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The Essential Freedom of the Cloak

Naked Questions/14 - Understanding the snare of the "dead flies" and the gift of the "prophets"

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 07/02/2016

Logo Qohelet rid modAt the foundation of a community there is always a dark, hidden spot, a collective unconscious, which has its origin in the unconscious of the founder and in his/her human need to control. If the community is destined to grow and develop, this dark spot must be purified. The crisis is the purification of this collective unconscious. The community will have to shift from the myth of the perfect founder to a more collective appropriation of the founding myth, purified from what is not essential.

Jean VanierThe Founding Myth

Dead flies make the perfumer's ointment give off a stench; so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honour.” (Ecclesiastes 10,1)

A few verses ago he left us off with praising the light that illuminates the face of the wise ones (8,1), and now we see Qoheleth further complicating his discourse, showing the vulnerability and fragility of wisdom. Just like a fly that falls in the bulb of the ointment is enough to spoil it, just a little folly is enough to ruin wisdom. Not only wisdom remains "far off", "deep, very deep" (7,24), but even when we experience it, and manage to be, though temporarily, wise, Qoheleth seems to tell us that wisdom succumbs to stupidity. At the beginning of his discourse he stated, “I saw that there is more gain in wisdom than in folly, as there is more gain in light than in darkness” (2,13). Now, as he is approaching the end of his song, he says that folly is stronger. It takes only a little of it to corrupt everything. It is not a fruitful reading of this or other wisdom books if we match a meta-key of reading that reveals to us which verses are truer: the ones on the superiority of wisdom or those where Qoheleth claims the opposite. Instead it is more fruitful to read Qoheleth as a non-ideological, and therefore self-subversive, master of thought.

One of the basic ingredients of cultures that are not yet contaminated by ideology, or of those that have been able to resist or get rid of it, is their ability of self-subversion. Self-subversion, in the sense that the great economist Albert O. Hirschman gave to this word. It is the very rare virtue to question one's own certainties, it means not to look for the elements that confirm our ideas in the things that happen to us, but for those that deny or defy them. It is the virtue of those who believe more in the truth of life that flows by them today than in the truths that built and conquered yesterday. The self-subversive thought is useful for everyone, but it is essential for those who have embraced a faith, whether religious or secular, for those who have adhered to a great proposal promising a new land for them. The exercise of self-subversion is the best prevention against all forms of ideology. Ideology, in fact, is usually conclusive, because of its tendency to make us find at the end of the path just what we had placed there at the beginning. The birth of ideology is a process that consists of (at least) two operations. The first one begins when we still have the consciousness that reality has its own ambivalence, and that everything that happens around it is consistent with our beliefs. We still see a bigger world than that which confirms our thesis, but we start to exclude the uncomfortable and dissonant part from our analysis. The second step consists in convincing ourselves that the world is really made up of only the part that interests and confirms us: because of telling about a different world than the real one, we end up not seeing the totality of reality.

It is here that ideology becomes inexpungeable: evidence contrary to our ideas can no longer make us correct our beliefs, simply because we are no longer able to see that evidence. Like those who gradually lose the ability to see colours due to a disturbance of vision, and instead of getting a cure they become convinced that the world is black and white. It is also for this reason that the person captured by ideology appears to us as someone with good faith and a strange sincerity, which can confuse our judgments, diagnoses and therapies very much. Self-subversion is only possible in the first stage, when we can still recognize the signs of the virus that is about to get activated in the body.

A first signal of upcoming fever is the decrease of interest for different ideas, and a consequent seeking out of more and more people who think like us. Let us have no more new questions, all we want is the old and reliable answers. A second sign is the emergence of a sense of persecution. It begins to divide the world into two groups: a small one, of the friends with whom we share the same vision, and another one containing all those who do not understand us and are perceived as hostile. An imaginary enemy is created who is then sighted everywhere: in newspapers, on TV, in the neighbours, in God (if he is different from the idea that we forged of him). Even the best people, those we have always respected, begin to be questioned and relativized, if and when they say things that do not confirm our incipient ideology. This creates, day after day, a "sacred text" of which we become the evangelists and prophets.

The Book of Ecclesiastes, along with that of Job, is in itself an exercise in the self-subversion inherent to the Bible, because it constantly denies the ideas of God and religion that it actually proposes, to prevent them from turning into ideology. The Elohim-God of Qoheleth has stayed alive because Qoheleth has subverted it so many times.

Ideology - which is a sophisticated form of idolatry - is a disease of universal significance, but it is particularly common and serious when it affects religious people, because even God and other invisible inhabitants of the world are consumed and used as materials for the construction of an ideological empire. When even God becomes the same as our idea of ​​Him, the ideology is perfect and there is no way out of it anymore. Those dead flies have spoiled the whole of the perfume. It is difficult to find authentic communities or people of faith because, in most cases, instead of faith and ideals we find variants of the many ideologies that inhabit the world.

Faith and the ideology of faith are two very different things. Faith liberates from our own dogmas and idols, it asks questions; ideology binds, consumes and enslaves us to the idol, and creates a lot of easy and false answers. No real spiritual life begins unless one day we are able to free ourselves from the ideology of the faith that we have gradually built.

The ideological phase is (almost) inevitable, especially in spiritual and charismatic communities. A building is created around the original idea that has "called us", it grows little by little: first it's a tent, then a temple which houses "the ark" of the first covenant, in the end, next to the temple we build a palace for ourselves that's bigger than the temple built for God - as Solomon-Qoheleth had done (1Kings 7,1). Ideology is the process that goes from the invisible voice to the building of the ark, then from the ark to the tent, and after that to the temple and the palace. Individual and collective self-subversion, on the rare times that it actually happens, is the work of destruction, this time intentionally, of the many buildings that have been constructed one by one around the first promise, in order to return to the first gratuitousness of the first word.

It is a journey backwards, a return home by reducing, simplifying, removing the empires of sand that we have built. Sometimes we make this return journey in the last few months or days of our life, when we see the collapse of our palace and our temple, to finally become free of everything, and masters of nothing.

The ark, the temple and the palace rise gradually in the service of the charisma and its community, and even when they start to become too large they are seen and justified as ancillary and necessary elements for the development of the community.

Over time, however, and without anyone ever taking full consciousness, ideological constructions end up stifling the gratuitousness of the original vocation. Ideology first joins the ideal and supports it, but soon it takes its place, in a process that can last a long time, sometimes a whole life, and it is almost always with no return.

It is, in fact, very difficult to be aware of the ideological secretion of the original ideal, because they assume the same forms, they are children of the same parents, they have the same traits and the same beauties, they use the same words, they say the same prayers and (in the beginning) lead to the same spiritual fruits. It is, in fact, the same gift that becomes an obsession, progressively contaminating the critical skills of individual and collective discernment as theses are also enchanted by the same spell.

But the miracle of great blessing can also happen - history tells us so. That's when at the height of the experience of an ideal community which had meanwhile become - unintentionally and perhaps inevitably – an ideological community, someone breaks free from the spell and understands, or at least intuits, the ideological transformation that's taken place.

The end of the spell on the outside and inside is manifested as a crisis, but it is actually the ridge between the old narrow horizon and the new spacious one that is about to clear out, it is the watershed between the old life and the new. But in order for this liberation from the ideology to become collective, the person (or people) who generated it must also wake up and get out of the spell. This event is even rarer because the enchanter is the first one to be enchanted by their own magic: “He who digs a pit will fall into it, and a serpent will bite him who breaks through a wall. He who quarries stones is hurt by them, and he who splits logs is endangered by them” (10,8-9).

Sometimes, however, even the founder manages to break free from their own spell, but this in itself is not enough for the liberation of the entire community. He has to "disappear". Elijah the prophet and teacher leaves his "cloak" to Elisha, his disciple and successor, and disappears in the sky, kidnapped by the chariot of fire. That's how a great self-subversion is accomplished: the age of ideology ends and that of spiritual life begins for all.

However, when prophets do not know how to "die" by disappearing once they are "disenchanted", or when their followers do not allow them to disappear because they are still imprisoned by the spell, it may happen that the snake bites its piper: “If the serpent bites before it is charmed, there is no advantage to the charmer” (10,11). Prophets save their communities if they can break the spell they themselves have created, and leave us nothing but the poverty of their cloak.

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