The Ends of Human Life

Shmuel looked carefully both ways as he left the Yeshiva. He didn’t want anyone to see where he was going. And it was not his teacher that concerned him. He could not risk being followed by one of his fellow students at the Yeshiva, who might inform his father, or worse still his mother, who had taken their conversion to Christianity to heart. And so he took a complex detour, crossing first from the Mesquita, where the yeshiva was located, to the Guzzetta, where he stopped to buy a loaf of bread and some dried fruit to share with his fellow students, before continuing on to the old Muslim quarter, al-Khalesa, which was home to the city’s principal masjids and madrasas. 

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 a student with Asharite tendencies that there was nothing sinful in aspiring to grow in knowledge and power and even transcend our humanity.  The Asharites taught the absolute transcendence and sovereignty of God, and claimed that he created each instant of the universe separately, with no causal connections between them. They valued submission to the will of God above all else. 

—If Allah had wanted us to be equal to this al-‘aql al-fa’âl  or Agent Intellect of yours, then he would have made us that way. And indeed, it is acknowledged that he bestowed this gift on the great prophets, such as Moshe and Isa and Mohammed, Peace Be Upon Him. No, what Allah demands is that we submit, that we obey, and that the legitimate authorities command right and forbid wrong. 

—And yet according to your doctrine God is making me teach that we should seek equality with the Agent Intellect which in reality means nothing more than fulfilling our latent human potential. 

—And this he does for his own greater glory, so that you may be silenced and humbled.

The class laughed.

At this point, Shmuel, failing to read the room, broke in 

–Why, he asked, should we stop at unity with the Agent Intellect? he said, passing around loaves of semolina bread covered with sesame seeds,  two bolts of woolen cloth, a bag of herbs and a Torah scroll still tucked under his arms. 

—You are doing the Asharite’s work for him, answered Hakim,  not wanting to be distracted from an important discussion by the young Jew —or more likely converso— who had bargained his way into the circle only a few weeks before.

But Shmuel persisted.

—No, he said. It is you who concede the premise from which the Asharite’s conclusions flow.

Hakim looked genuinely perplexed.

—It is this idea of a fixed nature of things, as though God set boundaries to what matter could become. And yet we know that the forms of things change and develop.  That is the whole purpose of alchemy:  to perfect what God has begun. 

—Your point is well taken, Hakim conceded.  I agree that our assumption that our natures are fixed when those of minerals and other forms of matter appear not to be is largely unfounded. But equality with God is different. God is the power of Being as such. Even if we were to attain that power –and I challenge you to show us how— we would have acquired it from interaction with others and would still, therefore, ultimately be contingent rather than necessary beings. It is a logical impossibility, not a divine ordinance to which we must submit. There is a difference.

—Either way, said Shmuel, we are trapped in a hell from which we cannot escape.

Hakim looked at him, puzzled. The boy seemed so confident and joyful …. But underneath there as a deep rage. But then the Asharite interrupted:

You will be trapped in hell, Jew or Avveroist or converso or whatever you are.  I will spend eternity in paradise. 

Shmuel wanted to point out that eternity, being outside space and time, was not something one could spend, but the other students were already dispersing,  so he withdrew.  

—Would that you had been born in old  Qurtuba, said Hakim to Shmuel after the others had left. You might have given ibn Rusd himself, or your countryman Moshe ben Maimon, a run for their money. But how go things with Miriam?

Hakim, who was still only about 30, liked to engage his students more as a friend or older brother than as a figure of authority.

Shmuel just smiled, not wanting to say more than he should.  He still did not know if Hakim was aware that Miriam’f family were Nizaris.  

—In any case, said Hakim, don’t mind these jokers.  Most of them are here only because their families still believe that a smattering of falasafa will be helpful in their careers.  You may be mad, but you are my only real student. And know that you can come to me if the road you are traveling leaves you … trapped in dark alley. 

—Thanks, said Schmuel.  Then he left. 

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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