"...the Imagination (or love, or sympathy, or any other sentiment) induces knowledge, and knowledge of an 'object' which is proper to it..."
Henry Corbin (1903-1978) was a scholar, philosopher and theologian. He was a champion of the transformative power of the Imagination and of the transcendent reality of the individual in a world threatened by totalitarianisms of all kinds. One of the 20th century’s most prolific scholars of Islamic mysticism, Corbin was Professor of Islam & Islamic Philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris and at the University of Teheran. He was a major figure at the Eranos Conferences in Switzerland. He introduced the concept of the mundus imaginalis into contemporary thought. His work has provided a foundation for archetypal psychology as developed by James Hillman and influenced countless poets and artists worldwide. But Corbin’s central project was to provide a framework for understanding the unity of the religions of the Book: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. His great work Alone with the Alone: Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi is a classic initiatory text of visionary spirituality that transcends the tragic divisions among the three great monotheisms. Corbin’s life was devoted to the struggle to free the religious imagination from fundamentalisms of every kind. His work marks a watershed in our understanding of the religions of the West and makes a profound contribution to the study of the place of the imagination in human life.

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Monday, August 11, 2008

The Cross of Light

In the Acts of Peter the apostle speaks to a group of the faithful of the Transfiguration he had witnessed on Mount Tabor. All he can say of it is "I saw him in such a form as I was able to take in." As they began to pray Peter told them to perceive in their mind what they do not see with their eyes. The hall became filled with an invisible light that shone into the eyes of some women who stood amidst the prostrate group. When they were later asked what they saw, some said an old man, others a youth, still others a child. This phenomenon lies at the heart of Corbin's theology. He writes,

"We are dealing with visions, theophanic visions. There is actual perception of an object, of a concrete person: the figure and the features are sharply defined; this person presents all the 'appearances' of a sensuous object, and yet it is not given to the perception of the sense organs. This perception is essentially an event of the soul, taking place in the soul and for the soul. As such its reality is essentially individuated for and with each soul; what the soul really sees, it is in each case alone in seeing... The community of vision will be established not by reference to an external object... but by reason of a dimension of being that is common to this or that group or family of souls. This adequation of vision to the dimension and capacity of the soul in which it takes place is the foundation of what we may call the metamorphosis of theophanic visions."

Another non-canonical text, the Acts of John, describes a theophany that holds the secret of the diversity of these visions, and of the prophetic tradition itself. It is Good Friday, and while in Jerusalem Jesus is crucified on a cross of wood, in a grotto on the Mount of Olives the Angel Christos appears to the apostle in a glory of light and reveals the vision and the mystery of the Cross of Light. Corbin paraphrases for us,

"This cross is called sometimes Word, sometimes Mind, sometimes Jesus and sometimes Christ, sometimes Door, sometimes Way, sometimes Son, Father, Spirit, sometimes Life and sometimes truth. It separates the things on high that are from the thing below that become ... and at the same time, being one, streams into all things."

Jesus the man must be distinguished from Christ the Angel. The True Prophet is that multiform angelic figure who appears uniquely to everyone; a figure described by one ancient source thus: "Running through the ages since the beginning of the world, he hastens toward the place of his repose."

Citations are from Corbin, "Divine Epiphany and Spiritual Birth in Ismaili Gnosis," in Cyclical Time and Ismaili Gnosis. Trans. R. Manheim, J. Morris, London: Kegan Paul International, 1983a, 60-61, 66.
Image: Giusto de Menabuoi, Holy Ghost. 1360-1370. Fresco,
Baptistery, Padua, Italy. Photo Credit : Alinari / Art Resource, NY
(Adapted from After Prophecy: Imagination, Incarnation and Unity of the Prophetic Tradition by the author).

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