Fathers and Son: The Genealogy of the Cosmos

Glenn Arbery, Ph.D.

The title of this series of lectures, God and Culture, raises a host of questions about the relation between God and the cultural manifestations of God. Some cultures have one God and others, many gods-but is that a cultural decision, or a difference in what is divinely revealed? Do cultures, in a kind of spontaneouspoiesis, invent their own gods to unify and strengthen their communal identities, or do various spirits-or one Spirit-manifest themselves differently to cultures in shaping the identity of different peoples?Is the development of distinct cultures and various understandings of God to be understood as part of natural evolution, with some adaptive function, or is it part of a large providential order whose divine purpose will one day become clear? Can the divine reality be apprehended in itself, outside any culture, or is there no access to divine reality-or even no divine reality-except what is mediated by habits of thought inescapably embedded, say, in language itself? And if God is experienced culturally, what happens when a culture loses the sense of God that originally informed it?

Each of these questions is huge, and working out the answers to them is both a matter of intense personal importance-so much so that the one’s answers will inform the whole character of one’s life-and a matter of enormous historical moment. For example, Mexico before and after Cortes is a study in God and culture, and the syncretistic figure of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexican culture cannot be overestimated. European history since the Enlightenment has been, from one perspective, a kind of theomachy-either, in the original sense of that word in English, a striving or warring against God, or in the later sense, a battle among gods. If the American Revolution secured the liberty to worship according to one’s own conscience, the French Revolution had a powerful theological animus, so much so that liberty meant getting rid of traditional religion altogether. Beheading King Louis XVI was in many ways a beheading of the understanding of God that had prevailed in Europe. This kind of attack continues.Last week, the British journalist Christopher Hitchens was asked in an interview, “What do you consider to be the ‘axis of evil’?” He answered, “Christianity, Judaism, Islam – the three leading monotheisms.” (Hitchens) Salman Rushdie ascribed the violence between Hindus and Muslims in India, not to historical rage and resentment, but to religion itself: “India’s problem turns out to be the world’s problem. What happened in India has happened in God’s name. The problem’s name is God.” (Rushdie)

Both Hitchens and Rushdie seem to be speaking from an enlightened, rational position beyond religion, but I have to say that their answers to the problem of violence seem a little fatuous in the light of the wars of the 20th Century. Were these wars between the “three leading monotheisms”? They could very well be understood as theological in nature, but they were massive attempts to assert answers to the questions of God and culture either by assuming that there is no God, as in Marxism, or by embedding any notion of God in the national destiny of a racially pure people, as in National Socialism. Yet Churchill could draw upon a core of monotheistic English belief in his first speech as Prime Minister: “You ask, What is our policy? I will say; ‘It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us: to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy.'” Poland’s answer to the questions of God and culture in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, early in the papacy of John Paul II, strongly contributed to the collapse of the Soviet empire and the Berlin Wall by 1989.

Our contemporary situation is, if anything, even more hotly engaged in the questions of God and culture, and my suspicion is that this century will not get past the question of God any more than the last one did. In an article in the February Atlantic Monthly, Toby Lester makes the point that people have been predicting the demise of religion since the Enlightenment; he calls it the “secularization thesis.”

Contemporary theories of social and political behavior tend to be almost willfully blind to the constantly evolving role of religion as a force in global affairs. The assumption is that advances in the rational understanding of the world will inevitably diminish the influence of that last, vexing sphere of irrationality in human culture: religion. Inconveniently, however, the world is today as awash in religious novelty, flux, and dynamism as it has ever been-and religious change is, if anything, likely to intensify in the coming decades. Toby Lester, “Oh, Gods!”

Lester writes about the prolific rise of new religious movements across the world, from a group called the Raëlians that started after a French journalist’s encounter with an alien in a UFO in 1973 and now has 55,000 followers, to a Vietnamese syncretistic religion called Cao Dai that began in 1926 and has three million adherents in 50 countries. Most surprising, perhaps, is the growth of forms of Christianity in the Southern hemisphere-Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Africa alone went from fewer than 10 million Christians in 1900 to over 360 million in 2000. Many people, by the way, now speculate that the next pope will be African. The point is that religions show no signs of dying out; instead, they display an astounding dynamism. How cultures will be affected remains to be seen.

But it is from religious changes that real cultural shifts derive. The historian Christopher Dawson insists that the inner aspect of a culture “constitutes its most distinctive features,” not simply occupying a particular place, sharing the same racial features, or speaking the same language:

We have seen whole countries pass from one culture to another without any fundamental change of population, and again, in the case of Islam, we see a new attitude to life, which first arose in the arid plateau of Arabia, transforming the lives and social organization of the Slavonic mountaineers of Bosnia, the Malay pirates of the East Indies, the highly civilized city dwellers of Persia and Northern India, and the … tribes of Africa.(Dawson, Progress and Religion)

His point is that radical alterations in the inner world-in vision-change cultures more than external circumstances do, and that the ultimate barriers between peoples are “differences of spiritual outlook and tradition.” What we call myth, in other words, reveals much more about the actual force in cultural change than history does, if history limits itself to a description of material forces.

Tonight, I want to focus on one dimension of this spiritual outlook-the metaphor of genealogy for the way the cosmos comes into being, the relation between generations as an unfolding of cosmic order and the cultural shifts from one vision to another. I’ll be speaking about the mythological tradition of the early Greeks in the time of Hesiod and Homer, and about the theology of the Trinity. Specifically, I want to look at the relation between fathers and sons in the cosmic genealogy, and in that relation, I want to concentrate on two situations when the movement from father to son is the boundary between mortality and immortality, or between power strictly limited in time and place, on the one hand, and limitless power on the other. These two traditions give profound alternative visions of the relation between begetter and begotten, human and divine.

The primary source of the genealogical view of the cosmos in Greek mythology is Hesiod’s Theogony, which recounts the emergence of the first gods and the generations that stem from them. Of primary importance are the children of Gaia, Earth. She bears Ouranos, Sky or Heaven, asexually, then mates with him, and their children are the Titans. When Ouranos refuses to let some of Gaia’s more monstrous children come to light, she complains to her children that something should be done, and no one has the courage to act except Kronos, who says, “‘Mother, I will undertake to do this deed, for I reverence not our father of evil name, for he first thought of doing shameful things.'” She hides him in an ambush with a sickle, and when Ouranos comes down to mate with Gaia, Kronos castrates him. Kronos then supplants his father as the king of all the gods, but Ouranos predicts that vengeance for this deed will follow soon after.Kronos in turn weds his sister Rhea, but as their children are born, he swallows each one in turn, so that “no other of the proud sons of Heaven should hold the kingly office amongst the deathless gods. For he learned from Earth and starry Heaven that he was destined to be overcome by his own son, strong though he was, through the contriving of great Zeus.” Rhea protects Zeus by trickery, and Zeus frees his brothers and sisters with Gaia’s help, then this generation overthrows the Titans and chains them in Tartaros. What’s assumed between divine generations, in other words, is a struggle for power; this is muted in the human world only because fathers age and die, and sons grow up to take their places, but the divine struggle-figured on this mythical level-assumes that there is also a human one that makes it recognizable. Freud has amply explored this territory.

Hesiod describes the turning point of the battle between the Olympians and the older Titans as involving two major advantages that the Olympians have: Zeus makes use of the monstrous children that Ouranos had originally hidden and that Kronos had never released; and Zeus also unleashes the furious power of his lightning. In a later mythological appropriation, Milton uses Hesiod’s account of this divine battle as the basis of the defeat of the fallen angels. So the age of Kronos gives way to the age of Zeus, and Zeus as king of the gods in turn begins articulating the cosmos further through his marriages-I’d recommend theTheogony to you for the details. Zeus is a most exuberant and tireless begetter. His unions with goddesses bring about the Muses, the Hours, Justice, Peace, the Fates, the Graces-not to mention Apollo, Artemis, Ares, Hermes, and so on. His unions with mortal women foster a race of heroes-Perseus and Herakles, for example-and even gods, such as Dionysus.But there is a threat to Zeus like the threat to Kronos-the danger of being overthrown by a more powerful son. In the Theogony, the threat is supposed to come through the goddess Metis (cunning intelligence): “very wise children were destined to be born of her, first the maiden bright-eyed Tritogeneia, equal to her father in strength and in wise understanding; but afterwards she was to bear a son of overbearing spirit, king of gods and men.” In order to stave off the threat, Zeus impregnates her, then swallows her, and the child born from Metis comes from his own brow-Pallas Athena. The threatened son of Metis, in other words, never comes to light.

But in another tradition, the one that Homer accepts, the threat to Zeus will be the child of the sea goddess Thetis. Pindar says that the goddess Themis announced that if Zeus or his brother Poseidon lay with Thetis, the son would have a weapon more powerful than the thunderbolt. In order to forestall the threat, the gods force Thetis to marry a mortal man so that their son will be limited in the scope of his action by mortality. As a solution, it looks innocuous enough until you examine it more closely. The point is that Zeus refuses to father, and this refusal goes against his very nature as the “Father of Gods and Men.” Moreover, every other refusal of this sort-not letting something further reality come to light-has eventually been punished.The son that Zeus does not beget interests me for two reasons: first, because this mortal son is conceived as a sacrifice insuring the continued hegemony of Zeus-so that, in other words, the genealogical completion of the cosmos of Zeus comes about specifically not through a son engendered by Zeus upon a mortal woman, but through a son engendered by a mortal man upon an immortal goddess that he marries instead of Zeus. Notice that this solution entails both the displacement of the god as begetter and the dependence of the Olympian gods upon the mortality of men. The second reason this son interests me is that, not by accident, he has an extraordinary place in the history of the West, yet the tradition has largely forgotten his mythological significance, because the poem that celebrates him-the greatest poem in literature, the Iliad-deliberately mutes this significance and keeps it tacit even as it pushes him into the forefront of glory: the son of Peleus and Thetis, Achilles. The poem is about coming to terms with mortality-the condition of the limit, of having to express an immortal intuition within the hard constraints of time and place. Because it is about these things, it also enacts a massive transformation in the inner world of the Greeks. The poem shows Zeus at work, not in conquering, but in securing his reign by bringing about the everlasting glory of the mortal who would have displaced him, had he been his son. The king of the gods frames the circumstances that allow the mortal hero-indeed, the condition of mortality itself-to blaze unforgettably into view and be held with all its terrible paradoxes in the immortal poem.

As a son, Achilles has a pious but emotionally agonized relation to his own mortal father, Peleus, who never appears in the poem. Staying in Troy to fight and avenge the loss of his friend Patroklos means accepting his death and never seeing his father again. But truly accepting his mortality means accepting it from his father, whose mortality is responsible for his own. But same father who gave him death gave him life, and he needs to be able to feel gratitude and love for the source of this limited gift rather than to feel the limitation of his life as an unbearable curse. The great beauty of the Iliad is that the whole action of it occupies only a few weeks, and the major part of that action a few crucial days, but by its intense concentration, what happens within the narrow strictures of its time and space take on a mythological grandeur. The poem works with densely layered meanings; for example, in something of the same way that a figure in a dream can be several people at the same time, so can the characters in the Iliad. For example, Achilles’ own father cannot be present in Troy, but Hector’s father Priam is there, and in one of the last scenes of the poem the old king of Troy comes to ask Achilles to give back the body of his son. Aided by Hermes, Priam appears suddenly inside Achilles’ shelter, kisses Achilles’ hands, and tells him to have pity on him, remembering his own father. His gesture of humility-as he puts it, “I have kissed the hands of the man who has killed my children”-breaks Achilles’ own anger, and in accepting Priam’s ransom for Hector, he accepts at last both his own death and the gift of his life from a man like this one: not a god, but godlike in his bearing and noble in his love.In the Greek world that follows from the Iliad-and Plato echoes the common sentiment that Homer founded Greece in some real way-one senses everywhere this new nobility of the mortal condition.

Hesiod records the changes in the inner world of the Greeks as the cosmic dispensation moves through its generations; but the Homeric poems enact an inner change. Zeus honors something in all men by uniquely honoring Achilles, because, like him, all men have been condemned to death by being born, and all have been deprived in advance of the privilege to be the god of gods.Ordinary human circumstances, the very limitations of time and space and persons, appear in a different light because of the destiny of Achilles. Finite reality bears a condensed and displaced meaning, always hinting at the fullness of significance that cannot come to literal expression. The Odyssey, considered in this light, might arguably be-in the oblique way that Homer always employs-a poem about the son of Metis, the brother of Athena unbegotten by Zeus, but appearing in a displaced mortal form in Odysseus. The two Homeric poems are above all about the place and order of man in the genealogy of the cosmos.

The Greek world that we associate with Athenian democracy arguably exists because these Homeric heroes are not direct sons of the all-powerful Father. In a way, they break the old tension and find a space for their own distinctively human action. But when we move into Christianity, we find an entirely different kind of cultural relation between father and son-at its center, the God the Father and the Son. Obviously, the questions I am getting into are loaded ones, and the disagreements on these matters define much of Western history for the past 2000 years. The early church established an orthodox position on the relation between Father and Son by battling off any number of extremely subtle differences from the position that Christ is true God and true man, begotten, not made, one in being with the Father. I want to try to speak forthrightly, first of all about one aspect of the story being told in the Gospel of John, then about its interpretation in St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, as a contrast with the Greeks and with our own culture.

Probably just by being in the culture, most Americans, Christian or not, have an image of the birth of the Christ child, or Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, preaching the beatitudes, or Jesus walking on water, or Jesus getting in trouble with the temple authorities because of his miracles. Only slightly less familiar to non-Christians is the absolutely radical character of the assertion of Sonship being made. This is the way the Gospel of John begins: “1) In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2) He was in the beginning with God. 3) All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be.” (John 1:1-3) I will get back to the Augustinian and Thomistic interpretations of this passage in a few minutes; this opening chapter goes on to say that “the Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us.” The Word that was with God and was God voluntarily-very much unlike Achilles-took up the limitations of time and place inherent in the condition of mortality. Jesus of Nazareth, the narrative says, is to be understood as the Word acting under these limitations, the eternal Logos in the Godhead as a human being, at once acting in history and transcending history.The Word is the Son: to be the Son of God means to be the Word, which is not a linguistic entity pronounced by God, but God Himself.

I hope that this begins to get a little less familiar; in fact, I wish I could defamiliarize it altogether. Let me take an example of what it looks like to be the Son in this sense. After he is criticized by the authorities for healing a man on the Sabbath, Jesus tells them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, the Son cannot do anything on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for what he does, the Son will do also.” (John 5:19) The assertion here, made by a human being, speaking of himself in the third person, seems to his listeners deluded and ludicrously hubristic, and the Jews obviously take it as dangerous. The narrative does not present it as hubristic, however, but as incomprehensible at the time, despite the fact that Jesus has just performed a miraculous healing. In his statement, “the Son cannot do anything on his own,” Jesus asserts that He not only sees better than the whole tradition handed down by the fathers who God is and what He does, but that the Father directly enables Him to do it. The Son who sees what the Father is doing stands before them, in other words, and their very piety to the tradition makes them unable to recognize Him. Nevertheless, for all the adversarial character of the encounter between Jesus and the authorities, the Gospel presents the statement as one whose full meaning can only be revealed by later events-the whole story-and only then accepted with the aid of divine inspiration.

The question of sonship is the point here, particularly in a cultural setting in which the religious tradition is a genealogical inheritance in which circumcision is the sign of the covenant originally made with Abraham. In another episode, when Jesus tells them, “I tell you what I have seen in the Father’s presence,” the Pharisees respond,

39 “Our father is Abraham.” Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works of Abraham.…

56 Abraham your father rejoiced to see my day; he saw it and was glad. 57 So the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old and you have seen Abraham?” 58 Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, before Abraham came to be, I AM.” 59 So they picked up stones to throw at him; but Jesus hid and went out of the temple area. John 8

I AM is of course the name of God given to Moses from the burning bush:

“But,” said Moses to God, “when I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers [that is, of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob] has sent me to you,’ if they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what am I to tell them?”

14 6 God replied, “I am who am.” Then he added, “This is what you shall tell the Israelites: I AM sent me to you.” Exodus 3

When Jesus says, “before Abraham came to be, I AM,” he changes the verb tense from past not so much to present as to Presence-“Presence tense.” The Greek verb meaning “came to be,” say the commentaries, is the one used of all of creation in the first chapter of John. Jesus is saying, in other words, that He exists not so much from as in eternity and that creation itself came to be through Him.He is not only the sacred name of God used by men, I AM, Yahweh, but the Word that in the beginning is with God and is God. His interlocutors reasonably want to know how this can be since they know his human origins and his human age. But they get no answers that they can understand, and they press forward with the plan to prosecute him.

Being the son of Zeus in the Greek tradition was no guarantee of worldly power or honor. Because of a trick played on Zeus by his wife Hera, the greatest son of Zeus, Herakles (or Hercules in the Roman tradition) was subjected to his kinsman Eurystheus and had to perform the famous twelve labors. He died in agony, eaten alive by the poisons in a robe sent to him by his wife Deianira; after his death, he was divinized. Jesus likewise is denied-or, more accurately, denies Himself-the kind of compensatory honor that Achilles receives in his own lifetime. His actions and assertions as the Son lead to His humiliation and execution as a criminal; the narrative then goes on to recount his resurrection and ascension. What seems to me crucial here as a cultural difference is that Jesus is born into a tradition in which God has never before been understood as one who begets. What Mohammed later says in the Koran, “God neither begets, nor is He begotten,” seems true of the tradition of the Judaism into which Jesus was born. The Gospels present Jesus as the only begotten Son of God the Father, but it is important to remember the radical difference, not only from the Jewish tradition, but from the Greek one. He is not begotten sexually, as Zeus begets Herakles; He is not begotten as the Son when the angel Gabriel comes to Mary, though He becomes a human son through her, since He was already in the beginning. “Before Abraham came to be, I AM.” “In the beginning was the Word,” and the Word is the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, as the later tradition puts it.

Over 300 years after the Gospel of John, St. Augustine takes up the question of this begetting as the Word in his book De TrinitateOn the Trinity; he explores the begetting of the Son by analogy to human language.Whenever, in the depths of the mind, we understand something before we ever try to put it into words even for ourselves, that conception arising out of the powers of the mind is analogous, for Augustine, to the Word in the Trinity. This is how he puts it: “Whoever, then, is able to understand a word, not only before it is uttered in sound, but also before the images of its sounds are considered in thought … is able now to see through this glass and in this enigma some likeness of that Word of whom it is said, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’ … For the thought that is formed by the thing which we know, is the word which we speak in the heart: which word is neither Greek nor Latin, nor of any other tongue.” (St. Augustine, On the Trinity) The thought or inner conception is properly speaking the word, because when we speak we try to approximate this inner thought.A single sound or verbal unit cannot convey the thought; we speak of a sentence as containing a complete thought, since the whole thought has to be gathered up from a temporal sequence of words. A whole lecture, a whole book, might be necessary to convey this inner word in Augustine’s sense, and this inner word is pre-linguistic also in the sense that it could be put in different languages. He goes on, then, to develop the analogy between the inner conception and the outer, spoken word:

Accordingly, the word that sounds outwardly is the sign of the word that gives light inwardly; which latter has the greater claim to be called a word. For that which is uttered with the mouth of the flesh, is the articulate sound of a word; … our word is made … by assuming that articulate sound by which it may be manifested to men’s senses, as the Word of God was made flesh, by assuming that flesh in which itself also might be manifested to men’s senses.… And therefore whoever desires to arrive at any likeness… of the Word of God … must not regard the word of ours that sounds in the ears, either when it is uttered in an articulate sound or when it is silently thought. (My italics) St. Augustine, On the Trinity

That is, the inner word does not stand for or represent a thought, as any language does; it is that thought. But since there is a likeness between articulate sound and the Word made flesh, since Jesus of Nazareth is not only true God but true man, language also takes on a new meaning.

In the Christian genealogy of the cosmos, the Father begets the Son in something like the sense in which the inner word is conceived from the depths of the mind, and through the Son all creation comes into being. Augustine writes, “As it is said of that Word, ‘All things were made by Him,’ where God is declared to have made the universe by His only-begotten Son, so there are no works of man that are not first spoken in his heart: whence it is written, ‘A word is the beginning of every work.'” (St. Augustine, On the Trinity) A sentence, a book, a building, a culture-all develop in the same way as creation, from the inner word spoken in the heart to this outer achievement, and they will be good, he says, to the extent that the inner word is true.

Thomas Aquinas takes up this point from Augustine in his own discussion of the Trinity 800 years later. “The concept itself of the heart has of its own nature to proceed from something other than itself-namely, from the knowledge of the one conceiving. Hence ‘Word,’ according as we use the term strictly of God, signifies something proceeding from another”-that is, from the Father. (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I.34.1-3) The point is that in God the concept of the heart IS the Son: the Word is the Father’s complete gift of Himself to be known; the Word is the Son, the Person in Whom God knows Himself and through Whom all creation comes.Like Achilles, Jesus-this Word made flesh-is conceived as human in order to be sacrificed; He comes into being as man in order to undergo death. Unlike Achilles, the Gospel narratives say, he lives without glory in a fairly obscure corner of the Roman Empire, gathers fishermen and tax collectors around him, and dies the death, not of a hero, but of a criminal or a slave.

If Greek culture is rooted in the Homeric vision of heroes who are not the sons of Zeus, Christianity is grounded in this paradox of divine Sonship, now made participatory, in which the finite life, humble and bound by circumstances as it might be, is nevertheless like the words of sentence whose meaning is infinite: it is the articulation in time of the eternal tense of Presence and the freedom of the creative Word. Christian cultures have struggled with the paradox-how to make communities that embody love of God and love of neighbor; how to pass on-in families, for instance-a relation to God that supersedes the family; how to create an architecture of interiority; whether civic institutions ought to be subject to the church or vice versa; whether images can be sacramental; and countless other things. By the ninth century, the churches in the East had begun to break from Rome over the insertion of the word Filioque, meaning “and the Son,” in the creed; at issue was whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father alone, as the Eastern churches say, or from the Father and the Son. Is this an insignificant point? Not in its effects, certainly, because the countries informed by the Eastern churches have gone a very different cultural and political route than those in the West. A different understanding of Father and Son seems to lead to a different culture.

Two kinds of relation, then, of father and sons in the genealogy of the cosmos, ancient Greek and Christian-and where are we now? I also want to move toward a close by thinking about a cultural shift that has been going on throughout modernity-a kind of embarrassment about the father in almost every respect. The metaphor of the divine Father has come under attack at least since John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government in 1689. Arguing against paternal power, Locke is very careful in his phrasing; his argument is essentially that God the Father gives a divine sanction to those men who seize undue power as heads of households or as kings; he seems particularly concerned to remove the analogy between kingship and the supremacy of God understood as Fatherhood.(John Locke, Second Treatise on Government) By 200 years later, the rise of modern science-especially the work of Darwin-had radically altered thinking about origins. Early in the 20th Century, Freud set the terms of the debate about the relation of father and son, and the whole topic has been swarmed over for the past century, with language theory very much part of what has been at issue. But theologically, what was once impossible to say overtly is now said all the time. The feminist theologian Mary Daly articulates a very explicit argument along the same lines as John Locke’s in a famous essay from 1972, when she writes that

the image of the Father God . . . sustained as plausible by patriarchy, has in turn rendered service to this [patriarchal] type of society by making its mechanisms for the oppression of women appear right and fitting. If God in ‘his’ heaven is a father ruling ‘his’ people, then it is in the ‘nature’ of things and according to divine plan and the order of the universe that society be male-dominated.” Mary Daly, “After the Death of God the Father”

These arguments are by now of course very familiar; Daly takes Nietzsche’s famous teaching that “God is dead” and-as she says, adopting Nietzsche’s own term-transvalues it to go “far beyond Nietzsche’s merely reactionary rejection of Christian values.” The point for her is that the cultural understanding of God as the Father is dead.

But this is, I would argue, best understood as a mythological statement and best tested on the mythological level. Percy Bysshe Shelley had anticipated Daly’s mythological liberation from the metaphor of the Father in Prometheus Unbound in 1820, but not her liberation from the masculine metaphor. Imagining Jupiter overthrown by his marriage with Thetis, Shelley has Spirit of the Hour say that the “tyrant of the world” in all his many forms-clearly including the authoritarian image of God the Father-has been overthrown:

The loathsome mask has fallen, the man remains

Sceptreless, free, uncircumscribed, but man

Equal, unclassed, tribeless, and nationless,

Exempt from awe, worship, degree, the king

Over himself; just, gentle, wise … Shelley, Prometheus Unbound, Act III

For Daly, as long as “the man” remains in this privileged place in the language, the other attributes of liberty and equality will not follow. But even here, the movement has to be from the inner word to the outer work, and one strongly suspects that slight adjustments in the outer, spoken word will not bring about the kind of cultural change that Daly hopes to bring about. Only a new vision, in Dawson’s sense-corresponding to Augustine’s “inner word”-can bring about real cultural change.

Nietzsche, I think, saw this, and therefore his announcement of the death of God and his outright attacks on Christianity were not merely reactionary.They were a deliberate move to raise the Enlightenment “secularization thesis”-the idea that religion will gradually die out as we get more enlightened-onto the mythological level as a recognition of its tragic cultural importance; Nietzsche imagined himself in an agon-a struggle or quarrel-with the Son, even to the extent of writing a book called The Antichrist. To oppose Christianity in this way, I would argue, was part of his affirmation of tragedy. It was Greek in spirit: part of the generational struggle in the genealogy of the cosmos. Like Dionysus, whose importance Nietzsche stressed to the point of reinventing him, a God who dies can be reborn.Either Christianity would regain its power through its resurrection or it would give way to a new myth. Martin Heidegger, the great student of Nietzsche, said in a famous interview in the 1960’s, “only a god can save us.” What Nietzsche dreaded was what he called “the last man”-the being without aspiration or nobility, ironic about every noble enterprise, the dethroned father without authority or responsibility who seeks his own “wretched contentment,” as Nietzsche puts it, until death parts him at last from his remote.

Let me close with a glance at Dante, the highest poet of Catholic culture of the Middle Ages, as a kind of counter and question to our own contemporary myth. It is hard to deny that in some real way Dante has taken us as deeply as he can into the origin of a poem whose majestic accomplishment is itself undeniable, a poem that he understands as analogous to the cosmos.In the last Canto of the Divine Comedy, Dante is led by Mary to behold an image of God, first as a simple light into which he gazes, then as three circles

of three colors and of one dimension;
one circle seemed reflected by the second,
as rainbow is by rainbow, and the third
seemed fire breathed equally from both. (Paradiso XXXIII, 117-20)

Notice that Dante presents the second circle as reflecting the first; that is, the Son reflects the entirely unpatriarchal Father back to Himself like a perfect mirror. The third circle, Dante’s imaging of the Holy Spirit, is breathed equally from both-that is, proceeds from the Father and the Son as the fire of love uniting them, in the tradition of the Western church. As Dante gazes, an image appears in the second circle-the reflecting or mirroring one-seems painted with “our effigy,” that is, with the human image. What has happened so far is a kind of genealogical unfolding of God in the history of revelation:first God as one substance, uncreated light; then the three persons of the Trinity; then as the Incarnation. As Dante tries, like a geometer, to discover how the human image can be reconciled with the circle, the solution comes to him in a transforming flash of light-in a way that moves him in unity with the love that moves the sun and the other stars. This is Dante’s image, I suggest, for what Thomas explains as the twofold nature of the Word in God: “as the knowledge of God is only cognitive as regards God, whereas as regards creatures, it is both cognitive and operative, so the Word of God is only expressive of what is in God the Father, but is both expressive and operative of creatures“-that is, it brings them into being. (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I.34.1-3)

I want to suggest that Dante finds in the last image his whole poem, his whole culture-that is, he sees the image of Christ in the perfection of the circle, the outer word in the inner one. But he sees the image at first as his own reflection, as “our effigy.” What happens in that last intuition is that the Word of God is revealed not only as expressing our nature, but as bringing it into being in that instant, through the outpouring of power that creates all things. As part of that creation, as an extension of it, Dante is sent out of the Godhead and into the world as the son: to do what? To write the great work that will draw him back, by making it, to this originating inner eternal Word. The question is whether we sufficiently understand the boldness of the way he lays claim to sonship and unfolds the genealogy of the cosmos-and whether, in the way we imagine the cosmos, we see the Father well enough to be so bold.

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