The Irreducible Gap: The Paradox of Valentin Tomberg
Recently, I found myself getting pretty excited about the impending publication of Angelico Press’s edition of Valentin Tomberg’s magnum opus, known in English as Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Mysticism. My excitement started when I was allowed a sneak peak and opportunity to copyedit some of the paratexts for the edition. The paratexts—by Ernst von Hippel, Robert Spaemann, and Hans Urs von Balthasar—are practically worth the price of the book. Tomberg’s book, which has inspired many—but which has also undoubtedly concerned many—may be the most radically orthodox (yo, Milbank!) work of the last century.
Part of the wonder embodied in Meditations is how it balances a subtle (if highly idiosyncratic) traditionalism with some theologically daring proposition concerning astrology, reincarnation, and, most central to its message (if subsumed to some degree), sophiology. Spaemann attempts an explanation:
“What lies closest to the author’s heart, however, is opening a path for all seekers after Wisdom, all Hermeticists, Theosophists, and Anthroposophists, to the one Church—that of the apostles, of God-become-Man—as their true spiritual living-space, as the spiritual homeland from which, whether they will or no, they must daily draw life, and without whose prayers and sacraments the realities to which these latter correspond must surely disappear entirely from our world. His gratitude for this God-given spiritual living-space is most stirring in its warmth and depth. From the Catholic Church he does not expect a corresponding gratitude toward Hermetic wisdom-seekers and initiates, but only that it might clear out a humble corner for any who, in accord with their vocation, can do no other than walk the path of analogy and correspondence on the track of the mysteries—both great and small—of Reality, from time to time making most remarkable discoveries.”1
There can be little doubt that Tomberg’s book has done precisely this. I have encountered an extraordinary array of people from all walks of life, from all over the world, who entered or returned to the Catholic Church following their own encounters with Meditations, not least of whom is Robert Powell, the man responsible for translating the book into English. As he once told me, through the act of translating the manuscript, he felt called to enter the Catholic Mystery.
Tomberg’s non-traditional traditionalism (to turn a phrase) resides in his devotion to the dogmas of the Church, his upholding of the papal office, and his veneration for the saints, doctors, and teachers of Catholicism (he’s particularly fond of John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, Bonaventure, and Bernard of Clairvaux, among others)—while at the same time expressing his admiration for certain figures from the French Occult Revival of the nineteenth century (for example, Joséphin Péladan, Eliphas Levi, Louis-Claude de Saint-Martin, and so forth). His traditionalism, in fact, goes so far as to question Vatican II (Tomberg died in 1973). In his last book (Covenant of the Heart, also known as Lazarus, Come Forth!) he voices his skepticism about the aims of the Council:
“The combination of an unyielding, unshakable solidity of faith with the patience that can wait hundreds of years makes the ‘rock’ of the See of Peter unconquerable in the confrontation with the streams of time, which are all, indeed, merely temporal winds and waves. For the ‘demands and needs’ of the time are necessarily temporary. Also temporal, therefore, are efforts towards ‘democritization’ of the Church, de-dogmatization of Church teaching through psychological interpretations, and similar endeavors to ‘modernize’ the Church, her teaching, and her rules. They offend against the commandment: ‘Honor your father and your mother’.”2
Needless to say, a good many of Tomberg’s more zealous readers take up this thread—no doubt seasoned by a good dose of the anti-V2 hysteria that afflicts our times—and join in the chorus of Vatican II derision, if not flirting with Sede Vacantism or other varieties of alt-right Catholic bizarreness. But displeasure with Vatican II is not all there is to Valentin Tomberg.
More importantly, Tomberg was also a religious innovator who held a deep admiration for Teilhard de Chardin (which I’m sure feels awkward for the Traddies), Henri Bergson, and C. G. Jung. He also understood reincarnation as a metaphysical reality and recognized the influence of the stars on human life. And much more importantly (in my opinion), Tomberg was one of the first to articulate a Catholic Sophiology (I explore this in The Submerged Reality). But I don’t mean a “Catholic Sophiology” as intellectual construct: I mean a Catholic Sophiology as extension of the Tradition. In addition to other ways, he did this through his “Our Mother” prayer, as well as through his introduction of the Luminous Holy Trinity: The Mother, the Daughter, and the Holy Soul (I've written about these here and here). So maybe he wasn’t as traditional as all that. Tomberg’s a paradox.
What Tomberg does, I think, is explode complacent notions of what it means to be “Catholic.” Ironically, the Tombergian Traddies often follow him here initially before trying to pass as the Catholic conservatives of their pre-V2 imaginations. He’s much more important than that. Tomberg, that is, cuts to the core of the Christian Mystery. As Slovoj Žižek explains it, “Christianity is the miraculous Event that disturbs the balance of the One-All; it is the violent intrusion of Difference that precisely throws the balanced circuit of the universe off the rails.”3 If Valentin Tomberg doesn’t disturb the balance of the One-All, nobody does.
It may be that even Tomberg didn’t see the power in what he was proposing. Sophiology, in the context of contemporary Christianity, carries with it a complete paradigm shift. No one likes to change, let alone shift paradigms, but that is clearly what confronts us in the work of Tomberg. Again to quote Žižek :
“...it is possible today to redeem this core of Christianity only in the gesture of abandoning the shell of its institutional organization (and, even more so, of its specific religious experience). The gap is irreducible: either one drops the religious form, or one maintains the form, but loses the essence. That is the ultimate heroic gesture that awaits Christianity: in order to save its treasure, it has to sacrifice itself—like Christ, who had to die so that Christianity could emerge.”4
Michael's latest book is Transfiguration: Notes toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses, including courses on Sophiology and Valentin Tomberg’s Meditations on the Tarot.
1 Robert Spaemann, “Introduction to Second German Edition,” Meditations on the Tarot, trans. Robert Powell (Angelico Press, 2019), v.
2 Valentin Tomberg, Covenant of the Heart: Meditations of a Christian Hermeticist on the Mysteries of Tradition, trans. Robert Powell and James Morgante (Element, 1992), 197.
3 Slavoj Žižek, The Fragile Absolute: Or Why the Christian Legacy Is Worth Fighting for (Verso, 2000), 112.
4 Slavoj Žižek, The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity (The MIT Press, 2003), 171.