The War against Sloth: Paul Tyson, Moshe Idel, and the Sleepwalkers
The following is a review essay from Jesus the Imagination: The Garden.
Paul Tyson, Seven Brief Lessons on Magic (Cascade Books, 2019), $13.99 US
Moshe Idel, The Privileged Divine Feminine in Kabbalah (Walter de Gruyter, 2019), $114.99 US
Academia, counter-intuitively perhaps, does not constitute an environment favorable to original thought. This is not necessarily a problem only of our own moment, though it has certainly been exacerbated by the increasing specialization and, at least in the sciences, ungodly sums of money offered in the name of “research.” Ideas confronting the status quo are never welcomed with open arms, still less when they’re correct. As the great Russian philosopher Nicolai Berdyaev observed in 1943, “The highly cultured man of a certain style usually expresses imitative opinions upon every subject: they are average opinions, they belong to a group, though it may well be that this imitativeness belongs to a cultured élite and to a highly select group.”1 Attend any cocktail party of academics for verification.
It is against this backdrop that two recent books—both by academics—offer refreshingly original and innovative explorations at the margins of philosophy and theology. They do so in ways that challenge not only the academic status quo but also challenge the ways non-specialists can think about our ability to understand ourselves and our world and the nature of the Divine.
In Seven Brief Lesson on Magic, Australian philosopher Paul Tyson argues that, despite the totalizing effects of secularization, magical belief persists throughout (post)modernity. In the surprisingly short space of sixty-seven pages, Tyson examines (post)modernity’s scientism fetish and its (apparent but false) dismissal of magic. He proposes four theories of magic he sees at play: the animist theory, which views Nature as a living being; the Platonist theory, which recognizes how “nature is saturated in transcendent meaning beyond herself”; the supernatural theory, which places the magic beyond Nature; and the anti-magical theory, which believes (and “believe” is precisely the correct term) that magic does not exist.2 Tyson digs into each of these proposals to tease out the ways in which human persons and societies have and do actualize these ways of perceiving and acting in the world. As he writes, “To put it bluntly, the primary furnishings of our minds uphold an armed barrier between the way we think about the outer world of factual scientific knowledge and practical technological power and the inner world of imagination, meaning, purpose, and value.”3
Two important historical events and their cultural aftermath haunt Tyson’s little book: the ultimate victory (Pyrrhic, though it be) of natura pura during and after the early modern period; and the disenchantment narrative promoted by Max Weber swallowed (but not digested) by most of those who followed. Also lurking in these Seven Brief Lessons are the ideas of Charles Taylor and Peter Harrison, both who provide jacket endorsements, as well as William Desmond and John Milbank—all thinkers who have each in his own way pushed back against these dominant cultural narratives.
Natura pura (“pure nature”) is the proposition that God could withhold his presence from any aspect of Creation and gave birth to René Descartes’s bifurcation of the world into two parts: that which we can discern and exploit (now ostensibly the domain of “science”) and that which we cannot which lies in the supernatural provenance of God. Tyson never mentions it, but Henri de Lubac’s seminal study Surnaturel (1946)—which has yet to be published in an English translation—informs this part of his argument to a significant degree. The fascinating thing about natura pura, a theological proposition, is its role as ground zero for modern science. Natura pura, as theological dictum, then, shows precisely how science (or, more properly, scientism) is at its foundation a religion. When people say they “believe in science” we need to take that as sincere a faith-based confession as they come. The only problem is that science has developed a kind of armor or amnesia when it comes to its pedigree. As Tyson writes, “scientific modernity has disavowed its medieval parents, and has constructed its origin myth as a triumphant rebellion against its doddering and oppressive elders.”4
When it comes to the Weberian disenchantment narrative, Tyson delightfully shows what a two-dimensional piece of pasteboard it is. For Tyson, the disenchantment narrative bears little relationship to our lived experience of the world. In a disenchantment mindset, “values, meaning, and metaphysical orders are—for all scientific and practical purposes—not real features of objective reality. And yet, in our actual human experience, value, meaning, and purpose are fundamental to our ordinary lives. But are these ‘secondary’ qualities not really real, and is their sense of importance merely a matter of personal or cultural interpretation that has no solid grounding in the way reality is?”5 As a result, Tyson defines the disenchantment narrative as what it really is: a mythos:
“As a mythos at one with the supernaturalist and anti-magical metaphysics of scientific modernity, disenchantment is a powerful life-world defining myth, ordering our understanding and experience of reality. However, this is in important regards a false mythology. For actually, enchantment has not vanished from our ordinary experience of reality. What has really happened is that our understanding of where enchantment is has moved—under the conditions of scientific modernity—entirely out of the categories of knowledge and factual reality, and completely into the categories of imagination and subjectivity.”6
For Tyson, then, magic exists precisely in that domain of meaning, purpose, and imagination that science cannot touch but only speculate (and so unconvincingly). Science may give conveniences to living, but it cannot impart meaning, at least in its various applications, almost all of them tied to some variety of consumerism, capitalism, or control. Natura pura dissolves in the face of meaning, leaving science to measurement and the rest to art and religion. Indeed, as did David Bohm before him, Tyson calls science’s bluff and lays the blame for many of our challenges on science’s very doorstep:
“Cataclysmic global climate destabilization combined with billions of insecure people, hawkish “realist” power, and astonishingly destructive military technologies could not only end our life-world, but could wipe humanity from the face of the earth. Science certainly helped us get into this place, but science itself is powerless to help us. It is not the next technological fix that we should pin our hopes for a future on, it is the cultural acquisition of wisdom that is our only real hope.”7
The invocation of Sophia here, I think, is not accidental. For, as Proverbs has it, Sophia rejoices in the habitable part of his earth; and her delights are with the children of men. For these kinds of reasons, Tyson believes “it is entirely reasonable—and indeed, imperative—to see magic as real.”8 For where is Wisdom to be found?
Seven Brief Lesson on Magic is a book geared toward an informed but general reader interested in philosophy, theology, and the history of ideas. Not so with Moshe Idel’s The Privileged Divine Feminine in Kabbalah,9 a dense scholarly monograph written for the specialist and highly critical of the commonplaces and scholarly groupthink endemic to academia. It’s an inspiration.
Idel’s thesis is that the Divine Feminine and its role in Kabbalah has been seriously ignored despite numerous instances of its presence in the kabbalistic literature, especially that from the late medieval period. He bases his claim on three propositions:
“First and most importantly, the elevated ontological status of the Feminine within the theosophical system [within Kabbalah] in comparison to the classical masculine hypostases, Tiferet or Yesod; second, the dynamic perception of Female in the theosophical realm in comparison to the two main divine masculine powers mentioned above, as She is conceived of as supplying power to other sefirot, including the masculine ones; and third, this divine power’s ruling over the lower worlds, which is overwhelmingly more conspicuous than the Male’s role, despite His being designated as the King and Her being the ultimate aim of the ritual.”10
Idel’s thesis, while radical, is perhaps only incidental to what I take to be his greater project: challenging scholarly groupthink. And in this he pulls no punches. On the first page of the introduction, he explicitly states this: “the ideas addressed below are not in consonance with the rational claims of ‘Enlightened’ Jews or the all-encompassing vision of an androcentric imaginaire put forth in recent decades by scholarly followers of some sort of feminism.”11 Ouch. But he doesn’t stop there. Indeed, he has harsh words for both the purveyors of a “phallocentric” interpretation of Kabbalah as well as those marketing a facile “feminist” approach. The former he accuses of neglecting or suppressing what to him is patently obvious in Kabbalah.12 The latter he laments: “What could have been a fresh approach to Kabbalah, in this case, some fresh questions adopted from feminist theories, has turned into an axiom, actually an academic ahistorical dogma, allowing no exceptions, and speaking openly, and amusingly I must say, about detractors, heresies and obsessions, in publications that are deemed academic.”13
Idel’s method is more in resonant with what I have called elsewhere an “agapeic criticism.”14 His approach resides in a porosity in present to the texts before him:
“Scholars who try to subsume medieval traditions to fashionable but unsuitable modern theories merely obscure texts by inventing harmonizing interpretations. I propose more flexible approaches: a toolbox of methods, in fact, will facilitate a proper understanding of modes of thought on sex and gender that differ so dramatically from the modern ones. As part of a polychromatic approach to this literature, scholarship should pay greater attention to the expressions of ambivalence toward the Female. Moreover, modesty and less aggressive language may also serve as indispensable qualities for sensitive reading of the texts and then interpreting them. By listening only to one melody, scholars are prone to be deaf to other important voices.”15
So much for his method, which is much to be recommended.
Idel’s investigation begins with a simple proposition attributed to Aristotle: “The first in thought is last in action.” Applying this to theosophical Kabbalah, and in particular to the kabbalistic Tree of Life, Idel argue that not only is the Divine Feminine the telos of Kabbalah (and by implication Creation), but is also its source, or, spoken in the idiom of the Tree of Life, Keter as well as Malkhut. As he explains, “The view of the divine Feminine as recipient is connected to Her being the Ruler, namely of allocating power, and the understanding of Her nature solely as recipient would be a distortion.”16 He locates this notion all through the literature, in Moses Cordovero and Isaac Luria to cite the most familiar, and his discoveries bear an unmistakable sophiological imprint. In his discussion of Luria, for example, he touches on language evocative of Revelation 21:
“The preeminence of the Female, Malkhut, is evident, both in the primordial past and in the eschatological future, when She is depicted as even transcending the light of the Sun, namely the Male, as Her Husband. Her description in the eschaton as higher than the sun is indicative of the imaginaire of Her grandeur.”17
What is radical in Idel’s reading of these texts, then, is not that he brings a profoundly idiosyncratic and politically subjective lens to his examination, but that he actually reads what is there, as it is. That such an approach could ever be considered controversial speaks to how compromised the academic project is by ideas superfluous and ephemeral, even if dangerous. In fact, one could argue that the superfluous and ephemeral nature of academic discourse is the root and branch of its estrangement from the supposedly scholarly ethos of truth-seeking. In his dedication to unveiling the truth of his subject, Idel proves himself an almost solitary beacon in the darkworld of academia.
Both of these books, each with its various commitments and intended audiences, offer signs of hope. Tyson’s Seven Brief Lessons on Magic is an ideal text for, among other things, providing undergraduates with an alternative epistemology from the totalizing and banal scientism many of them bring with them to college (I have used it for a course on the history of thought). At a cultural moment when scientism has been vying for absolute hegemony, his book could not have arrived soon enough. Idel’s The Privileged Divine Feminine in Kabbalah, on the other hand, opens a path for scholars not only of religion and philosophy but for any discipline, a path toward integrity and clear-sightedness uncompromised by the excrescences of politics and turf wars.
Finally, these two books participate in a Sophiology that is attentive to the World as It Is, to Things as They Are. Tyson does so implicitly in his method, which, true to his own preference for the Platonist Theory of Magic, avows that “nature is saturated in transcendent meaning beyond herself.” Idel’s latent Sophiology, or at least that of the subjects under his consideration, clearly, is more explicit as it points to a sophiological eschaton hidden since the foundation of the world.
Michael’s latest books are an edition of The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz and 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. Also check out the latest volume of Jesus the Imagination: The Garden.
1. Nicolai Berdyaev, Slavery and Freedom, trans. R. M. French (New York: Scribner’s, 1944), 123. My emphasis.
2. Paul Tyson, Seven Brief Lessons on Magic (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2019), x.
3. Ibid., 3.
4. Ibid., 26.
5. Ibid., 30–31.
6. Ibid., 31. Tyson’s emphasis.
7. Ibid., 62. Tyson’s emphasis.
8. Ibid., 67.
9. Moshe Idel, The Privileged Divine Feminine in Kabbalah, Perspectives on Jewish Texts and Contexts 10 (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2019).
10. Ibid., 12.
11. Ibid., 1.
12. Ibid., 198.
13. Ibid., 206.
14. Michael Martin, “Criticism and Contemplation” in The Incarnation of the Poetic Word: Theological Essays on Poetry and Philosophy / Philosophical Essays on Poetry and Theology (Kettering, OH: Angelico Press, 2017).
15. Idel, 200.
16. Ibid., 38.
17. Ibid., 107.