Convivencia

Yoshua looked carefully both ways as he left the Yeshiva. He didn’t want anyone to see where he was going. His rebbe would not approve of his destination: the house of an Islamic teacher of falasafa. Nor, indeed, would they have been much happier to know where he had spent the previous evening, with Ruben‘s kabalistic circle. Or his stop the previous night at the Dominican friary. And none of his teachers would have approved of his liaisons with peddlers of herbs and minerals of various sorts in the marketplace –especially those with women. But to Yoshua it was still all a game: the time plotting stratagems which kept each group of teachers in the dark about his other studies, the time spent in the market looking for interesting specimens for which he could barter a bolt of his father’s woolen cloth in order to win back the favor of those teachers whom he offended. When he had to be absent from class he would plead poverty or family obligations –his father needed him in the market or the workshop; when he needed to be in class he pleaded to his father that one or another august teacher had demanded his presence. The truth is that he was smart enough not only to learn what each of his teachers had to offer him, but also to hold his own in argument, even when he had been absent from one of the four schools he attended for as much as two weeks.

–Don’t you think we should divide the question, he said one day, bursting into a debate on whether or not the human mind can know God, two bolts of woolen cloth, a bag of herbs and a Torah scroll in his arms. Hakim, his teacher, a practitioner of Arabic falasafa and one of the few remaining followers of Ibn Rusd who could still be found in either Christendom or Dar-al-Islam, or anywhere else for that matter, had been trying to convince an especially pious student that human reason could rise unaided to knowledge of God, and that the sacred scriptures were merely poetic representations of the truth for those who were unable to master the dialectic. It seems to me that it is one thing to prove that God exists, said Yoshua, that He is One, True, Beautiful, and Good; it is quite another thing to claim that our small minds can exhaust the Infinite and the Ineffable. And every time I hear the Torah read or open the door for Elijah on Pesach –or for that matter every time I hear the call to prayer from one of your minarets or stand before the statue of Mariam, the mother of Isa in the churches of the Christians— I come into contact with an aspect of the divine which falasafa, for all its power, cannot comprehend.

He knew he was following Tomás de Aquino and that this would enrage both the followers of Ibn Rusd and those of al-Ghazali. That made him happy.

–But there is more to falasafa than demonstrating the existence of God, said his teacher. We are not just servants of the theologians. By investigating things we attain unity with the Agent Intellect, and gain the power to control the sublunar realm, as Moshe and Isa and the Prophet, peace be upon him, did before us. And then we can actually command right and forbid wrong as our ulema claims to and as your rabbis would do if they had the power.

Yoshua found this ideal powerfully compelling. Indeed, it was the nexus between knowledge and power which had drawn him to kabala and to alchemy and to falasafa in the first place. And with Christian troops dangerously close to Granada there was certainly plenty of right to command and wrong to forbid …

–Besides, Hakim added, how can your mind rise above the Agent Intellect if you have not yet attained unity with it? How can you become superhuman without first becoming a perfect human being?

Yoshua knew how the Christians would answer this objection. Humanity had indeed been put here to cultivate this earth like a garden and had been given reason in order to help it do so. But our destiny was not mere unity with the Agent Intellect, the least of the angels. It was much higher: to know and love God in essence. And this we achieved not by our own merits but by those of another: Isa, who they claimed was not only Mosiach but the very Son of God, as much divine as human, who had been crucified for our sins and then raised from the dead.

Yoshua accepted the first part of the answer, but not the second. This, at least, is what he had told Padre Gilberto last week.

–The salvation you offer is for slaves, he said in a rage.

Gilberto looked at him with confusion and concern.

–There is no joy except in Being itself.

–That is right, said Gilberto, unclear as to the boy’s difficulty.

–And we are not, and can never be Being. We are always dependent on others –and ultimately on God.

–That is true, said Gilberto, impressed with the boy’s metaphysical acuity but still unclear as to the nature of his quandary.

–We are, in other words, trapped in a contingency hell from which no one, not even God, can release us!

Gilberto was stunned. He had never even imagined that someone could look at things this way. It was, in a certain sense, obvious. Human beings –and everything else in creation– were contingent and would always remain so. Only God was necessary, having the power of Being in Himself. And this He could not share, for the very act of sharing his Being –the act of creation itself– implied a certain dependence on the part of the creature. But to think of the gift of being, even if only of a created, contingent share, as Hell, and of actual divinity as the only worthy redemption? It was madness –or worse.

–That is why, ultimately, Christendom, which understands itself as a civilization of love, can only always be a civilization of slaves.

Once again Gilberto was confused.

–But it is the Muslims, he said, who put submission and the very core of their religion.

That was true. And it was why he continued to believe that Judaism, in spite of its failure to actually build a just society, was superior to Islam. But he also knew that the face of injustice in the present period, at least, was Christian: it was the face of Fernando and Isabella marching on Granada.

–We teach that God invites us into friendship and sonship, not slavery and submission, Father Gilberto said.

–But for those who refuse sonship, who aspire to equality with God, even knowing that is impossible?

Gilberto felt sad for the boy. He hoped that it was just a symptom of his age: that deep, usually unfocused rage of adolescence given strange form by the boy’s outstanding brilliance. But he feared that it was not. These were dangerous ideas, ideas that could define an entire civilization –and not a civilization of which Gilberto wanted to be a part. Thank God, he thought, for Fernando and Isabella. Uncouth ruffians, to be sure. But they would save Christendom from ideas like this. He would pray for the boy.

Yoshua, for his part, devoted himself to the Kabala and to alchemy as to technologies of Being: tools which, by allowing him to tap into and control the energies of Being, would give him the next best thing to actual divinity.

This, at least, had been what he told Ruben.

Falasafa prepares the mind for knowledge of God, taking it, as it were, to the edge of the infinite waters which divide contingent from necessary being, and making it secure in its knowledge that there is something beyond the contingent for it to attain. Kabala, to be sure, through the work we do on the sephirot, allows us to mend the fabric of creation and heal the injustices of the world. But its main purpose is to allow us to achieve union not just with Agent Intellect, but with God Herself.

Ruben dismissed him as a follower of Abulafia. And there was some truth in the claim. Like Abulafia he wanted to join falasafa and kabala, much as Tomas de Aquino had joined falasafa and the caritative wisdom of the Christians. But he did not believe that Abulafia had been the Mosiach, or even a prophet. He had, after all, failed to gain the mastery over the world that authentic union with the divine would have given him.

But he found something else in kabala, something which had confessed a few days earlier to one of his fellow students at the Yeshiva.

–The kabala captures the feminine face of God … the face that I see when I look into Mariam’s eyes in the marketplace, hoping against hope that someday we will be together.

Mariam was one of the young Muslim women from whom he bought herbs and spices. One day when her father was away from the stall she had asked him what he used the herbs for. He explained, and they fell fast into a discussion of alchemical sympathies and the healing properties of herbs –and even faster into what they, at least, imagined to be true love. He lent her manuscripts which she read secretly; she met him under the olive trees outside the city gates, on the road to Trapani after dark. They would argue about the planetary affinities of various herbs, then embrace and their skin would sing and they knew the joy of participation in Being itself.

It was the only thing which made Yoshua doubt that this world was actually a contingency hell.

That was Yoshua’s seventeenth year and it was the last of the Old World.

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Published by:

Anthony Mansueto

Humanity is the desire to be God (Sartre, Jean Paul. Being and Nothingness, 1943/1993: 556). Being finite, we are aware of the infinite and seek it without limit. Being contingent, dependent on other beings for our existence, we seek the power of Being as such and seek it absolutely. Human history is fundamentally the history of this seeking, and of the distinct ways of being human to which it has given rise. Precisely because we are finite and contingent, our seeking takes place under definite material (physical, ecological, demographic, built-environmental) conditions which shape the ways which emerge, as well as the social structures through which we pursue them. As something set apart we call this power of Being the sacred but it is, in fact, the warp and woof of the world in which we live, driving secular projects as much as those which understand themselves as religious. My work is centered around an effort to engage the sacred analytically, interpretively, normatively, creatively, and practically. My scholarship is centered around an effort to restore theoria to its original sense as an encounter with the sacred which is empirical, analytic, interpretive and normative, and specifically to understand the diverse ways (including secular ways) in which humanity seeks (to be) God in the context of the material realities out which they emerged and the structures through which they operate while engaging these ways normatively, contributing to the transhistorical deliberation around what it means to be human. As an artist I work first and foremost with narrative, telling stories which, blending elements from magic realism, science fiction, and fantasy, highlight humanity’s engagement with the sacred. But I also create paintings, photo collages, and illuminations and am experimenting with alterealities, games which actually change the world, and which engage all these elements in an interactive context. And I work in the medium of food, creating alchemical cuisine which at once encodes meaning and transforms those who consume it —especially in community. My scholarly and creative work aims at charting a new way of being human, at making the sacred present to people in their day to day lives, and at helping people situate their lives and their decisions, individual and collective, in he context of the ultimate aims of human life. My practical engagements with the sacred cross the boundaries between teaching and mentoring, leading and organizing. As a teacher, it is my aim to cultivate free, creative human beings and engaged citizens with a mature spirituality who have the ability to make rationally autonomous decisions regarding questions of meaning and value, to understand their particular calling and how to realize it, to build and exercise power in service to the common good, to learn the difficult spiritual lessons that come from both success and failure in our lives, and thus to pursue and progress along the way they have chosen. In addition to teaching in formal academic and community based settings, I mentor individuals using a process which integrates deep listening with both traditional spiritual disciplines and secular insights drawn from organizing and business strategy. I cultivate both scholars and practitioners, and challenge my students to cross the boundaries between these two domains. As an academic leader I have worked to promote liberal education for students from working class and ethnic minority communities, to make the institutions I serve into centers for deliberation around questions of meaning, value, and public policy, and to restore (nonconfessional, pluralistic, but still normative) engagement with the sacred to its rightful place in the academy. I see this academic leadership as an extension of my broader work as an institutional organizer helping organizations and institutions find their way, and working to build, conserve, and transform them in service to the Common Good. My work as an organizer has also included significant contributions to interfaith dialogue, deliberation, and organizing, from building financial and institutional support for interfaith organizing through catalyzing public deliberation around questions of meaning and value across diverse spiritual and civilizational traditions. I bring to this engagement a substantial record of publications, including nine books and numerous articles in both scholarly journals and journals of public opinion setting forth my vision and strategy, decades of experience teaching the liberal arts to students from working class and ethnic minority communities, a history active civic engagement, primarily in interfaith dialogue, deliberation, and organizing, and a range of institutional leadership roles in the academy including department chair, program director, dean, and campus leader with responsibility for all community college functions for a large rural area. As I continue my formal institutional engagements as an academic administrator over the next several years, I am also looking to build support for my creative work and a consulting practice mentoring individual leaders and organizations across the academic, religious, and civil society sectors. Supporting my work through Patreon is a way to contribute to making this possible while getting a glimpse of my creative process, free or discounted artifacts from my alterealities, and the opportunity to benefit from my mentoring and consulting practice at much reduced rates.

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