A Colorful Divorce: A Short Romance

Like the rest of us, Antoine married Jordyn on a whim. And also like the rest of us, he had brought an entire history along with him into their marriage. Some would say Antoine carried with him an entire museum, stockpiled with various ancient artifacts, fragmented grenades, and broken timelines. He had his mistresses, his girlfriends—but mostly he had his mother.

“An-t-whone!” she used to shout from a room that could host a New Year’ party. “An-t-whone, darling! Let me have Ardell make you breakfast. You must be staar-ving, baby.” She was a short woman with black hair that somehow managed to reach her waist. Her big, greying eyes mostly spent their days observing the maids cleaning her villa or Antoine having breakfast. But most of her days were really spent gazing at a large portrait of Antoine’s father that hung over a fireplace.

“He was a good man,” she used to say, as she’d look up at the painting. “You need to be like him,” she’d command him, as she’d wrap her arms around his shoulders.

She never failed to remind Antoine of the riches they had come from. Antoine’s father, who had died of a heart attack in the most formulaic of manners, had been a boring justice who led an almost mechanical existence.

Antoine only had a single memory of his father, who had died when Antoine was still a child. One summer, the three of them had gone to a lake for the weekend. On a hike up a nearby mountain, the little boy brought a canteen along with him. After he had finished drinking the water from it, Antoine decided to toss it into a nearby stream. His father, who was ever-present in those days, quickly taught his son a lesson. He asked Antoine’s mother to toss her canteen into the stream too. When she had done so, the justice himself tossed his near theirs. And so, it was there, on a mountain overlooking a blue lake, that Antoine first learned the concepts of ethics and rational thinking.

“Look here, boy,” his father scolded sternly the son. “Does this stream look as pristine as you found it?” he questioned him.

“It’s nice, father,” Antoine replied ashamedly with eyes cast low (for he did not know what else to say).

“Now go pick up your canteen and carry it. You brought it up the mountain; you’ll take it down,” his father decreed.

He explained to his son his reasoning. “If everyone were to act in the way you had acted, there would be no stream for us to look at here. It’d be a trash heap.”

“Yes, father,” Antoine had answered.

“Are we interested in hiking to admire a trash heap?” he had asked his son.

After the incident, the family had picked up their canteens and had walked in silence for the remainder of the hike to the sound of his father humming Bach.

This was the sole memory Antoine had of his father—and it used to follow him wherever he went. During his high school years he was known as an austere young lad who acted in the most self-controlled of manners. However, with the passing of his father, the passage of time, and with his mother’s overbearing defensiveness in regards to all of her son’s actions, Antoine would soon grow up to be the vain, unethical man that he was. His overbearing mother smothered him in an eternal and unconditional love, a love all mothers are familiar with.

During his undergraduate years at Princeton, he was the lethal playboy who broke two hearts a week. He led a lavish lifestyle devoid of all ethics. He inherited his father’s wealth and squandered it on liquor, Friday night parties, and women who were willing to sell themselves for “an experience of a lifetime” with “Princeton’s own Gatsby.” In such a way, as it so often happens, the young man became increasingly dependent on sex, women, and alcohol.

One night, after much drinking, Antoine slept with the university president’s own freshman daughter, before kicking her out of his room. The next day, the entire school knew of the event. It wasn’t so much the fact that he kicked her out after ravishing her that fed the rumors; it was, rather, the manner in which he did it. He made her leave naked. Someone kindly handed her a pillowcase, hence alleviating some of her humiliation.

For a man who only stood at five foot eight, Antoine had an arresting personality that conveyed to those around him power, privilege, and prestige. His black hair, undoubtedly inherited from his mother, shone like onyx. His green eyes dodged sharply like his father’s. While studying economics at Princeton—and having developed his own capitalist system—Antoine met our Jordyn.

Like Antoine, Jordyn was old money, mostly in school because of her father’s “connections.” Jordyn was unquestionably a splendid beauty who was more interested in whether “Princeton’s own Gatsby” noticed her scarlet lips than she was in medieval art. She had one of those charming college-girl personalities, being agreeable in the most timid of manners. For Jordyn, every question always led to an “Ah” or an “Oh, so yes.” Her petite frame made her somewhat legendary at the school. The boys used to open doors for her mostly because they did not believe she could open them on her own. Her hair was gossip-catalyzing and talked about in the school’s literary journal. Whereas Antoine broke two hearts a week, our Jordyn wore two colors a week—her hair being dyed a various array of colors throughout the school year. An anonymous romantic once wrote a poem for her titled “The Queen of All Color” that was published in The Daily Princetonian.

She was the royal confidante Antoine needed to secure a prosperous future. (By this time, his inheritance had all but been exhausted.) And so Antoine wooed Jordyn in the most playboyistic of manners.

It must be added, however, that Jordyn was a girl who, like Antoine, “had so much and yet accomplished so little.” She was, as it were, the epitome of a spoiled child raised without a hint of self-consciousness. The money she had—that is, the money that fell from out of the heavenly vault above, being provided by her father—would shortly be spent on the most vain things imaginable. The two lovers would soon find themselves bereft of any ethic, solely living on the toxic fumes of alcohol and squandered riches…

One fine spring morning, Antoine parked his convertible Lexus on the shores of Lake Carnegie, just south of Princeton’s campus. The sunlight was falling in streams of violet and yellow, causing the lake waters to glow in a varied rainbow of colors. Antoine, dressed in suit and tie, made his way to the water. He was alone, having spent the previous night relishing the presence of dozens of college girls. It was on mornings like this, right after the storm of a party, that he felt most satisfied with his life.

“How goes it, father?” he mouthed the words while looking across the lake. “I’m pretty sure none of it matters to you, but I’m doing an epic job here at your alma mater. The professors love my outlook on life. They find my academic achievements rather mediocre, but that was never my forte anyhow. I’m here to enjoy every little bit of sunshine that I can. Mother is still worshipping you. I guess that’s the one thing you and I have in common: we want to be worshipped by our women,” he mumbled the last words with a smirk on his face, looking down at his dress shoes with his hands in his pockets.

Behind him a feminine voice, as gentle as the breeze, made itself known. “Are you praying?”

Startled, Antoine quickly looked up, jerking his hands out of his pockets as if in self-defense, only to find himself staring into the eyes of a most wondrous being. She had two spring green eyes and long eyelashes that seemed to dance even when her gaze calmly rested on his face.

Finding himself in a rather awkward position, Antoine struggled to articulate a confident response. “Yes, in fact. I’m praying to the goddess of this lake to send me a mermaid.” As he said the last line, a huge grin erupted gleefully on his face. “Yes,” he thought to himself. “This is the Antoine the women here adore.”

“Is that so? And what name does this goddess go by?” the girl asked, stretching her right arm out for him to grasp in an almost meticulous manner. An inviting smile took ahold of her beautiful appearance.

“Electra is her name.” He looked at her delicate fingers and allowed himself to be invited. Taking her hand, he said, “They call me Antoine. But for you I’ll be Merman.”

“I love Electra,” she softly cooed. “I’ll be your little mermaid.”

“Mermaid it is!” he excitedly repeated. “Well, where do you want to go, my lovely?”

“Take me somewhere. Anywhere.”

“‘Anywhere’ it is,” he said. “I know just the perfect place for a beauty such as yourself! It is the best ‘Anywhere’ in the whole wide world.”

And that is how the two lovers met.

Antoine wrapped his arms around her petite frame and carried her off into the sunrise. With the light blue sky above and the morning dew below, and the wind necking Jordyn’s hair as she drove beside Antoine, a prequel to a summer romance began to take form. Out of the primordial waters of memories past, a simple act of confidence, buttressed by feminine curiosity, gave birth to what we now call love.

It was all so very easy—a mere façade. A smile. A strong handshake. An explosion of confidence. A nonchalant stance mixed with arrogance and self-certainty. That was all it took to make a young girl go all hypnotic-eyed over a male. And it worked every time.

At a faded red stop sign, near empty fields budding with an unknown fragrance, Antoine reached over and grabbed her shivering hair. He inhaled her scent, letting his hands invade her hips while she panted with novel fascination. She helped him remove her dress, not in the least intimidated at how indiscreet, how vulnerable the two of them were near those fields.

After what seemed like hours—as if time itself were put on a time-out—the two found themselves eating molten ice cream from a rooftop bar. He was licking the warm cream with a tired tongue, a tongue that had, only moments earlier, worked Jordyn into volatile ecstasy.

“So what brought you to Princeton,” asked Antoine, after they had finished suckling on mounds of ice cream.

For a momentary second it appeared to Antoine that his unnamed date—his “Mermaid”—was on the verge of blushing. Then, in a most unpredictable manner, she bolted up and exclaimed, “Why talk about Princeton? Let’s go for a walk in the park. I want to leave all this nonsense behind. Come with me.” She said that last sentence with an unknown urgency.

Without hesitating, Antoine called the waitress, paid the bill, and took his mystery woman to a nearby park.

“Is something the matter?” Antoine asked when they were about a half-mile into a wooded area.

“I like you,” she bluntly said. “I heard about you from the others,” she continued. “I think you and I will be very good friends.” She placed a confident emphasis on the word “very.”

A peculiar effervescence settled like a deep fog near his groin as she carefully said “very.” “And what exactly did the others say,” he asked with interest awakened.

“Oh, you know, the usual. That you’re a fun guy with lots of ambitions. I followed you down to the lake.”

“You followed me?” he asked surprised.

“Well, not exactly. I just saw you go down to the lake several times. I thought it was the best time for me to catch you alone.” She was speaking now in a hushed voice with bits and pieces of uncertainty.

He felt an emotional tug within. “That’s very thoughtful of you,” he said with a newfound tenderness. “Why did you want to see me alone?”

“To be honest, I like how similar we are.”

“Similar?”

“How shall I put it? You…you wear such fine apparel. I absolutely love it. And I find you so attractive. I think I could marry you,” she laughed. Her eyes beamed with light warmth and childish humor.

He was taken aback by her comments. “I guess I’ll have to buy a new wardrobe then if I want to leave you,” he joked.

“Oh, you won’t leave me. I’ll be your muse. You heard about that poem they wrote about me?” she asked him. “I always imagined you wrote it for me.”

Antoine laughed. “I did indeed! I wrote it for you.” He had no idea why, but her little laugh, and her desire to please him greatly inflated his vain ego. “So what that he did not write poetry? The hell with it. The girl liked the poem and imagined he had written it for her. Well, let it be so. Let it be so,” he assured himself.

For several hours he engaged in such charming dialogue with his muse. She swayed side to side as she walked beside him. It was as if she did not walk at all; it was almost as if she glided. And next to her he felt like a god in his own right. All they needed was a book of Psalms, a book that she could use to sing him his praises. Before the day ended, before either of them had closed their eyes, they both knew one simple yet profound truth: they were made for each other.

Several years later, after throwing a wedding that included some ten thousand guests, Antoine and Jordyn drank from the deep wells of marital love. The stories they told one another, and the stories they told themselves, were as grand as the paintings of the Renaissance, as large as a Rubens. Everything Antoine did was done on an epic scale in the most grand of manners. The parties he threw were notoriously rowdy, being filled with every elitist prick that ever shopped at a Von Maur. The alcohol they drank was imported from the vineyards of Italy, sold to them at exaggerated rates. Jordyn put her art degree to use by employing artistic painting techniques whenever she had a chance. The conversation could be about saltine crackers and she’d say something like, “These crackers are as brittle as the age-old tempura paint of the Ustyug Annunciation.” Nobody would have a single clue as to what she meant by “tempura” or by the convoluted title “Ustyug Annunciation.” But, nonetheless, everyone would smile and agree with Jordyn’s input. She was, after all, the beloved hostess.

Many years were spent like this. They were deemed, in retrospect, “the honeymoon years.” The pathetic things that held them together—good sex once a week, Antoine’s “fine apparel,” and Jordyn’s worshipful behavior—would soon come to a bleak end by means of monotonous routine like a repetitive E. L. James novel. The sex was boring and routine. The clothing was boring and routine. And the worship was boring and routine. Even the alcoholic hangovers became as boring and routine as the rest of their ridiculous existence.

One morning, when the sun had barely dressed itself for another day, Antoine woke up with a blasting headache. His wife, who looked like shit, lie still a few inches away, sprawled on a bed that contained vomit on its sheets. “Is it the hangover or is this woman really ugly?” he asked himself. “Why is she in my bed?” A flicker of sobriety led him to believe it was, in fact, not just any woman, but his very wife. Perhaps it was this moment that led Antoine to believe that he and his “wife” were no longer what they were: married.

On a Saturday afternoon, roughly a few weeks before their divorce, Jordyn and Antoine sat ten feet apart from one another on an old leather couch in a small office.

Blaine Fowers was a little-known professor at the University of Miami who disagreed with a lot of his fellow peers. He had little tolerance for so-called “communication therapy.” In his opinion, people didn’t need to communicate more. In fact, the issue was rarely communication per se in marriage; instead, the issue was that there was nothing to communicate about. When he heard about “the Gatsby of Princeton” he immediately felt it was his duty to work with this renowned playboy and his wife.

Professor Fowers, a man who looked to be in his forties, wearing a suit and tie, walked in. He looked at the couple briefly, before staring down at the massive folder full of papers in his hand.

“How did you two meet?” he asked, once he was settled in his armchair.

Antoine sat calmly while his soon-to-be ex-wife twitched ferociously as if suffering from a grand mal seizure. She was evidently uncomfortable with the entire ordeal and understandably nervous.

Antoine’s voice cracked the silence. “We…we met at a lake. It was spring. She wore a yellow sundress, and I just sort of, uh, went along with it.”

“Went along with it?” Jordyn piped in. “What are you talking about? You said so yourself. You loved me,” she exclaimed angrily.

“Of course I loved you, but I loved many women…” Antoine’s voice trailed off. His hands, which had found their way to the brown leather belt he was wearing, preoccupied themselves with it. His face wore a tired and worn-out look.

“I just don’t understand the sudden change in your dressing habits. How could you do this to me, to us?” Jordyn’s eyes were filled to the brim with an authentic disbelief.

“Dressing habits?” Professor Fowers asked, evidently confused. Jordyn ignored the Professor’s question.

“You used to be so lawyer-esque with black suit, white shirt, and grey tie. Now you wear bright colors. Why did you change on me? You know how much I love to wear the bright colors in this family!” Jordyn passionately explained, looking directly at Antoine. He seemed to be unmoved by her pleas.

“Is this entire divorce centered on the issue of attire?” the Professor asked in dismay.

“Yes!” the two of them responded in concert with one another.

It was this “yes” that seemed to hold this couple together, the Professor noted. Outside of this shared unity, this shared agreement as to what their problem was, the couple had virtually nothing in common, no bond that held them together.

“Did your marriage produce any children?” the Professor asked. He almost wanted to laugh. “How could this couple produce anything but the absurd and the ridiculous?” he asked himself, knowing the answer beforehand.

“We didn’t want any children because we felt like it would disrupt our harmonious household,” Jordyn quite seriously said, with her eyes wide and large. She seemed to believe every word that proceeded from her own lips, as if the words were placed there not by her own will but by the gods themselves.

“Well, I wouldn’t say ‘we,’” Antoine interrupted. “You didn’t want to have any children because of one simple fact…”

“Oh, and what ‘simple fact’ is that?” Jordyn shot back.

“You didn’t want your blouses getting soiled by the child’s vomit. You said so yourself.”

Not in the least embarrassed or cognizant of the sheer stupidity of her opinions, Jordyn bluntly replied: “I was only joking. But you believed the joke. So you wanted that too.”

The Professor leaned back in his armchair and exhaled a long breath. He chose his words rather carefully, knowing that there was nothing reasonable one could say to this most irrational of couples. “I was under the wrong impression that this divorce, this great divide, was instigated by Mr. Antoine’s—how shall I put it?—‘loose’ behavior. I was led to believe that we were dealing with a philanderer and a heartbroken wife. I am sorry for assuming such…” He did not know what else to say, so he let the words float aimlessly around his little office.

“The women?” Jordyn asked. “I knew about them all along. That was never the issue.” She leaned in and looked deep into the eyes of the Professor. “You see, Professor, I’m a very simple human being. I am as aesthetic as they come. I love art, literature, paintings, clothing,” she said. “It’s what gives me life. And it’s not my fault that he went all different on me. I married him for who he was back then. And then he changed.” She snapped her fingers sharply when she pronounced that final word.

Looking annoyed, and having suffered enough of his wife’s bashing, Antoine uncrossed his legs, turned his torso towards her and said, “Oh, come on! I’m tired of having my pink t-shirts and purple flip-flops criticized by you! Cry me a Nile River,” he replied with a winsome grin.

Jordyn looked hurt by his remark, as she believed herself to be an expert in matching colors when it came to clothing. It was the final straw. “How could he dare criticize the very essence of my existence?” she tearfully asked herself. With that, she bolted up and left the office, leaving the Professor staring at his papers and Antoine fidgeting with his leather belt.

 

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

 

 

Infinitely Entangled: A Story of a Murder and a God Who Cried

She was stabbed to death on a sunny, Saturday morning in a suburb near Austin, Texas. It was April 18th 2014.

Having sold some shares he owned in a company, her husband had just returned from Chicago with a hundred thousand dollars in cash. Allegedly, he wanted to escape somewhere after “the deed.” That morning, he had breakfast with his family, which included his wife and his wife’s sister, who was barely fourteen. Their two little kids were present, probably frolicking around in excitement in the presence of daddy. His wife sat across a dining room table, eating pancakes, while repeatedly stroking her pregnant abdomen. Everything seemed fine. His wife was busy sharing her morning with her friends on social media, putting on display a family committed to an ideal: “those who eat together, stay together.” The world must have thought everything was fine.

The husband, without a sign of disturbance, suggested to his wife, kids, and sister-in-law that they head to a park. You know, “for a morning stroll.” And so, the park it was.

In a matter of minutes, after he placed his two kids in their brand new Lexus, he returned to the house to find his wife alone. (The sister-in-law was probably in a nearby room preparing for the stroll.) Without skipping a beat, he grabbed a kitchen knife, put his pregnant wife in a headlock, and shoved the large knife into her throat. Surprised by this behavior, the wife didn’t seem to fight back.

A small commotion must have disturbed the sister-in-law, since she promptly returned to the dining room only to find her sister covered in blood, being stabbed repeatedly to death by her own husband.

In a state of utter dismay, she called the police.

He didn’t even bother to pull the knife out. He just left it standing there, stuck in her womb, an erect witness to the crime he had just committed.

Calmly, the husband got back into the car and went to the park with his kids.

 

But the story doesn’t end there. In fact, it hasn’t even begun.

 

Before Rachel ever married Matthew, she was in love with his cousin, Tim. After things didn’t work out with Tim, she had begun dating Matthew with the hopes that she could get Tim back by the sheer force of jealousy. Things didn’t turn out that way, and so, she ended up marrying Matthew.

Several kids later, Rachel found herself stuck in a marriage she did not want. Oh, her husband loved her—one merely needed to see the large diamond she wore on her ring finger—but it was a love she did not return. The inevitable was to rise to the surface in due time: Rachel was having an affair with Tim.

Now Matthew was not entirely an idiot. He had attended a prestigious university and had graduated with honors. It didn’t take long for him to suspect that his beloved wife (whom he’d casually beat during sex every once in a while) was cheating on him. When his wife announced that she was pregnant, Matthew, in his heart of hearts, refused to believe the child was his.

Incidentally, the cheating became less tacit. Rachel had a tattoo inked on her skin, just under her left breast, saying something that could be interpreted along the lines of Matthew’s suspicions. She became addicted to alcohol, drinking one too many glasses of wine with dinner. The baby growing in her bosom only fueled Matthew’s imagination: there was no way in hell the child was his. His wife wasn’t happy with him. He knew it; she knew it, and she no longer tried to hide it.

“The deed” committed, then, was a crime of passion. It was premeditated, conceived in the most intelligent of minds; being acted out by a man who knew what he was doing and why.

After the funeral, friends of Matthew, who were still enraged by his deed, visited him in prison. In his prison clothes, surrounded by fellow thieves and murderers, Matthew expressed no remorse or regret; he only wished he had done it sooner.

With Rachel murdered and buried, and her husband facing life in prison, the two kids were returned to her parents. Maybe they still had a future.

Rachel’s fourteen-year-old sister was no longer herself. She was a witness to a crime no one should have witnessed at that tender age. The psychiatrists placed her on large doses of antidepressants, anxiolytics, and hypnotics. Maybe she, too, had a future, however demented and guilt-ridden it would be.

For most of the surviving members of the family—be it the friends, the relatives, or the church members—the questions haunted them: where was God in all of this? Could God not have intervened? What purpose did it serve to have had a little girl witness such brutality? Was there really any “good” that could come about from the experiencing of such a violent scene? What about the children? Who’s going to raise them? And when Rachel’s daughter grows into a woman, what sort of stories will she tell on first dates regarding her father? Will she tell the guys how “Daddy just flipped out and stabbed mom to death”? Or will she invent something more readily digestible? (I assume one would invent some fanciful tale about one’s origins which one could psychologically deal with.) The question I wish to pursue is relatively simple: How does one live in a world of suffering, a world God allegedly claims as His own?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Before Rachel was ever murdered, before there was such a thing as her cheating and her husband’s rage, there was a concept of God and a concept of how the world ran that infiltrated every aspect of reality. The questions her family members ask, and the questions her little sister will ask as she matures, are undoubtedly asked from a particular vantage point. And what is that vantage point? In the following pages, I wish to articulate a view of God and His relation to the world that may help explain some of the suffering human beings experience.

For many people, the idea that God exists in a world of suffering poses problems. In the classical framing of the issue either (a) God is omnipotent and does not wish to eliminate suffering (hence making God malevolent) or (b) God is benevolent but cannot eliminate suffering (hence making God impotent) or (c) God does not exist. In any of the cases, God is certainly a major subject. It is to this noun “God” that I now turn.

Who or what is God? What does it mean for something to be “god”? The Bible presents us with a strange God. In the Old Testament, for example, YHWH suffers a great deal. In the New Testament, God also suffers—this time on a cross. In both Testaments, God functions as a Being who experiences suffering. In Psalm 78:40, it is said of God: “How often they rebelled against him in the wilderness and grieved him in the desert!” In many ways, according to the Old Testament, God grieved due to relational issues. He grieved due to “forsakenness (Isa. 54:6); mourning (2 Sam. 19:3); distress and anger (Gen. 45:5); [and] injury (Ps. 56:6).”[1] In addition to these remarkably human emotions, the Old Testament relates how God suffers within the context of metaphors. For example, God’s relationship with Israel is seen within the context of a marital metaphor: God is the husband and Israel is the wife. The feelings God verbalizes are romantic:

“I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown” (Jer. 2:2).

In such romantic, marital recollections, what is being relayed is, according to Terence E. Fretheim, “a picture of the pain and anguish of God.”[2] In what seems like a hopeless romantic’s last-ditch-effort, God comes to Israel begging helplessly for attention.

“I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for me; I was ready to be found by those who did not seek me…” (Isa. 65:1).[3]

The metaphors do not stop there. God is a mother (Hos. 11:3-4; Isa. 66:13; Ps. 131:2; Luke 13:34), a father (Isa. 1:2-3), a shepherd (Ps. 23), etc. In all these cases, God is relating to humans. It is the relationship that is at the center of the anguish and the pain of a suffering God. The image of God as a hopeless romantic may not be one that many of us would be familiar with—especially a suffering romantic at that! Our images of God, like the idols of old, are detrimental to theology.

The OT tells us that the people of God were often guilty of worshipping idols, of making up their own god, of creating gods, or even Yahweh, in a certain image. We oversimplify this matter if we think of such images solely in terms of wood or stone; the plastic image conveyed a particular way of understanding these gods or Yahweh. And, we have learned over the years that idolatries do not need the plastic form to qualify as such. One can move directly to mental images which construct a false image of God and have the power of wreaking havoc in people’s faith and life. Metaphors matter.[4]

And what is our image—our mental construct, our “idol”—of God today? In the words of Douglas J. Hall, we like the image of God as warrior-king:

The language of our religion had been so consistently informed by the spirit of might, winning, success, and related concepts that it is difficult to use any of the scriptural nomenclature of glory and triumph without conjuring up the whole ideology of empire.[5]

Citing C. S. Song, he writes, “[W]e have been handed a ‘high-voltage God’ and a ‘high-voltage theology’ by our tradition.”[6] The idea that God actually suffers too—that we are like God, having been made in His image—is as foreign to our ears as the oft-repeated phrase imago dei. We’ve heard it so many times, we’ve forgotten what it all means. The words are hidden from our eyes, “hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity” (§129), wrote Ludwig Wittgenstein.[7] Our God, instead, is no longer the God in whose image we have been made. It is a God who is “high-voltage,” like the narcissistic dictators some of us—who are clearly deranged—dream of.

Hall continues:

“The Judeo-Christian tradition does not deny the power of God, but neither does it magnify this attribute; moreover, and more to the point, it does not abstract the divine power from the divine-human relationship. The relationship qualifies—radically—the nature and deployment of power on God’s part.”[8]

And it is here that we’ve come to the crux of the issue. God suffers—and that is alright. But what if His suffering is predominantly contingent upon a relationship? If so, is God’s nature, then, somehow qualified by the relationship? The Bible suggests that this may indeed be the case: God cannot do anything willy-nilly—He is bound to the promises made to human beings.

If God makes a promise to a person, is He not limited by it? That is, if God says that He would do something no matter what, is He free to not do what He said He’d do? It appears that the idea of God being totally all-powerful is wrong. Not wrong in the sense of “God is omnipotent” but wrong in the sense of “God’s power is of such a case that He can do anything and everything no matter what.” Our conceptions of “power” are inherently tied to our conceptions of dictators, kings, and nuclear-capable nations. But is that really power? Is it really “powerful” to bomb another nation? Is it really powerful when you lock someone up in order to prevent them from doing what they so desire? “Who, through power tactics, can eliminate the self-destroying habits of a son or daughter who has fallen prey to hard drugs?”[9] In Frederick Buechner’s novel Lion Country, the protagonist, Antonio, makes the following remarks regarding his sister’s suffering, who was dying from a bone disease:

When Miriam’s bones were breaking…if I could have pushed a button that would have stopped not her pain but the pain of her in me, I would not have pushed the button because, to put it quite simply, my pain was because I loved her, and to have wished my pain away would have been somehow to wish my love away as well.[10]

To wish away relational pain, a pain watered by love, is to wish away the love also. And to wish away love…well, what else does one live for anyway?

We live in a world in which we want to wish away many things. All too often we deny the reality of suffering by failing to accept it as such. We want to reject suffering. We want to reject the pain we feel when a loved one is sick or dying. We want to reject a suffering God—for a suffering God has little to offer humans who have rejected the very nature of the God they claim to worship. And yet, this God is caught up in the cobwebs of intimate relations. This God does not live in a vacuum, detached from human freedom. Humans have the freedom to do all kinds of things. They can build or they can destroy; they can create life or they can take it. Somewhere in the mess of things, God finds Himself—from the biblical perspective—merely[11] involved. God is not, to use colloquial expressions, “in control.”

In the words of the physicist-turned-theologian John Polkinghorne, “A world in which God perpetually intervened in this magical way would also not be a creation that was allowed freely to be itself.”[12] He continues: “[S]uffering and evil of the world are not due to weakness, oversight, or callousness on God’s part, but, rather, they are the inescapable cost of creation allowed to be other than God, released from tight divine control and permitted to be itself.”[13]

According to Polkinghorne, the freedom that we have to exist is necessary for us to be able to truly be ourselves. Without it, we’d just be God on a different day.

But separation from God is not the only thing one could discuss. Separation is necessary for freedom. But what about all of God’s pain? What about all of our pain? This pain comes from involvement, from entanglement. Even reality itself is “built up from relationships.”[14] For example, the EPR experiment in physics[15] shows us that once two photons interact with one another—and begin sharing a single wave function—and are later separated, they will continue to share the same wave function no matter the distance between them. In addition, if anything is done to photon X (let’s say it is measured by a tool which places it into a spin-up state) then photon Y, however far away, will be put into a spin-down state. If mere photons have such “quantum entanglement,” how much are human beings entangled in the world and God? It is a deeply frightening question. Are we so entangled in God’s world that any action we take has virtually eternal and limitless repercussions? If this is, indeed, the case, this puts human beings in a very serious situation: the responsibility that falls on our shoulders may then be likened to Paul’s “weight of glory” (2 Cor. 4:17).

There is a “togetherness in separation”[16] in the quantum world. How much more is there “togetherness in separation” in the real world! Returning to some of our initial thoughts, I do not think God is infinitely removed from reality. If God exists, it would certainly be a God who is a hopeless romantic “entangled” in us. On the flip side, our relations with God and neighbor, with wife and brother, are also gravely important. And what we do shapes and changes history. We have the freedom to love and the freedom to kill. But in any case we are, as it were, infinitely entangled.

If Rachel’s little sister were to ask a theologian about God, and God’s relation to the world, what would he or she say? In light of our brief discussion, mostly centered on the issue of relationships and pain, what does one say? I don’t have the answer—but I think we have a number of answers[17] we could ruminate on.

What was the meaning of Rachel’s death? Could God have done something about it without changing Rachel’s life-story? I don’t think so. In a sense, Rachel was the architect of her life. (And I am not in any way denying influences such as genes, family, friends, etc.) She chose this man—and she committed her share of sins. There is no need to deny the responsibilities that fell on Rachel, her lover Tim, and her husband. All three figures played their cards in this thing called life. None were “without blood,” so to speak. Could God have intervened? I don’t think so. To limit Rachel’s freedom—or what little freedom she had—would have meant to eliminate Rachel’s existence itself. The suffering of God was not, even in God’s own case, eliminated. To hearken back to my mention of Buechner’s work, God did not “push the button.” Like a parent watching a child die slowly from the consumption of illegal drugs, so does God watch—in the most pathetic of manners—the death of His beloveds. In freedom, in letting God be God and humans be humans, there is also the possibility of love and hate, of intimacy and loneliness, of life and of death. “Morally honest joy must be joy had while our eyes remain open to evil,” wrote the philosophical theologian William Greenway.[18] To experience love in all of its grandeur and in all of its tombstone-glory, one must keep one’s eyes open to evil. The beloved remains—always remains—one final exhalation away from death. To deny this is to deny the wholeness of love. To deny the pain that is and the pain that is to come is to deny what is central to love: a pain that aches secondary to, and in proportion to, a love that burns.

Where was God in all of this? Was He distantly removed, somewhere safe in the environs of His Ivory Tower. Or was He deeply immersed in the suffering of Rachel, in the rage of Matthew, in the tears of friends and family? The biblical portrait of God—whether it is the YHWH of the Old Testament or the Jesus of the New—is one: God suffers with. The suffering is not always suffering “for”; sometimes it is simply a suffering “with.” Returning to our earlier analogy of God as hopeless romantic within the metaphor of marital love, God may have simply been present. There is a reason why couples that say their traditional vows invoke the possibility of evil and suffering. It is because it is a very real possibility—and sometimes all one needs is a partner in suffering. “In sickness and in health, till death do us part.” The relationship brings with it the promise—and I do think it is a promise—that you two will suffer. The suffering may be caused by none other than that arch-villain itself, Love. You may lose someone you deeply love in a car accident. You may worry if your spouse is ever late. You may care endlessly about your spouse’s wellbeing. All in all, there will be some level of heartache involved—if one has a soul, that is.

Maybe C. S. Lewis was right:

To love anything is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside of Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.”[19]

If one wants to avoid tragedy in general, or the loss of a spouse in particular, one must simply choose not to engage in any loving endeavors at all. Where there is no such love; where there is no such freedom to love (or not to love); where there is no possibility of intimate relations, there you will find a god who does not cry. But here we are on earth, in the most earthly of manners, infinitely entangled in the arms of a God who cries…

 

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

Dedicated to Terrence E. Fretheim—for all of the outbursts in class and for our conversations regarding God & suffering…

 

 

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Terence E. Fretheim, The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective, Overtures to Biblical Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 111.

[2] Ibid., 115.

[3] Also cited in Fretheim, The Suffering of God, 118.

[4] Ibid., 2.

[5] Douglas John Hall, God and Human Suffering: An Exercise in the Theology of the Cross (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1986), 106.

[6] Ibid., 96.

[7] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. and eds. G. E. M. Anscombe, P. M. S. Hacker and Joachim Schulte, rev. 4th ed. (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 57.

[8] Hall, God and Human Suffering, 97. Italics original.

[9] Ibid., 98.

[10] Cited in Hall, God and Human Suffering, 99.

[11] I use the word “merely” here quite loosely. That is, I am setting this vision of God in contradistinction to a vision in which God functions as a warrior-king that rules by might.

[12] John Polkinghorne, Quarks, Chaos, and Christianity: Questions to Science and Religion, rev. ed. (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2005), 60.

[13] Ibid., 61.

[14] Ibid., 75.

[15] Ibid., 70-2.

[16] Ibid., 70.

[17] I use the term “answer” here very loosely. I sympathize with Ivan Karamazov in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. That is, I don’t think I’d accept God’s invitation to go to the theater in which God provided “an explanation” of suffering. I’m pretty sure I’d turn down the offer. No, I’m certain I would.

[18] William Greenway, The Challenge of Evil: Grace and the Problem of Suffering (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 31.

[19] C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1988), 121.

You Keep Me In Rain: A Poem

Tonight the moon wanes tired

Sad wrinkles stretch across our sky

A nightingale sings without choir

And black rain flows with head held high

 

Is it brute fate that we both walk to?

Puddles—like sinkholes—beneath our feet

A whispered, “I love you” so overdue

You clasp my hand in exchange for dreams

 

The wretched umbrella with holes and leaks

Like love stories you and I once knew

“Where are you, darling?” my mouth still speaks

And raindrops fall like “I-love-yous”

 

You lean in closer to feel my wasting body

You’ve felt it once or twice before

In warmth, in cold it was you sought me

And still you keep me—in rain—once more

 

Written by Moses Y. Mikheyev

Dedicated to A (with no traces of K)

 

 

Adieu: A Poem

“You don’t even give me time to miss you,” she said

While I had one foot out the door and both eyes

On the girl from across the room who was

Paying rapt attention to my half-sulking, half-dead

Words hanging at my sides

 

“She always like that?” the girl whispered

I moved closer to her, just to feel her breathe on my pale

skin. So seductive those mouthfuls of poems

Being sent my way, like words wrapped in blankets,

Warm and cozy—and I felt at home

 

“Are you always this kind?” I asked her.

“See, the last girl never cared about it.

I spent most of my days jotting notes written

On the backs of letters being sent to ‘Elsewhere’

A place where I knew she’d never miss them”

 

“Don’t stop now. I hear your love in writing.

The way your eyes light up against a dark-night hurt

as you hold my hand and tell me all the places you’ve

never been but wish to go. And time leaves us alone.”

I whisper, “Promise me you’ll be here when I return.”

 

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

And I Smile Too

Is this “I love you”? For—

 

Your lips taste like hallelujah

The kind that is muttered during godless hours

when children lie dreaming

beneath starry showers

And your nightgown is the see-through-you

 

Your eyes cast the divine

The kind that is found in cathedrals and stained windows

icons casting glances

wax candles that burn low

Painting sunsets on my soul’s tide

 

Your words are the lovely simple

The kind that slip through holes in your body

falling on my tongue like

mists of sweet, sweet honey

Watching your cheeks forecast dimples

 

And I smile too.

 

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

Religious Freedom Under the First Amendment: Three Supreme Court Cases and the Ambiguous Term “Religion”

Throughout the years, and in various Supreme Court cases, the distinction between “religious/sectarian” and “nonreligious/secular” has been rather ambiguous. In this essay, I will examine three separate Court cases in which the Court had to defend its verdict by employing what I deem “ambiguous” uses of the term “religion.” Moreover, I will argue that “religion” as a phenomenon is virtually impossible to define in any concrete, rigid manner. Given this reality, the Court’s decisions, when attempting to demarcate the line between that which is religious and nonreligious, will always remain blurry. Hence, it is my position that ambiguity will remain ever present in the their decisions so long as the Court continues to deal with an ambiguous phenomenon[1] known as “religion.”

Before examining the three cases, I will first begin by looking at the First Amendment and the surrounding historical context in which it was shaped, a context, as we shall later see, that set the trend for the Court’s various positions on “religion.”

The First Amendment was shaped in the 18th century during a time when several principles were deemed essentially conducive to a peaceful, well-governed society. The principles were: (1) liberty of conscience; (2) free exercise of religion; (3) religious pluralism; (4) religious equality; (5) separation of church and state; and (6) disestablishment. “While many of these terms carried multiple meanings in the later eighteenth century and several other terms were under discussion, these six principles were foundational for the American founders.”[2] The First Amendment—an amendment originally governing only Congress—was first applied to states and local governments via the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause in the pioneering case of Cantwell v. Connecticut (1940).[3] “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”[4] The Founding Fathers initially feared a particular religious institution so close to the State that it would use the State to persecute any dissenting voices.[5] However, in their attempts to articulate a form of government that allowed the flourishing of religion, the Fathers left one fatal void: they failed to define “religion.” What constitutes a religion? Witte writes, “Nowhere is the word ‘religion’ defined in the Constitution or Bill of Rights…”[6] In fact, if “original intent” is observed, it becomes relatively clear that by employing the term “religion” the Fathers meant “a plurality of Protestant Christian faiths.”[7] That is, they probably did not mean to defend the religious freedom rights of Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, or even Catholics. Nonetheless, a few scattered remarks from this time period do exist which help us understand what “religion” was thought to be. In 1802, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “[R]eligion is a matter which lies solely between a man and his God.”[8] Here “religion” was thought to be (a) a private affair and (b) involving a person and some deity. On June 26, 1788, during the Virginia convention on the Constitution, the authors wrote revealingly: “Religion, or the duty which we owe our creator, and the manner of discharging it…”[9] Here it can be seen that “religion” was thought to be something between a person and his or her deity/Creator. What is alarming in these two remarks is the lack of precise terminology. As we shall see, the modern day Court—from the 1940s onwards—has continued to wrestle with its definition of “religion,” having inherited this ambiguous legacy. I now turn my attention to three modern-day cases in which the demarcation between religious and nonreligious has continued, as in the past, along ambiguous lines.

In Frazee v Illinois (1989), the Court decided a case that involved a certain William Frazee who refused to accept a retail position that involved work on Sundays. He claimed that, as a Christian, it was unlawful for him to work on the Lord’s Day. Frazee later applied for unemployment benefits and was denied. Consequentially, the Department of Employment Security’s Board of Review justified its refusal to grant unemployment benefits to Frazee by stating: “When a refusal of work is based on religious convictions, the refusal must be based upon some tenets or dogma accepted by the individual of some church, sect, or denomination, and such a refusal based solely on an individual’s personal belief is personal and noncompelling and does not render the work unsuitable” [489 U.S. 829, 831] App. 18-19.[10] In a rather fortunate series of events, the Supreme Court picked up this case and overturned the earlier decisions made by the lower courts. Justice White, arguing for the majority opinion, wrote:

“While membership in a sect would simplify the problem of identifying sincerely held beliefs, the notion that one must be responding to the commands of a particular religious organization to claim the protection of the Free Exercise Clause is rejected. The sincerity or religious nature of appellant’s belief was not questioned by the courts below and was conceded by the State, which offered no justification for the burden that the denial of benefits placed on appellant’s right to exercise his religion.”[11]

Essentially, the Court said that while it may be true that Frazee was not a part of any church or sect—for all they knew, he might have stayed home on Sundays only to watch Oprah and eat Bon-Bons—nonetheless, it was not the State’s job to verify the sincerity of religious beliefs, or, for that matter, to act as an arbiter in religious affairs. Put simply: if a person stated they were Christian, it was beyond the State’s power to attempt to prove or disprove the sincerity of those beliefs. The State was not a religious organization, and so could not pass judgment on the sincerity of any deeply held—or, for that matter, deeply faked—religious beliefs.

In the above case we see, once again, a continuation of ambiguity when it comes to the subject of religion. Mr. Frazee was not a part of any church or religious organization. And yet the Court overturned an earlier denial of unemployment benefits on the basis that work on Sundays, for Frazee, was an unnecessary burden on his allegedly religious conscience. Justice White wrote, regarding the difficult process of demarcation between religious and secular, “Nor do we underestimate the difficulty of distinguishing between religious and secular convictions and in determining whether a professed belief is sincerely held.” Could one create a religion out of thin air, claim a free exercise violation, and win? In the post-Frazee v Illinois world, it seems so. For here—as much as ever—the term “religion” is not clearly demarcated from the secular/nonreligious. If staying home and watching football on Sundays is, at some future point, considered to be a “religious act,” who would blame the Court for not knowing what to do? Nobody seems to know what religion/religious is to begin with. Next, I will look at yet another pesky issue: just how cozy could the secular State get with religious holiday displays?

Lynch v Donnelly (1984) was a case settled after the groundbreaking Lemon v Kurtzman (1971). In Lemon v Kurtzman the three-pronged “Lemon test,” a test used to determine whether a law had the effect of establishing a religion, was first formulated.[12] In the case we are now considering—namely, Lynch v Donnelly—the city of Pawtucket, R. I. came under fire for erecting a Christmas display on private property owned by a nonprofit organization, property located directly in the center of the city’s shopping district. Amongst the Santa Claus house, Christmas tree and other such holiday objects, there was also placed a crèche, or nativity scene. This crèche was challenged for being an “establishment clause” violation: the State, funded by diverse taxpayers, was using its funds to “promote” a single religion, Christianity. The case ended up going to the Supreme Court, where the Court concluded, “Pawtucket has not violated the Establishment Clause.”[13] What were the Court’s reasons for reaching this verdict?

The Court argued that the now-famous concept of a wall of separation between church and state was a “useful metaphor” but “not an accurate description of the practical aspects of the relationship that in fact exists.” In addition to this, the Court argued that the Constitution did not, in fact, “require complete separation of church and state”; rather, “it affirmatively mandates accommodation…”[14] The Court also recognized how ubiquitous religion was. Religion was a part of the “American life.” Because it was the Christmas season, and because the crèche alone was not the singular focus of the Christmas display, the Court—echoing the “Lemon test”—ruled that “the city has a secular purpose for including the crèche in its Christmas display and has not impermissibly advanced religion or created an excessive entanglement between religion and government.”

As can be seen, the Court argued that religion was already mixed into the American way of life, thus admitting that the line between religious and secular was to be found “in the mix” somewhere. In other words, there wasn’t much of a line to begin with. Nonetheless, the Court still attempted to make that line materialize. Somehow, because of the “national tradition” and our desire to “depict the origins of that Holiday,” Christmas had become a rather secular holiday, with displays serving “legitimate secular purposes.” While the Court was busy employing the terms “secular” and “religious” without defining them, they had also snuck in some Orwellian double-think by referring to Christmas as both a “religious” and, finally, a “secular” holiday. And so the ambiguity continues.

I now want to turn my eyes to my final case. In Employment Division v Smith (1990) the Court back peddled on the “accommodationist logic” it used in Lynch v Donnelly. In this case, the defendants were two members of the Native American Church fired from their place of employment for using peyote on religious grounds. Once fired, they applied for unemployment benefits and were denied. The Oregon Supreme Court initially ruled that denying them unemployment benefits for using peyote on religious grounds violated their right to exercise religion; however, the state refused to pay out the benefits because possession of peyote was deemed a crime—so the case went to the Supreme Court. The Court focused, citing Sherbert v Verner, on whether the employees had a “constitutional right to unemployment benefits on the part of all persons whose religious convictions are the cause of their unemployment.”[15] Smith, one of the members who appealed to the Supreme Court, argued that he was doing nothing different than what we saw done in Frazee. That is, “[i]f Frazee could get unemployment compensation for refusing to work on Sunday, his day of rest but not worship, Smith argued, surely he could get compensation for being fired for engaging in the arduous and ancient religious ritual of peyote ingestion.”[16] The Court, however, was not in agreement with Smith. On the contrary, they argued that this case should be treated not as a case dealing with unemployment per se but rather as a case dealing with “free exercise” and compliance with “criminal laws.” In fact, the Court argued that Oregon State’s law regarding the illegal use of drugs (or which peyote was one) was “neutral” and “generally applicable”; hence, differing from the prior cases such as Frazee, the Court now argued that it was possible for the State to cast a burden upon a religious person so long as it was doing so by means of a generally applicable law that did not single out any particular person or religion.[17] Using the Court’s logic in Smith and applying it to Frazee one could argue that Frazee did not deserve unemployment compensation since he refused to work on Sundays—and “mandatory Sunday-work is required of everyone, being generally applicable to all, religious or irreligious.”[18] Such a statement, however, was not made in Frazee. Why?

Returning to the second case I looked at—that is, Lynch v Donnelly—allow me to remind you that in that case that which was secular and that which was religious was comingled. In Lynch the religious became the secular by means of “tradition.” Since what was initially religious had been around so long, it was no longer really religious; it was, in fact, perfectly secular. “Christmas is not really a religious holiday; it is mostly a secular holiday with ancient, religious roots. But most of us don’t focus on the religious element, so it’s basically secular,” went the argument.

But not so in Smith. Here a couple of men, who were unquestionably religious, were not allowed to exercise their religious beliefs. Like Christians partaking of the Lord’s Supper—sipping on a toxin known as alcohol[19]—the men involved in the Smith case could not exercise their beliefs. Why? Because the state thought their use of peyote, even in what was deemed a purely religious ritual, to be illegal. The line between religious and secular was assumed throughout the Smith case; there was no question that the two men were participating in a religious act. However, the relationship the State had with their so-called “religious activities” was vastly different than its cozy relationship with the mostly Christian activities we saw in Frazee and Lynch. In these cases, whatever was found to be religious was either explained away as the mostly secular (Lynch) or deemed impossible to verify (Frazee)—in both cases the Court allowed the religious to exercise their religious beliefs, no matter how fake (Frazee) or how assimilated into the secular culture (Lynch). What we saw in Smith, however, was what appeared to be a rather concrete, underlying assumption that the Court understood what it meant for something to be “religious.” But even here the “religious” was never defined. And so, despite the dogmatic rhetoric, the Court has yet to define what it means for something to be a religious act or a religion.

In 1912, James H. Leuba published a seminal paper that included an oft-cited appendix listing more than fifty definitions of religion.[20] Today, more than ever, the religious is ubiquitous—we see it in law, in politics, in science classrooms, in our libraries, in our churches, etc. As then, so now, we don’t really know what religious really means—if anything at all. There are a multitude of definitions available to us. Some, like the Founding Fathers, may see religion as that which involves some deity/Creator. Others, like Buddhists, may argue that no such deity is required by religion. Still others may argue that no such thing as God exists. Some may think a church or synagogue plays an essential part in what it means for something to be deemed religious; others, like Frazee, argue that religious acts do not have to involve such structures. Some may argue that religion has so infiltrated our society, it is no longer possible to clearly separate the two (e.g., Lynch). Some may argue that religion is relatively straightforward, involving the use of chemical substances; practices that the State could, in theory, forbid (e.g., Smith). In all of these various cases, involving a plurality of definitions, the distinction between religious and nonreligious, sectarian and secular, remain forever indistinct to our eyes as we gaze into that abysmal sea of religious discourse “through a glass, darkly” (1 Cor. 13:12). So long as the Supreme Court continues to deal with this most notoriously difficult of issues—that is, the ambiguous phenomenon we call religion—so long will we be haunted by paradoxical court cases and unclear decision-making processes.

 

Written by Moses Y. Mikheyev

Dedicated to John Witte, Jr.

 

 

FOOTNOTES:

[1] It is entirely possible to argue that my use of the term “religion” in itself is already misleading; instead, it may be argued, that what I should have written should have been the plural “religions.” However, I use the term colloquially: it encompasses all and every “religion,” whether the various religions have anything in common or not. (Even here one detects a thorough-going ambiguity: what, in fact, do all religions have in common? Or do we just group various phenomena that appear to be ceremonial as being “religious”? What, then, is “religion”?)

[2] John Witte, Jr. and Joel A. Nichols, Religion and the American Constitutional Experiment, 4th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 62-3.

[3] Ibid., 98-9.

[4] Ibid., 1.

[5] Ibid., 30-1.

[6] Ibid., 95.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 56.

[9] Ibid., 74.

[10] Frazee v. Illinois Dept. of Employment Security, 489 U.S. 829 (1989), URL= http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-supreme-court/489/829.html.

[11] Ibid.

[12] The three-pronged approach is as follows: “a challenged law must (1) have a secular purpose, (2) have a primary effect that neither advances nor inhibits religion, and (3) foster no excessive entanglement between church and state” (Witte and Nichols, Religion, 163).

[13] Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668 (1984), URL= http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-supreme-court/465/668.html.

[14] Italics mine.

[15] Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990), URL= http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-supreme-court/485/660.html.

[16] Witte and Nichols, Religion, 146.

[17] Ibid., 146-7.

[18] The words in quotation marks are theoretical, in case that was not made clear.

[19] “Respondents contend that the sacramental use of small quantities of peyote in the Native American Church is comparable to the sacramental use of small quantities of alcohol in Christian religious ceremonies” (Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 [1990], URL= http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-supreme-court/485/660.html.

[20] Jonathan Z. Smith, “Religion, Religions, Religious,” in Critical Terms for Religious Studies, ed. Mark C. Taylor (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 281.

In Search of ‘The One’: Disfiguring the Myth of American Individualism

In the dramatic dialogue The Symposium, Plato placed on the lips of Aristophanes a tale about the origins of romantic love. Aristophanes recounted how it was that humans had come to search for love. In the beginning, he tells us, the gods created three sexes: male, female, and the androgynous sex. The primal humans had four legs, four arms, and one head with two faces. They used to cartwheel around, and were rather powerful. In due time, Zeus became frightened at the possibility of an invasion of the gods’ residence at the hands of the primal humans—so he sought to strike them down with lightning. But the sacrifices the primal humans rendered unto the gods were enticing, so another way of limiting their primeval power was devised instead: cut them into halves.

Having sliced every primal human into half, the gods watched the humans run around as if lost in a haze looking for their other halves. The males sliced in half went looking for their counterparts—thus explaining homosexuality. The females sliced in half went looking for their counterparts—thus explaining lesbianism. And the androgynous primal humans cut in half went looking for their counterparts likewise—thus explaining heterosexuality.

“And when one of them meets with his other half, the actual half of himself, whether he be a lover of youth or a lover of another sort, the pair are lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy, and would not be out of the other’s sight, as I may say, even for a moment: these are the people who pass their whole lives together; yet they could not explain what they desire of one another. For the intense yearning which each of them has towards the other does not appear to be the desire of lover’s intercourse, but of something else which the soul of either evidently desires and cannot tell, and of which she has only a dark and doubtful presentiment.”[1]

And if ever asked what it was that these lost “halves” desired, they would readily admit they desired to be one, to be whole again. “[T]here is not a man of them who when he heard the proposal would deny or would not acknowledge that this meeting and melting into one another, this becoming one instead of two, was the very expression of his ancient need.”[2]

This Greek myth is at the center of American individualism. It pervades our culture, our religion, our romantic rendezvous, our language, our literature and our arts. There is not a single facet of American life that is not rendered absolutely helpless in the face of this myth. What, then, is our version of this Greek myth? In this essay, I will argue that American individualism is the idealized obsession that some singular individual—seen as an “autonomous self” detached from a communal reality—exists who could satisfy another individual’s universal cravings. I believe that our individualism plays a particular role when it comes to human relationships. According to our myth, there exists such a person—whom we endow with the endearing phrase “the one”—who is able to fulfill virtually all (if not all) our primal and present urges. This person, this “the one,” is predominantly seen as the end-all-be-all of our entire existence, a person who is able to make us feel “whole again” (whatever that means). In our myth, then, the community—i.e., communal reality—is almost entirely displaced by thoroughgoing individualism. The person is not seen as a part of a community of human beings that share one another’s burdens; instead, the person is seen as a detached individual who must embody the totality of his or her culture’s existence. No longer is the burden of embodying the aforementioned existence placed on the community; in our American culture—driven by the myth of individualism—the burden is shifted onto the individual: a single individual is thought to be capable of embodying an entire religion, an entire nation, and an entire culture.

When the individual is seen as separate and distinct from his or her community—when the community plays virtually no role in romantic relationships—the burden placed on individuals is exceedingly great, even impossible, in my opinion, to bear. The expectations are enormous, being intolerable to sustain. No single individual, no matter how great they may be, could possibly embody an entire community. No single individual could play the role of spouse, lover, sex symbol, parent, employee, religious cleric, food critic, arts and culture specialist, etc., etc. The myth of American individualism supports the ludicrous idea that a single individual—whom we call “the one”—is able to replace the community. In this essay, I will argue that no individual can replace communal reality—and it is detrimental to the human psyche for someone else to expect the impossible from him or her.

In the beginning was the myth, and the myth gave birth to other myths. A thousand myths sprung from this one myth, and this one myth found its way into a book we know worship and adore: the Bible. And God allegedly endorsed this myth, and he called it good. “…[A]nd the two are united into one” (Genesis 2:24).[3]

In the book of Genesis, whatever its origins may be, the idea of two becoming one is present—as it is present in Plato’s Symposium. Whatever interpretations one may conjure up in regards to Genesis, the myth, as found in Plato, would be fully and lucidly presupposed in a Jewish text called the Book of Tobit, which dates from around the second-century BCE.

In Tobit, a young man by the name of Tobias falls in love with a virgin girl named Sarah. However, despite the presumed romantic future, Tobias is made aware of a sinister rumor: Sarah had been married to seven different men—and all have been killed by a demon whenever they tried to have sex with her. The demon was thought to be madly in love with Sarah, forbidding any man to sleep with her. En route to Sarah’s house, Tobias was instructed by Raphael, an angel. In his angelic instructions, Raphael told Tobias what he was to do on the first wedding night to make the demon go away. In addition, the angel assured Tobias that Sarah was meant for him. “Do not be afraid, for she was set apart for you before the world was made” (Tobit 6:18 NRSV). The story ends on a happy note, as everything goes as planned. My interest continues, however, because of the verse cited. What the angelic instructions presuppose is the idea of romantic predestination “before the world was made.”

Many Americans today, except for the few Catholics, probably have never heard of Tobit. But that’s all beside the point. The point is that our culture continues to tell this very story using different people and different names. Our romance novels betray romantic predestination; our pop music betrays romantic predestination; even our language betrays predestination. For example, the fact that a definite article precedes “one” in the phrase “the one” assures us of the singularity of this person’s existence. The idea is that there aren’t just several “ones” out there; nay, there is merely “the one.” If we had not bought into the Greek myth, we would have, at the very least, had a language in which “a one” was a colloquial expression. Such is not the case, however. Instead, the myth is shaping our language, the very discourse governing our romantic relations.

From scattered verses in the Bible to love songs buzzing on the radio, the myth of individualism continues. It is not that individually these ideas form a coherent myth; rather, taken as a whole, the ideas shape the underlying myth governing our romantic endeavors. Somewhere in the thousand or so years in which myths such as those found in Plato’s Symposium or the Book of Tobit found their voice, we have tuned in to them along the way and have become their audience. Whether we like it or not, the myth has ruined marriages. A husband turns to his wife for psychiatric consultation when, in fact, he should probably be turning to a trained psychiatrist, one who is within the community. A wife turns to her husband for an emotional need that may only be satisfied, instead, at an all-girls night out. But the myth is there: she was predestined for you; he was predestined for you. The struggle to make an individual replace a community is an impossible struggle—but the myth sustains that very idea. The marriage fails because an ideal is held up as a kind of reality. “I want my husband to be a good parent, an excellent lover, a perfect engineer, a humorous socialite, a…” The list continues into eternity until it vanishes from human sight. It’s okay, in other words, to have a wife that doesn’t function as your psychologist. Maybe you should actually talk about psychology with your friend who is a psychologist. It’s okay, in other words, to have a husband who doesn’t write you breathtaking poems and take you on wild dates. Maybe you should let him take you to the theater and let Hollywood do the romancing on his behalf. It’s okay to be married—and remain in need of community.

The myth of American individualism needs to be disfigured for what it really is: a myth. It’s not helping anyone by implying that someone could function as your everyone.

 

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

Dedicated to Andrei Semenov–for being a good conversationalist as we sipped on Woodford bourbon and discussed the finer things in life…

 

 

[1] Plato, “Symposium,” The Internet Classics Archive, accessed December 17, 2016, http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/symposium.html.

[2] Ibid. Italics mine.

[3] New Living Translation.

The Names of God: Exodus 3:14-15 and the Answer

Thousands of years ago, so the story goes, an old man met god in a fiery bush that refused to be consumed. The god took interest in the old man—who went by the name Moses—and decided to send him so that he may help save a group of people whom the god called his own. “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians” (Ex. 3:7-8 NIV). Before Moses accepted this unknown god’s proposition, he first asked the god for its name—for if “they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” (3:13 NIV). The response this god provided Moses has continued to perplex layman and scholar alike to this very day. In this paper, I will examine various interpretations of “the answer” the god gave in the hopes of finding a syncretic approach that makes sense of the answer both within its (a) historical context and (b) its current biblical, canonical context. In my concluding reflections, I will argue that the names of God, as revealed to Moses, are as elusive now as they were then.

In the Ancient Near East, names were thought to have magical properties.[1] Cassuto, summarizing the prevailing view, writes, “[T]he designation of any entity was to be equated, as it were, with its existence: whatever is without an appellation does not exist, but whatever has a denomination has existence.”[2] Already in the second creation myth found in Genesis 2, Adam was seen giving names to the recently created animals brought into existence.[3] Existence and having a name went hand-in-hand. The “magical element” of knowing the name of an object or person was grounded in the ancient idea, as Gordis points out, that “knowing the name of any person or object is tantamount to comprehending its nature.”[4] The language of the Hebrew Bible itself—including our text from Exodus—was conducive to such magical thinking. “In Biblical Hebrew, sëm [שֵׁם, “name”] means ‘essence.’”[5] In addition to this, knowing the name of a god, and “calling on its name,” meant you were able to invoke that god’s attention.[6] But attention itself was not granted unless you knew the god’s name. The “magical element,” however, is best epitomized by the ancients’ idea that “to ‘call a name’ [was] sometimes equivalent to ‘create.’”[7] Given the ancients’ concern for knowing the correct name for a correct object, animal, or god, it should come to us as no surprise that Moses was predominantly concerned with figuring out the god’s name—who, in fact, was speaking with him?

The answer the god gave appears to be as elusive as ever:

“I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’” (Ex. 3:14-15 NIV).

At first blush, it appears that there are at least three[8] separate but related answers the god, identifying himself as YHWH, gave Moses: (1) “I am who I am”; (2) “I Am”; and (3) “The Lord” [YHWH]. Numerous theories have arisen because of the seemingly various “answers” YHWH gave Moses; the scholars usually assign the different names to different sources.[9] In this paper, however, I will focus on the canonical text at hand without dealing with the complicated theories catalyzed by source criticism.

YHWH[10] first answers Moses’ question with the cryptic phrase: “I am who I am.” In Hebrew the phrase is אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה. The first word—namely, אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה [ehyeh]—is the first-person imperfect masculine singular verb from the root הָיָה [hyh, “to be”]. Generally speaking, the word could be translated “I will be,” being an imperfect verb that conveys an incomplete action that could occur in the past, present, or future. The particle following the initial ehyeh is אֲשֶׁ֣ר, which is normally translated in this passage as “who.” What does YHWH mean by saying of himself “I will be who I will be” or, as most translations have it, “I am who I am”? Numerous answers have been given; I will present three interpretations of this enigmatic phrase.

The first interpretation I will call “the unknowable explanation.” According to this interpretation, YHWH, in fact, does not answer Moses’ question; that is, YHWH does not give Moses a “name.” What YHWH does instead is give Moses a phrase—an idem per idem[11] syntactical construction, to be exact—alluding to the impossibility of placing God in a box. Zimmerli, one such exponent of this view, writes, “In the only passage where the Old Testament itself attempts to provide an explanation of the name ‘Yahweh’ it refuses to explain the name in a way that could confine it within the cage of definition.”[12] God remains, in this view, the deus absconditus—that is, “the hidden God.” Several good reasons seem to support this interpretation. In light of the earlier comments I made regarding names and their “magical elements,” this view prevents humans from knowing God’s name “because man should not know God’s name and acquire power over him, for God is not to be man’s slave.”[13] Also, this interpretation seems to suggest that the finite human mind cannot possibly understand God and his nature. Even if a name were given, it would be an illusory shell: the name could never contain God. Since a human could not possibly understand God, God and his name must forever remain a mystery.

The second interpretation I shall call “the ontological explanation.” In this view, YHWH is essentially saying, “I am because I am.” When Moses asked YHWH his name, YHWH gave him a name, but it was made in reference to the name itself. That is, outside of the name given—which is elusive as it is, meaning simply “I will be” or “I am”—is itself not supported by anything external to it, functioning, in a sense, as the grounding of being itself. “There is no cause for God’s existence outside himself.”[14] This is a very popular view, being supported by numerous scholars, both ancient and modern.[15] The problem with this view, from a Hebrew exegesis perspective, is that it assumes the particle here should be translated as “because,” and, in addition to this, the imperfect verb should be thoroughly read as a present perfect; that is, the “I will be” (imperfect) should be translated, with certainty, as “I am” (present perfect).[16]

The third interpretation I shall call “the covenantal-loyalty explanation.” In this view, one that seems to be favored by Cassuto, YHWH, by stating the “I am who I am,” means to relate to Moses that he is a god who is. He is one who is actively present in the life of his people. Prior to Exodus 3:14, this god tells Moses: “…For I will be with you [עִמָּ֔ךְ כִּֽי־אֶֽהְיֶ֣ה]” (v.12, my trans.). He is a god who is loyal to a people he calls his own. (Later on, he will tell Moses that he is the god of his ancestors [3:15].) Interpreting this passage, Cassuto writes, regarding what Moses would say to the people, “He Himself sent me to you; although we forgot his name, He did not forget us. He remembered His covenant with our ancestors, and has sent me to you to fulfill His covenant.”[17] In support of this view is Mowinckel’s assertion that “[t]o the Hebrew ‘to be’ does not just mean to exist—as all other beings and things do exist as well—but to be active, to express oneself in active being…”[18] Noth, likewise, writes, “הָיָה [“to be”] does not express pure being but active being.”[19]

After YHWH’s first answer—“I will be who I will be” or “I am who I am”—he further tells Moses that he is simply the “I am.” In this case, the verb seems to be functioning entirely as a title. But YHWH does not stop there. He then introduces another name for himself, providing a third reply: “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord [יְהוָ֞ה], the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’” In the third reply, God has now used yet another verb from the root הָיָה [hyh, “to be”], namely, יְהוָ֞ה [yhwh, “he is”].[20] The difference between the two words being that of person: the first being in first-person, the second being in third-person. Perhaps when God speaks of himself, he refers to himself in the first-person ehyeh; however, when others refer to God, and speak of him, he is referred to in the third-person yhwh. In any case, God is a god linked to the verb for “to be.” Having looked at various interpretations of “the answer” to Moses’ question, I now want to turn my attention to the Exodus narrative as a whole, looking to see which of these various interpretations make sense of the most data.

At the beginning of the book of Exodus, the narrator presents us with a strange picture. Calling to mind the first command given by God in Genesis 1:28—“be fruitful and multiply”—the book displays before our eyes a people who, indeed, had been fruitful (Ex. 1:7, 9). But in their fruitfulness, the people also made enemies: the Pharaoh felt threatened precisely because of it (1:9). The fruitfulness was either a blessing or a curse; it was either responsible for the growth of the nation, or it was the very curse that reduced them to their slavery. However, what appears evident is that God was intimately involved with his people in their struggle to survive tyranny. The midwives, the narrator tells us, “feared the God” (1:17, my trans.). In addition to this, the narrator makes us cognizant of God’s [elohim, אֱלֹהִ֔ים] early involvement in the Israelites’ reproductive efforts. “God was kind to the midwives and the people increased and became even more numerous” (1:20 NIV).

The tale suggests that, already, God was present with his people. We are not told whether the Israelites knew God as the “I am” or as the “He is”; what we do know is that God—in the generic sense conveyed by אֱלֹהִ֔ים—was with the Israelites. In addition to this, we are reminded right at the end chapter two, “God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob” (2:24 NIV). God, then, was both present and covenantal, both faithful and loyal.

Moses, having run away from Pharaoh’s court, and having settled into a nomadic lifestyle in a place called Midian on the Arabian peninsula, is confronted, years later, by a relatively commonplace scene in such desert regions: a burning bush. The not-so-commonplace sight was the fact that the bush didn’t just burn; it refused to be consumed (3:3). Midrash Rabba offers an intriguing commentary on this passage:

“Why did God show Moses such a symbol? Because he (Moses) had thought to himself that the Egyptians might consume Israel; hence did God show him a fire, which burnt but did not consume, saying to him, “Just as the thorn-bush is burning and is not consumed, so the Egyptians will not be able to destroy Israel.”[21]

Again, the covenantal-loyalty of YHWH is exuded here. If this is the message YHWH was trying to convey to Moses, then he was certainly trying to tell him that he, their God, his people’s God, was faithfully looking after them. Though they may be in the process of being burned by fire, they shall not be consumed—for YHWH remembers his covenants.

Just moments prior to giving Moses “the answer” to his question—namely, what is God’s name?—YHWH[22] said: “I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain” (3:12 NIV). The promise is already there. First, YHWH says, “I will be with you.” He is the god of covenantal loyalty. Second, YHWH says what will happen with Israel: “you will worship God on this mountain.” He is the god of the future.

It is in this biblical, canonical context in which Moses first hears God’s reply (or “replies,” if you will). Who is God? and What is his name? Instead of seeing the various interpretations as mostly in conflict with each other, I think a syncretic approach works rather well in the interpretation of this passage. Why shouldn’t a first-person verb such as ehyeh convey (a) an “unknowable name”; (b) the grounding of being; and (c) covenantal loyalty? All of these interpretations have come from engagement with the verb in the middle of it all: hyh [“to be”]. What does it mean for something “to be”? What does it mean for God to say that he is (or was, or will be) this “to be”? In a way, then, I see all of these as tentatively valid interpretations. They all have been borne out of an authentic wrestling with the biblical text at hand.

Therefore, on that fateful day on Sinai, it seems likely to me that Moses was given an answer that involved complexity and nuance. A generic name for a god was not thrown out, but neither was no name given. Instead, what Moses discovered was, perhaps, that he was dealing with a God who didn’t like labels, a God who “fear[ed] the magical use of His Name…”[23] Later on in Exodus 33:19, this very same God would remark, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy.”[24] The enigma is being perpetrated even here. Who will receive God’s mercy? The answer is not to be found in the answer given. The human subject remains at a kind of distance; he or she is never directly manipulating God’s behavior. Answers qua answers are not given; instead, YHWH speaks in cryptic terms. Maybe if the human subject could know God’s actions, could know whom God would show mercy, maybe then could the human exercise some control over this God.

If the name had to do with some other verb, could humans make sense of this deity then? Maybe if God was not a “to be” but a “to love,” maybe then would he be predictable.[25] But, as it is, no such verb was given. What was given was a verb scholar and layman alike continue to struggle with. In Exodus 3:14, we had come face-to-face with a passage one scholar has called “one of the unsolved difficulties for both translators and exegetes.”[26] Like the ancients of old who sought out names so that they might magically abracadabra various gods into existence, we, too, demand accurate knowledge. Like Moses, being presented with an answer he could not cope with, we meander around the ashes of a burnt out bush, hoping to find “the answer.” And what is our question? “What is the name of God?” In the commentaries and in the academic journals we went looking—only to return with a plethora of so-called “answers.” Under every rock we’ve looked only to come up empty-handed. Somewhere, buried in a long-forgotten commentary written by some nomad, another answer awaits to be discovered. And the names of God continue to puzzle and perplex us today as much as ever, evading us like elusive fireflies burning now and disappearing later. In every scholar, in every reader of the Bible, there lurks a Moses asking an age-old question: “What is his name?”

 

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

 

WORKS CITED:

Albrektson, Bertil. “On the Syntax of אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה in Exodus 3:14.” Text, Translation, Theology: Selected Essays on the Hebrew Bible. Burlington: Ashgate, 2010.

Cassuto, Umberto. A Commentary on the Book of Exodus. Translated by Israel Abrahams. Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1967.

Gianotti, Charles R. “The Meaning of the Divine Name YHWH.” Bibliotheca Sacra 142, no. 565 (January 1985): 38-51.

Gordis, Robert. “The Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Old Testament and the Qumran Scrolls.” Journal of Biblical Literature 76 (1957).

Hyatt, J. Philip. Commentary on Exodus. New Century Bible. London: Oliphants, 1971.

Janzen, Gerald J. “And the Bush Was Not Consumed.” Jewish Biblical Quarterly 31, no. 4 (October 2003): 219-225.

Noth, Martin. Exodus: A Commentary. Translated by J. S. Bowden. London: W. & J. Mackay & Co. Ltd., 1962.

Reisel, M. The Mysterious Name of Y.H.W.H. Studia Semitica Neerlandica. Netherlands: Royal VanGorcum Ltd., 1957.

FOOTNOTES:

[1] M. Reisel, The Mysterious Name of Y.H.W.H., Studia Semitica Neerlandica (Netherlands: Royal VanGorcum Ltd., 1957), 1. “[I]n the view of primitive man forces are active in Nature that can be influenced and controlled by magical means, such as rites of protection or propitiation, by worship, as also by the giving or avoiding of certain names” (italics original).

[2] Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, trans. Israel Abrahams (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1967), 37.

[3] Genesis 2:20.

[4] Robert Gordis, “The Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Old Testament and the Qumran Scrolls,” in Journal of Biblical Literature 76 (1957), 125.

[5] Ibid.

[6] J. Philip Hyatt, Commentary on Exodus, New Century Bible (London: Oliphants, 1971), 75. “To pronounce the name of a deity meant to call upon his power.”

[7] Ibid.

[8] Such is the view of M. Reisel, The Mysterious Name of Y.H.W.H., 5. “To this single question he surprisingly receives as many as three answers…”

[9] Noth does this (cf. Martin Noth, Exodus: A Commentary, trans. J. S. Bowden [London: W. & J. Mackay & Co. Ltd., 1962], 42) as does Hyatt (cf. Commentary on Exodus, 75-8). For a list of scholars who advocate some source theory derived from the different names of god in the Hebrew Bible, I refer my readers to the numerous commentaries available. It is not the purpose of this paper to engage with various source theories robustly, as I am more interested in dealing with the interpretation of Exodus as the text currently stands, warts and all.

[10] I will refer to “the god” throughout the text as YHWH from this point forward. While it may cause some difficulties to my readers—perhaps various sources meant different gods when they mentioned either YHWH or elohim? and I have, as it were, caused some confusion by collapsing the alleged “distinction”—it would have been relatively strange, aesthetically speaking, for me to continue to refer to god as “the god” for the remainder of the paper.

[11] Hyatt, Commentary on Exodus, 76-7. “In this construction the speaker (or writer) is intentionally indefinite , because he is either unwilling or unable to be definite and precise.” For examples of other such constructions in Exodus, see 4:13; 16:23; and 33:19.

[12] Cited in Charles R. Gianotti, “The Meaning of the Divine Name YHWH,” in Bibliotheca Sacra 142, no. 565 (January 1985), 41.

[13] Hyatt, Commentary on Exodus, 75.

[14] Ibid., 76.

[15] See Gianotti, “The Meaning of the Divine Name YHWH,” 41.

[16] Ibid., 42-3.

[17] Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, 39.

[18] Cited in Gianotti, “The Meaning of the Divine Name YHWH,” 42.

[19] Noth, Exodus: A Commentary, 45.

[20] This verb is translated here as the Qal verbal stem third-person imperfect masculine singular.

[21] Cited in Gerald J. Janzen, “And the Bush Was Not Consumed,” in Jewish Biblical Quarterly 31, no. 4 (October 2003), 225.

[22] Technically the word here is elohim.

[23] Reisel, The Mysterious Name of Y.H.W.H, 11. Italics original.

[24] NIV.

[25] Interestingly enough, S. D. Goitein makes the argument that the Hebrew root hyh is related to the Arabic “hawiya” which means “to love.” He then interprets Exodus 3:14 as saying, “I shall (passionately) love whom I love” (see Reisel, The Mysterious Name of Y.H.W.H., 17).

[26] These are the words of W. A. Irwin cited in Bertil Albrektson, “On the Syntax of אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה in Exodus 3:14,” in Text, Translation, Theology: Selected Essays on the Hebrew Bible (Burlington: Ashgate, 2010), 41.

Bloomed Explosions of Radiant Unknowing: A Romantic Poem

I drew her up like water from a spring found flowing

With rains placed on receptive laps of summer

Where flowers bloomed explosions of radiant unknowing

And eyes that haunted mellow stars above her

 

Her eyes a deepest black of bluest seas

Hands trading in burnt bronze for pearls

Damn necklace torn from collar in ecstasy

Restless lips of mine find home eternal

 

I had her pressed against the ground like an iron plow

Her straps dropped like kernels into fertile black soil

Green valleys of rolling love on her naked brow

Kisses etching marks on her skin unspoiled

 

Near the desert regions of her sunshine navel

I found myself lurking in quenched exploration

That thirst of old and fragrant new, entangled

Her body, my body, in Edenic damnation

 

Did I ever know her, and she know me?

Or were we seasons on opposite ends of the year?

Always holding hands at a distance of two trees

One blooming summer and the other budding spring…

 

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

I am currently finishing a master’s thesis at Emory University in theology and the philosophy of language. In my spare time, I am working on a romance novel called “The Seduction of Koroleva” and a collection of romantic poetry being written under the working title “In(Finite) Red.”

“And There It Stood”: A Short Horror

On an eccentric November night, mostly one hundred years ago, at a time when the strange seemed rather charming, a boy child was born to an unlikely couple. The year was 1910. The Titanic had not yet sunk (but it was about to). And the First World War had not yet been started.

The boy’s parents were both engineers at Cambridge.

His mother sunk into trepidation the moment she first beheld his eyes. All she could see were eyes—big, looming eyes. Eyes that could swallow an entire horizon. Eyes that were like two overgrown moons floating effortlessly in a fluorescent night sky. She fell immediately in love with the boy.

They named him Wesley. But he preferred Wezel. He was a precocious child who spent most of his days studying his immediate surroundings.

At the age of seven he thought himself to be Vincent van Gogh’s “spirit-child.”

So he painted The Starry Night. An art historian came to see it. He walked around the room in a most elegant manner, now pacing up and now pacing down the entirety of the room. “Humm—pff!” he would exclaim as he’d pivot on his heels. “It is peculiarly unique relative to other replicas of the work in that the brush stokes are exact, measured with modest reserve, and pedantically calculated.”

The little Wezel loved perfection, and his artwork became a Cambridge sensation. It was rumored that during the First World War, when Cambridge’s own art department housed Van Gogh’s painting at the Fitzwilliam Museum it was actually Wenzel’s artwork that was on display—for the museum curators were “afraid of a loss of the original artwork during a potential air raid.” And so, in a matter of a mere eight years—by now it was 1918—Wezel’s fame grew beyond the confines of a single bedroom apartment that housed the two professors and their big-eyed child.

During his years at a local primary school, Wezel made two friends: one was the teacher and the other a kitchen rat. The teacher shared her lunchtime cookies with him, and he shared his portion with the kitchen rat.

The students didn’t like Wezel for several reasons. One, he looked like a disheveled old soul—whose entire physiognomy was reduced to an emphasis that was placed on his eyes and his “death-glare.” Two, he could not understand ordinary human language. He struggled to talk the baby-talk of his fellow peers, and so, in a most necessary manner, engaged his teachers in dialogue regarding math, logic, and a myriad of oil-on-canvas painting techniques.

His third friend need not be mentioned here, since, if I recall correctly, she never returned the favor. Her name was Katherine, and she avoided Wezel’s impulsive romantic approaches. He once tried to share the teacher’s half-cookie with her but she refused. So he went to the kitchen and gave it to the rat instead. Such was the result of his first dreamy endeavor.

Because the students feared him, Wezel had to reallocate his energy-expenditures in a more fitting manner. By the summer of 1920, Wezel—then being a decade old—locked himself in his parent’s attic (they had moved a few blocks into a small home) and vowed to never reappear unless he had produced a masterpiece. His parents fed him through a tiny crack in the wall, sustaining him for six weeks and three days with crackers, chocolate and prenatal multivitamins. Every third day he requested a large, boiling pot of coffee for “mental energy.” His parents complied. Staying true to his word, Wezel emerged—six weeks and three days later—with the art in his hand a dark and forlorn figure, bearing the anguish of a tortured genius.

His parents rushed to greet their wild-eyed child. His mother fell to the ground kissing his dimpled cheeks and swearing that she would never let him do this to her again. His father stood by silently watching the strange emotions take over his mostly rational wife.

“What did you create this time, Wes,” his mother asked tenderly.

The boy looked into her eyes without blinking.

“Is he horrified by us?” his mother thought to herself. “Why, surely, he knows we love him dearly!”

Wezel walked past his parents, as if in a daze, with an old cloth-sheet covering his hidden masterpiece. During dinner, after he had broken the silence, and having alleviated his mother’s fears, Wezel requested the presence of Sydney Cockerell, who was, at the time, the director of the Fitzwilliam.

The following day, with an eye-loop in hand, Director Cockerell came to see Wezel. He walked up and down the room like the last art historian.

“Aren’t all these art historian creatures the same?” Wezel silently asked himself. “They walk in the same manner; no two are different!”

“Yes, yes—indeed! Yes! Hmm. Wow. Yes, indeed!” the Director kept mumbling to himself. “Yes, very particular. Almost real. Yes, yes! Real. As real as rain in London!”

The piece measured one hundred sixty centimeters by two hundred. It was a large oil-on-canvas painting depicting Wezel’s last place of residence: the attic. It was an accurate depiction of reality. So accurate, in fact, that Cockerell spent the following days speaking about it incessantly.

“You should have seen it. The attic. Oh, god. How authentic it was! The sheer splendor of the piece,” he told everyone he met. “I was transported there—and have not left since!”

The piece was purchased by the museum for millions of pounds, allowing Wezel to drop out of primary school, pay for his parent’s first honeymoon vacation, and resume all artistic activity immediately and forever.

Within weeks, word got out that the great philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein was seeking out the company of none other than our very own Wezel. At the time, Wezel was unfamiliar with Wittgenstein’s thinking. He had, however, gone through Russell and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica, a book he criticized for “fatalistic logical errors in its presentation of the foundation of mathematics.” Wittgenstein, having heard and having seen Wezel’s work became all the more interested in meeting the decade-old human being who criticized—quite accurately, in his own opinion—the Principia.

As fate would have it, on an August evening, Wezel met with Wittgenstein. To this day, nobody knows the exact contents of the conversation, but from what I could gather, it seems that Wezel encouraged Wittgenstein to write his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Moreover, it was rumored that Wezel wrote parts of it. For example aphorism 2.12 reads: “The picture is a model of reality.”[1] The “picture” Wittgenstein had in mind—or, if Wezel wrote this, then “the picture Wezel had in his own mind”—was none other than The Attic (as Wezel’s masterpiece was later called). Per Wezel’s own account, the first remark Wittgenstein made upon his meeting him was: “But your eyes! How large must the world appear to them!” To which Wezel replied, “I can see the world accurately.”

In 1922, the year Wezel turned twelve, was the year Wittgenstein published his work. It became a philosophical sensation overnight. Wittgenstein became famous, while Wezel became a historical relic of the past.

In 1931, during a meeting at the Vienna Circle, in which Kurt Gödel was expounding his recently published ideas on the “incompleteness theorems,” Wezel met Wittgenstein yet again. The years had done nothing but shed their blessings on Wittgenstein; he was cheerful, optimistic, and open to new ideas. Upon seeing Wezel, he hugged the now grown, young lad.

“How is your work coming along?” he asked after the discussions were over.

“I became a professor of philosophy, Ludwig,” Wezel replied nostalgically. “I gave up art when I met you.”

No, you cannot say that. I would not encourage the study of philosophy,” Wittgenstein replied tersely and with peculiar force. “You must resume your art. You have a talent.”

“You don’t understand, Ludwig,” Wezel said in a hushed voice. “I’m now depicting reality with language—just as you suggested!”

“Why language?!” Wittgenstein moaned out loud. “The world is going to suffer much having lost you.”

With that, Wittgenstein angrily walked out, leaving the Circle. He never spoke with Wezel again.

In 1932, Wezel published an article titled “The Impossibility of Atheism.” In it he argued what he had argued ever since he met Wittgenstein: language is a depiction of objective reality. “In our minds we create a pictorial representation of the world. This picture of reality corresponds with the real world. There is a direct relationship between the picture in our minds and the world around us. Words refer to things in the world. An apple is an apple because there is the word ‘apple’ and its objective referent: an apple in the real world. Unicorns imagined in our mind are not an accurate picture of reality because there are no unicorns in the world. For words to have meaning, they must be grounded in reality.”

That was the beginning of the paper. Professor Wezel argued that Wittgenstein was right in his Tractatus: only that which exists in the real world should have words in our language. Since God did not exist in our world, there was no use having a mental image of God. Where did this image come from? If not from the world, then where from?

The second part of the paper proved the impossibility of atheism. “Since God is thought to be a metaphysical Being existing outside of the post-Einsteinian space-time continuum, it is, in fact, impossible to speak about God’s existence or non-existence thereof. God, as understood by some authors of the Bible, for example, does not exist in this world; He is above the world, above the natural order of things. Since God is outside of the world, being eternal and non-objective, language cannot be used either against God or for God: ‘whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent.’”[2]

The paper caused a sensation amongst both the scientists and theologians. The theologians were angered at the fact that Wezel attacked positive statements about God, while relishing his attacks on the atheists for their positive claims regarding God’s non-existence. The atheists, on the other hand, while happy that Wezel supported their thesis that religion was meaningless, were angered by the fact that he debunked the possibility of atheism. And so neither side was happy or unhappy: they were both equally miserable. Wezel, for his part, rejoiced tremendously that he could irritate people.

In 1933, a young professor by the name of Dolly, specializing in a secret field pioneered by her called micro-tectonic astro-physiology, heard Wezel’s paper being read at some academic society of sorts. In a matter of hours she arranged for a meeting with that “most dazzling of minds.” Wezel proposed to Dolly the following day; they were married the following weekend.

 

And this is where our story truly begins.

You see, Wezel’s eccentric gaze frightened many people out of many nights of peaceful rest. Some even avoided walking past him on their way to Cambridge just to dodge his “piercing, eerie stare.” His wife, however, a simple beauty of extraordinary mental capacities, was blind. And this was, perhaps, the only reason she never left Wezel: she never had a chance to be frightened by him.

On their first night together, Wezel awakened at three in the morning to find his wife tranquilly sleeping. He had, for many years, struggled with imagined demons. Every time he closed his voluptuous eyes, he would immediately begin sensing the presence of toxic evil. Not only did he feel the company of the demonic, he also imagined it. Demons of various shapes and sizes resided in his mind, swimming out from their lagoons every time his eyelids shut.

On this summer night, in early September, it was no different. Wezel kept imagining the demonic. He would blink only to be bolted back into the wide-eyed and terrified.

He praised God that his wife was blind. “If only she knew the demons I struggle with…and what I’m about to do…” he thought to himself.

He reached over the bed and quietly opened his drawer. He fumbled around for the duct tape.

Having found it, he gently brought it in to his chest. The roll of tape felt cool against his nervously hot skin. His sore fingers dug into the worn edges, seeking out a place where he could grip the tape.

He counted to ten under his breath.

And slowly made noiseless progress. “Good,” he muttered under his breath in the most silent of manners. “At least she can’t hear me.”

The project continued. He slowly removed two pieces of tape measuring two centimeters a piece in length.

Without disturbing his wife, he placed a single piece on his eyebrow, taping his eyelid to it to keep his eye from closing. He did the same with the other eye.

In a matter of minutes, he was fast asleep.

 

The following night, around two thirty in the morning, Wezel awakened to the sound of heavy breathing. Once he trained his ears to listen—to really listen—he heard nothing but silence. The breathing was all an illusion. What he thought was not real; it did not correspond with reality.

He closed his eyes again—and rested.

Only moments later, he imagined a beast of tremendous terror standing before him. He opened his eyes.

There was nothing there.

“Professor Wezel,” he reassured himself professionally in the most cool and academic of ways. “Your language, your imagination does not correspond to reality. There are no demons—not even gods.”

He convinced himself of this—and fell back asleep.

 

After a few weeks of living with his wife, Wezel began to realize the uncertainty of reality. His wife was, according to him, a schizophrenic. One minute she wanted Italian for dinner; the next minute, she wanted French. One second she felt cold next to him; the next second, she felt too hot. He would close his eyes, imagine her wanting Italian food—only to open them and have her state something entirely different.

And it drove him mad. She made no sense to him.

One night, before bed, he imagined they would make love. It was a Wednesday, and they always had sex on Wednesdays. He closed his eyes and imagined his wife’s naked body. Then he opened them.

She was still dressed in her nightgown.

“Maybe we will have sex next Wednesday,” he said to himself. “Maybe she just forgot. It is, after all, November—and people don’t make any sense during the holidays.”

 

The following Wednesday, Wezel, by means of induction, decided that his wife would not have sex with him tonight either. He closed his eyes and imagined that, when he’d open them, she’d be fully dressed.

And so he opened them.

She was naked.

 

For the rest of the week, Wezel slept relatively peacefully. He asked the leading sexologist at Cambridge what the reason was for his unusual calm and discovered that sex was, indeed, the reason. Wezel made note of this in his journals.

 

On a stormy night in December, just before Christmas, Wezel’s unrest returned. For the past few weeks, he had been lecturing his students on the certainty of reality. And, having come clean with his academic peers, he was not entirely certain of the certainty that he so expounded. “It is entirely possible that I know nothing,” he once said out loud to them in exasperation.

His demons were haunting him—changing him as a person. They began speaking to him, telling him to kill his wife. He found her to be too unpredictable. And so, if the demons were on the side of certainty, then surely they were right. She was, after all, a very uncertain creature.

He closed his eyes and imagined the demonic persuading him.

He opened his eyes and there was nothing there.

He counted to ten while taking a deep breath. “This is all just a bad dream—an inaccurate picture of reality,” he restlessly convinced himself.

He thought he heard a voice—it was directly addressing him.

He opened his eyes.

And there it stood.

 

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

 

 

NOTE: This is a work of fiction. Wittgenstein obviously existed. I can assure you: he never met Professor Wezel. 

 

 

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. C. K. Ogden (Mineola: Dover Publications, 1999), 33.

[2] Ibid., 108.