"...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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Thursday, March 26, 2009

Notes on Corbin's Shadow - Part 3

One of the most important themes in Corbin's work is his critique of the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation. His particular brand of heresy is a form of docetism, from the Greek dokeo, "to seem or appear" - the idea is that Christ only seemed to be human, but was really wholly divine. The theological details are complex and difficult, but suffice it to say here that Corbin's concern is to bridge the gulf between the transcendent and the immanent in such a way as to open the individual soul to transcendence while guarding against the "entrapment" of God in material and social history. And too, a doctrine of the unique and literal incarnation of God at one particular time in history makes of Christianity the one true religion - which for Corbin is a denial of the truth, coherence and continuity of the Abrahamic tradition. He does not deny the transcendence of God, but that God is the Hidden God-beyond-God, the God of negative theology, whom we can never know. What we can know, in limited but multiple ways, are the plural "gods" of the angelic hierarchies. Corbin's Christology is an "angel Christology" in which the figure of Christ is multiplied, appearing uniquely to each individual, and Corbin's intent is to open up dogmatic monotheism by envisioning a kind of "polytheism" that prevents monotheism from collapsing in upon itself in a fatal idolatry.

In After Prophecy I discussed his docetism at some length, and I repeat some of the points here:

"I want to talk about one constellation of problems inevitably associated with Docetism that was largely responsible for its rejection by what became the orthodox Church in the first centuries after Christ. If the doctrine of the Incarnation is abandoned, how does this change the meaning of human embodiment, and of history? To present the thrust of the orthodox complaint as I understand it I can do no better than to quote from Olivier Clément’s summary critique of Monophysitism. Corbin suggests that a pure Monophysitism fully expresses the tendency towards volatilization that Docetism as a whole displays. Mono-physite means “one nature” – that is to say that Christ had only one nature, so that his humanity is absorbed fully into the divine. The fundamental idea, according to Clément,

"is to celebrate the transfiguration of all things in Christ. That is true eschatologically, ‘in mystery’, (and in ‘the mysteries’, the Church sacraments). Secretly the world is already the ‘burning bush’, everything is in God through Christ’s deified flesh, a ‘glass torch’. But this sacramental indicative requires an imperative in the ascetic, ethical and historical field. What is offered to us in Christ, in the ‘mysteries’, we have to realize in our freedom, in the ‘newness’ of the Spirit. Whereas Monophysitism, which is irresponsible, quietistic, almost magical, in interested only in transfiguration, and that immediately. History is done away with or disqualified... If Christianity had become Monophysite..., the human dimension of history, humanity’s tragic and creative freedom and the reality proper to the created being would have had difficulty in asserting themselves... Christianity would have forgotten the Semitic sense of the body and of history..." (from Olivier Clément's wonderful book The Roots of Christian Mysticism)

A grasp of these criticisms is important for understanding the position Corbin defends. Even in his most Manichean and “gnostic” pronouncements Corbin is not guilty of these charges. There are those whose idea of spirituality is in fact irresponsible, quietistic and magical. Often what passes for “New Age” religion is other-worldly in this sense, as is often the case with the popularized Western versions of Eastern religions. This is a danger that a docetic Christology must guard against. A religion that degenerates into escapism has succumbed to denial and fantasy, and can have no understanding of the Creative Imagination that makes it possible for us to perceive the light at the heart of creation. Authentic mystic vision is rare, and it is neither escapism nor denial." (from After Prophecy).

In this post on Corbin's "shadow" I want to emphasize the risks of Corbin's mysticism. For he was a mystic, and I have long found that his writings generate a very strong pull towards transcendence. I have argued that to understand him in wholly a mystical and disembodied way is a mistake and a misunderstanding. But there is no denying that he was, in alchemical terms, a sublimatio type, and he does tend to drag his readers off to heaven prematurely. But it seems to me that this powerful dissolving and sublimating energy can be used, not to dis-embody and dis-empower by generating a passive pseudo-spirituality, but to help us re-imagine embodiment itself and undo the monolithic and literalized imagination of bodies that modern science and medicine tend to propagate. The thrust of Corbin's work is everywhere to unfetter and to pluralize, to release the Imagination of the divine in each of us, each in our own unique and en-souled way. If we understand his re-working of the idea of the Incarnation in this way, then what we will find is a theological imagining of the possibility of a multiplicity of kinds of embodiment - as some post-modern Christian theologians have recently argued.

Our bodies need not be "grounded" in the base and evil "matter" of misogynistic cosmologies, nor evaporated into the networks and wiring diagrams of modern science & medicine. One of the most salutary effects of embracing Corbin's vision is an eradication of any too-simple dichotomy between transcendence and immanance in favor of something more vital, more complex and more replete with the energies of life. The world is a richer and more complicated reality by far than any system can embrace. And that is ultimately one of the most important messages of Corbin's imaginative theology.

[In thinking about illustrations for a post on dis-embodiment and abstraction I was forcefully reminded yet again of the fact that "imagination embodies." There are no disembodied images. What we find is that there are many different kinds of embodiment and these can be revealed and lived through the Imagination. It is worth pondering the changing place and nature of the mystic vision in the contemporary world where the meaning and experience of human embodiment is called into question by emerging technologies in ways that are unique in human history. In cultures relatively untouched by urban culture and modern technology, the relation of the body and the earth can be immediate in ways that we have largely lost. The impact of these developments on both the lived experience of spirituality and the ways we understand "mysticism" are as yet largely unexplored. It seems to me that Corbin's work has much to contribute to such a discussion.]

The Transfiguration, Fra Angelico, 1440-1. Convent of San Marco, Florence.
The Transfiguration, Cornelis Monsma, 2006.
Kissing, Alex Grey, 1983.
Mark Rothko. No. 2/No.30[?] (Yellow Center), 1954. Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, Iran

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