Lettre International (Berlin):
What representations and what denominations should we attribute to the gods and prophets of the three great Abrahamic monotheisms, Christianity, Islam and Judaism? Philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy presents «an elementary guide, for everybody’s use, in a secular regime, of confessional plurality and freed [délié] thinking».
We would like to present not the model, but the guiding idea, questionable and transformable, of an elementary guide for everybody’s use, in a secular regime, of confessional plurality and freed [délié, “untied,” “loose”] thinking.
“Gelobt seist du, Niemand”, «Blessed art thou, No-one [Personne][*]»: this verse by Paul Celan appears in the poem Psalm. The formula, like in most of the poem, takes inspiration from the phrasing of David’s Psalms («Blessed art thou» or «Praised art thou, Lord»). As many commentators have stressed, and as is clear to anyone who has penetrated the spirit of monotheism, far from being blasphemous or “atheistic,” this formula enunciates the deepest truth declined by the three great Abrahamic religions (and that Buddhism declines too, albeit on a different register): God is not “someone”.
When we say: «I am X» («Charlie», for example), we are designating ourselves under a name that refers to a specific person. Many people share the same name, but each specifies it with the addition of one or several other names (surname, at times the name of their region, the name of their trade…). “Someone,” a person, is a concrete existence that can be found in the world, even though it cannot be reduced to any species of pure and simple “identity.”
In some religions, gods have proper names, because there are several (often quite a vast number) and each has a specific form of presence, with particular functions. Each may therefore have its own figure to distinguish it. They are not persons, but figurative presences, that live the life given to them by their worshippers, by those who perform their rites.
The name “God” is not the name of such a figure. This is why the one and only “god” of monotheism, in all his versions, cannot be represented. Images of God, before being forbidden, are impossible. Even where they are not formally forbidden, the faithful know that these images are not God (and this is true even if a sacred value is bestowed upon them, as in the case of the icons of the Christianity so-called Orthodox). “God” is simply the common name – god, a god – used not to designate, but to indicate what eludes all names, what is unnamable.
All versions of monotheism indicate in their own way this impossibility to name. For Jews, God has a name that nobody may pronounce. For Christians there is a sort of by default [par défaut] or devoid [de défaut] denomination of the proper name, the common name “god” (in archaic Latin Deus meant “the light of the sky, the day”[†]). In Islam, God has a multitude of names stating His qualities and a tradition that is often invoked recognizes ninety-nine of these, specifying that the hundredth must remain unknown. The name Allah, into which an older denomination was transformed, designates the infinite departure from the true name.
We have here a trait that is profoundly common to all monotheisms: the affirmation of a single god is far less arithmetic than it is symbolic. The single god is the god whose uniqueness eludes any sort of retrieval, of determination and identification. As the Koran says, He is «the Impenetrable», «None equals Him» (Sura 112). If nothing equals Him, He is not equal to one either, he is not equal to any of the values we may confer to unity and uniqueness. To limit ourselves to an example, saying He is “alone” makes no more sense than saying He is with all things or persons.
It is therefore impossible to understand or identify in any way a god that cannot be compared to any god. It is only possible to adore Him, if we wish, in whatever way we judge to be the least imperfect. After all, we can assume that the division of monotheism into several great branches – at least three, with each one further subdivided in turn – is merely the distribution of the possibilities, the opportunities that the opening of a relationship offers. A distribution according to moments in time, places, languages and developments that continuously renew the modes of adoration.
Adoration does not mean adulation, nor subjugation to idolatry. It designates the exact contrary. One of the most important traits of monotheisms is refusing «idols» (i.e., in Greek, of images in the sense of appearances, visions, phantoms). It is simply unthinkable to imagine something that is unrelated to any sort of presence or representation. At the most, as Montaigne suggests (Essais, II, 12), he is something we can «imagine unimaginable». This means striving to waive, with regard to Him, any identification or any fixed ideas, even linguistic ones. «Do not charge your heart with an idea concerning Him. In this way you risk to assimilate Him to what He is not» (Bastami, Shatahât, 203).
The tradition related to the rejection of idolatry is propheticism. The prophets do not announce the future, but they speak “on behalf of” (this is the Greek sense of the word prophètes). Moses, Jesus, Mohammed (three greats who do not exclude the others) speak on behalf of He who does not talk, for He is not a person [personne]. They speak for No One [Personne]. They convey «the word that came out of the fire, with no form», as is said of Moses (Deuteronomy, 4, 12), or they are given the mission to read and spread («Read!», Sura 96). As prophets, they are admirable men, prodigious even, and we can call them saints, but they are still men, whose lives are more or less well known. The texts we receive from them are left to our comprehension and to our reflections. They come from far away in our history; they have been read over and over again, recited, commented, interpreted – and they continue to be, always. The word of No One [Personne] cannot be a fixed word, for no word is fixed: the sense of words is revived and thrown back into play indefinitely.
This is why it is said that «the signs of God are distinct [évidents]… within the breasts of those who have been given Knowledge» (Sura 29, 49), because the Knowledge we are dealing with is attained by meditating on the impossibility to give in our languages only one sense to the word that comes from no one [personne]. The first thing the word of No One tells us to do is not to fix the sense of any word, in no language. If there are many languages and in all of them many possibilities of sense, this is because language marks a sign towards something more than itself: towards an infinity of sense, towards a truth that exceeds any signification and any denomination.
This infinity of sense – at once perfectly clear and perfectly obscure – is the experience that belongs to our Jewish, Christian, Muslim and philosophical tradition. Philosophy forms the way to reflect upon the infinity of sense avoiding the possibility of naming anything as a supreme name – not even as “Personne”, No One, Person.
Philosophy is mixed with this entire history of the Mediterranean, Greek, Jewish, Arab, Roman and European world (setting aside the parallelisms and differences with Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and so on). In Greek Philosophy, the name “god” no longer only designates the genus of gods, who all bear a proper name, but a nameless category – the divine – that does not indicate a genus of person or existence, but the fact that sense is infinite or that truth goes beyond any verification. Philosophy keeps away from any possibility of fixing words to an unmodifiable sense, and it also keeps away from the possibility of saying to some “one” «blessed art thou», and of adoring or loving even the breath of a name.
Nevertheless, any one may have perfectly good reasons to name No One [Personne]. They cannot be criticized for this in any way. What monotheism and Philosophy both demand is that this name will not become an idol. That it will not turn into the representation of a “being” or “person.” May those who pronounce it with faith know that they are naming or de-nominating [dé-nomme] beyond any name.
May they also know, therefore, that He – God, No One – gives no determined law, nor a determined social, political or economic regime (even if he does give, using this or that Prophet as a mouthpiece, this or that precept for His adoration). Because, if everything is given, fixed, unmovable, then the divine infinite would be denied. God/No One [Dieu/Personne] would become a fetish, a false god, or an idol. And this false god could serve as an instrument for all sorts of wishes of power and domination.
Because every figure and every name of “god” can be turned to such a use, it is legitimate – and even desirable – to criticize any use of this kind. It is something that does not in the least wound the faith of those who confide in what is beyond names and figures. On the contrary, it honors a faith that will not allow the interests of power and domination to use it. The Christian faith has been sullied enough by the colonizing conquerors. May this never happen again.
The true God, or the truth of “god,” awaits us elsewhere from fetishism, away from superstitions linked to such disparate names, figures and representations as money, weapons, virility, purity, salvation, and so on. Elsewhere, truly elsewhere, in infinity – an elsewhere not in another world, but that opens up here and now, every time in this world in which we exist.
The “infinite” is not something enormous or unattainable. It is simply not stopping at anything determined, fixed, identified and named with a presumably proper name.
Translated by Gianmaria Senia