.
But you mentioned pantheism, which is one of those meaningless words, really, because you can interpret it in any way.
MR: Jonathan Edwards was accused of the same. I’m just bringing all my Protestant heroes into this conversation.
DBH: Well, the problem with Jonathan Edwards is he’s a metaphysical genius, but he preached a really abysmal faith; there you want to free his metaphysics—
MR: We’ll stipulate that the Calvinist doctrine is barbaric in several respects.
DBH: Too many people remember him only as the preacher of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” but the metaphysical system is extraordinary. It has traces of Cambridge Platonism in it, but not, it seems, through direct acquaintance; and Gregory of Nyssa, but I don’t know how—
MR: There’s no way he read Gregory of Nyssa, but he’s there. And he got it from John Locke, as far as I can tell!
DBH: This is one of those curious facts of history. And he was, of course, a native genius. I mean, you just have to accept the fact that he just had a brilliant mind.
But anyway, there are ways of talking about the uniqueness of Jesus that make it a kind of catastrophic uniqueness. That’s my problem with the early Barth, the dialectical period, especially the first edition of Der Römerbrief. There the uniqueness is so catastrophic that it doesn’t have any analogical continuity in nature, history, or anything else. It’s incoherent, it’s philosophically meaningless, for reasons that you can extrapolate from those places in You Are Gods where I’m talking to Thomists about their understanding of nature and supernature. That is, you could from that extrapolate many of the same conclusions regarding the way grace and nature are configured in the Reformed tradition and in Barth’s early period, and through much of his work. And there’s a whole school now that seems to have sprung out of Boston College of these young guys calling themselves Neo-Chalcedoninians; some very, very intelligent and gifted scholars, among them a fellow named Jordan Wood who’s a very fine Maximus scholar. But the actual system, to my mind, is just as philosophically incoherent, again because there’s this catastrophic uniqueness to the hypostasization of Christ. Anyway, the problems with it philosophically are so insurmountable, and theologically too, that it’s simply a dead end as a project.
It also comes with a sort of rejection of the analogical. You mentioned Brahman-Atman. Obviously, the sort of monism to which I’m drawn is a metaphysical monism of a more Neoplatonic or Vedantic sort; so let’s talk about that. What’s it saying? Thou art that. Not, that is, that your finite psychological personality is God; in fact, that’s explicitly denied. What it says is that within you dwells, at the ground of your ability to be a person at all, sakshin, the perfect subject, but one who acts as well, who is atman, which literally means, like all words for spirit, “breath,” “the wind.” Like pneuma and pnoe in Greek, or neshama, nephesh, ruach in the Hebrew. And we’re told that God’s neshama, his breath or spirit, is what brings life to to Adam, right? Well, let’s say on the one hand, then, that it’s true that, not in our empirical ego, not in our subjective psychology, but at the ground of our beings is that atman, that neshama, that pneuma breathed into us by God—that spark, the Fünklein of Meister Eckhart—and that to varying degrees the individual empirical selves that we are are transparent to or opaque to that ground. A holy person, a sannyasin or someone who is a saint, is someone in whom that divine image shines forth with peculiar clarity, right? Well, if there’s one—let’s say just one for now—person in whom that transparency is so perfect that there is nothing between the self—the psychological personality, the finite empirical subject, the human being, the human nature—and that divine ground, then that’s God incarnate. But what’s interesting about that is, on the one hand, it’s unique; but it’s a uniqueness of degree, because it’s also universal in its embrace, for what’s true of him is true of us in nuce or in imperfect form. And that’s why, you know, most of Christian doctrinal history has encompassed the notion that the purpose of the incarnation is the deification of human beings. Maximus actually speaks, just like Gregory of Nazianzus before him, of our becoming the equals of God, equals of Christ, and even becoming uncreated. So the very uniqueness of Christ becomes also the universal truth, the universal destiny of human beings. Well, if you start from that as your understanding of Christology, and you accept an analogical ontology—one that doesn’t involve this catastrophist notion that in order to affirm the uniqueness of Christ you have to say that in Christ absolute contraries are united in some way, which somehow the dynamism of personality has the power to confect, and that this also determines who God is, and God becomes who he is, and his determination towards the man Jesus, and all this other rubbish from twentieth-century Lutheran thought and other sources—and instead you realize that what’s really splendid and magnificent about this more original understanding of deification is that God’s incarnation in Christ is also going on in everyone, everywhere, at all times, then that seems naturally to lead to a sort of universalization of the claims you can make for the faith. The beliefs of all the traditions as imperfect but nonetheless real participations in this union of creatures and God.