The temptation to customise God

The Dawn of Midnight/6 - The lies of the scribes are a trap for good faith as well

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 28/05/2017

170528 geremia 6 ridJeremiah understands that the precious power of dialogue that has been given him is actually a power of prayer.

André Neher, Jeremiah

At the beginning of every love story there is a wonderful encounter between the "internal" and the "external". In both personal and collective stories. One day we meet a person and feel that he or she has already been present in our soul without us knowing it. We only realise it as we get to know this person. If this were not the case, we would not join anybody in a pact that includes the word "forever". Something like this happens in those love stories, too, where the other we meet is not a man or a woman, but a spiritual or ideal reality. The voice that calls us is external and intimate at the same time; we recognize it because it has already been inside us.

Sometimes these spiritual meetings become collective experiences, and so that first event generates not only families but communities, movements, organizations, faiths or religions. Biblical faith was also born this way: a first voice, a person that answers to it, then a family, other people, other families, a community, a people. A religion. The transition from the first personal dialogue with the voice to religion is always very delicate and extremely risky. The first foundational spiritual experience soon translates into a cult, theologies, dogmas, religious practices, catechisms, vade-mecums of confessors. It is a natural process that gets activated with the good purpose of guarding, handing down and universalizing the initial spiritual experience. However it is a process that, despite the good faith of those who start it, ends up imprisoning the first voice in the iron cage prepared for it. The ideas we make of God prevent him from being different from our ideas. And so we create entire social classes and professions that in many ways want to make sure and reassure us that God is right there, inside the dress that day after day they have prepared for him, perfectly tailor-made. It’s a measure that then inevitably becomes the meter to verify their own orthodoxy and the heresy of others. The words said become written word, and the masters of the pen tend to become masters of the word, and then the masters of those who pronounced the words. And the voice stops talking. But a community, a church, an ideal, a faith can really live if the faithful give the first voice the freedom to keep talking every day, calling them by name, astonishing them with words that have not been said before and that no one has expected. But this freedom is expensive and uncomfortable, and for this reason it is almost never to be found in churches and temples.

Similar processes occur, in various forms and degrees, in spiritual communities and movements generated by an initial charismatic experience. Even in that case, over time, the community inevitably produces its "scribes" and "doctors of the law" to preserve and pass on the original charisma. They become the hermeneutic scholars of the first voice and end up preventing it from speaking again and saying new things along with the old ones. And if the voice does not say new things, the old things don’t speak to us anymore, and everything is silent. Vocations disappear because there is no living voice calling them any more: memories and writings of yesterday are not capable of calling anyone by name.

Prophets are, therefore, the only effective cure for this serious illness affecting collective spiritual experiences, whether they are religious or lay. Because the prophet is someone who for a specific vocation cultivates a mysterious but realistic dialogue, with the same voice that was at the origin of the foundational experience. And that’s why they can cry out from the top of their lungs: “How can you say, ‘We are wise, / and the law of the Lord is with us’? But behold, the lying pen of the scribes / has made it into a lie. The wise men shall be put to shame; / they shall be dismayed and taken” (Jeremiah 8:8-9). Prophets are the eternal present of the first day. Prophecy challenges the voice turned into written word to "test" it against the original voice that was still oral.

There is, however, a great and crucial problem that touches the heart of the prophetic experience: false prophets also arrogate this same function of hermeneutic scholars and testers of the word. For this reason, the first enemies of prophets are false prophets, and vice versa. False prophets "confuse" and "capture” others, because the leaders of the people have an irresistible tendency to believe in their adulating exegesis that calms them and confirms their power: “They have healed the wound of my people lightly, / saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ / when there is no peace. / Were they ashamed when they committed abomination? / No, they were not at all ashamed; / they did not know how to blush.” (Jeremiah 8:11-12) - not being ashamed any more, not being able to blush are signs of great poverty: the hope for a return is alive as long as we can feel ashamed.

Jeremiah continues to suffer for the sufferings of his people caused by the priests, scribes and doctors who have been caught by the consolatory ideologies of false prophets, a pain from which some of his most beautiful verses flourished: “For the wound of the daughter of my people is my heart wounded; / I mourn, and dismay has taken hold on me. / Is there no balm in Gilead? / Is there no physician there? / Why then has the health of the daughter of my people / not been restored? Oh that my head were waters, / and my eyes a fountain of tears, / that I might weep day and night” (8:20-23). The wound of the daughter of my people is a wonderful expression, resulting from a play in the delicate and strong female register that only the great prophets can do. “Is there no medicine brought from far away to cure her” - is a lament-prayer that we have recited when we had to face the incurable illness of a daughter or a mother. But Jeremiah knows that that miraculous balm does not exist and that the wound will not heal. The corruption of the people is too general and profound, as by now they have “turned away / in perpetual backsliding” (8:5). When corruption lasts for a long time, it produces a great moral tiredness and people remain in their erroneous state because of lacking the spiritual energy to get up and return home.

That’s how another breathtaking scenery opens from this wound, a slit on a new and great panorama: “Oh that I had in the desert / a travellers' lodging place, that I might leave my people / and go away from them! / For they are all adulterers, / a company of treacherous men.” (9:2) Mistrust and lies control the sovereigns (“Let everyone beware of his neighbour, / and put no trust in any brother, / for every brother is a deceiver, / and every neighbour goes about as a slanderer.” 9:4). It’s a radical perversion leading Jeremiah to resignation and the desire to escape, to go to the desert because he can no longer stay among his people.

This is a new form of the prophet’s malaise, different from the pain of the one that the "wound of the daughter of his people” causes to him. It is a kind of nausea and disgust that stem from being in the midst of a people who have renounced the Covenant and have become wretched. Jeremiah will not flee, but in this verse he tells us that he has felt the temptation to do so - and he will feel it later, too, very strongly. And so he reveals another intimate dimension of prophecy to us.

When a prophet is in a community that has lost the sense of the first voice, there comes a moment when he feels an irrepressible desire to flee to the desert, to escape from his people. Only physical closeness to those people, their false words, cults, prayers and, especially, ideology create nausea and disgust, physical malaise in him. In these moments, to the suffering to see the "daughter of his people" wounded and started towards death, the pain of feeling a total stranger, being in the wrong house and desperately wanting to be somewhere else is added. When an ideology has doped the whole people, when the true words of the prophet do not yield any result, it is his soul and body that rebel and want to go away, run away from home, willing to live under any shelter, whether it’s a hut or even under a bridge, just to leave that place of lies, becoming more and more like the Egypt of slavehood.

When passing through such times many prophets end their mission, because the memory of the desert becomes so strong in them that it seems invincible. The nausea caused by it becomes unbearable, it takes one’s blood and skin, and the community becomes a prison from which they eventually manage to escape. And they never come back again. For too many prophets this typical moral kind of pain marks the end of their prophetic experience.

Jeremiah, on the other hand, remained, he did not flee into the desert but continued to speak to his people, albeit with no success, transforming his pain into sorrow and tears: “Consider, and call for the mourning women to come; / send for the skilful women to come; / (...) that our eyes may run down with tears / and our eyelids flow with water. For a sound of wailing is heard from Zion: / ‘How we are ruined! We are utterly shamed, / because we have left the land, / because they have cast down our dwellings.” (9:17-19).

The prophet's voice thus becomes the voice of the people who does not cry for their own ruin even though they should. His people are not able to cry, because they are deceived by the consolatory ideologies and unaware of the disaster that is about to come. The prophet decides to cry for them, he lends his tears to his people who, if they could only weep, would already be on the path of salvation. The lament for the people becomes the love song of the prophet, the only balm for the wound of the daughter. He does not flee, he stays, and in order not to die he cries instead of his people who do not cry. This is the truest and most wonderful source of prayer: crying for those who cannot cry, shouting for those who cannot shout, living for those who have stopped living.

Many peoples and communities have been and are still being saved through the surrogate laments of the prophets who, despite the nausea they feel, have not fled, and remained faithful to their lookout post. Those tears did not save Jerusalem from the destruction and the exile, but they can always save us from our destructions and exiles. They can give us a good reason to stay at home, and distil the balm for the wounded daughter of the people from our tears.

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