Beyond the great illusion

Beyond the great illusion

The mystery revealed/15 - In any failed relationship one can start over in the "name" of the other party

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 10/07/2022

"We have lived in the fissures of history: what does not ever, entirely, come to a close, gives us shelter. For our last day, we wanted the visions that nourished us during exile".

Ernst Bloch A Ingeborg Bachmann, after his visit to the ghetto in Rome

The prophecy delivered to Daniel regarding the end of the exile, which has not yet arrived but will, is the biblical foundation of the great virtue of hope. And helps us to interpret time.

When making a pact, having faith in the fidelity of the other party is essential. It is more fundamental than our own loyalty. A broken pact can hope to rise again if, and as long as, the one who betrayed believes that the other side is still faithful, hoping that on the other end of the rope that I have let go and that binds us there is still a strong hand holding on. Everything ends when there is no longer anyone on the other end of the rope - or when we believe that there no longer is. In the Bible, faith in God is the hope that somewhere in the heavens there is a solid rock that does not make us sink into our own infidelities. Hence, the most beautiful prayer that can arise from a crisis of faith and of our primary relationships: «You, at least you, do not give up; resist, continue to believe in the pact that I, due to my own fragility or fault, have not been able to keep. Be faithful also for me». In Latin, the word for rope, faith and trust is same word: fides.

«In the first year of Darius son of Xerxes (...) I, Daniel, understood from the Scriptures, according to the word of the Lord given to Jeremiah the prophet, that the desolation of Jerusalem would last seventy years» (Daniel 9,1-2). Jeremiah, a prophet who lived on the eve of the Babylonian exile now enters the Book of Daniel, Jeremiah who had prophesied: «This whole country will become a desolate wasteland, and these nations will serve the king of Babylon seventy years» (Jeremiah 25,11). A lasting prophecy that has given both ancient and modern rabbis and exegetes plenty of work. At this point on the story, we find ourselves more or less within the seventy years prophesied by Jeremiah if we start counting the years of exile from the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem (587) and establish its end with the rebuilding of the temple (516). However - and this was the most important issue to the prophets - when the author of the Book of Daniel wrote (2nd century BC) his people were living in yet another "exile" while asking themselves: until when? In order to keep hope alive, it was not enough to remember the truth of the end of the first exile of Babylon, it was necessary for the end of that great exile to become a security deposit for the end of the oppression of Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Because when you experience a great crisis, the memories of the liberations of the past only increase the suffering of the present, unless that ancient history can become a resource to be used for being reborn now. No remembered past is able to save you if it does not also become a resource to free the present while generating a good future. Without this past-present-future dynamic, with its focus on the present, we cannot hope to understand either prophecy or the Bible. Hence Daniel's question: what does that ancient prophecy of Jeremiah say to us about the end of exile while we continue hoping in another exile, awaiting a liberation that does not come?

This question creates the setting for Daniel's great prayer, one of the most beautiful and profound passages in his book. First, however, Daniel also gives us a teaching on the preparation for prayer: «So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes. I prayed to the Lord my God and confessed» (Daniel 9,3-4). First of all, I turned: I turned my face to the Lord. I directed my eyes, looking beyond myself, perhaps towards Jerusalem. To pray is to change your view, your gaze; it is to learn to look in a different way. Biblical prayer does not begin by looking within in search of one's true self or one's profound interiority - a search that is often in vain because it does nothing but increase the self that one would like to reduce: this is also the transcendence of the biblical God. Instead, one prepares for prayer by looking outside, by looking for something else. We do not start by closing our eyes, but opening them to look outside ourselves and further away. Biblical prayer is extroverted, it is an overturning of the indigent soul in search of a light that comes from the outside and then disappears leaving us again like beggars of heaven and light. We should thank the Bible every day for safeguarding this infinite gaze and this eyeline on a deeper kind of horizon, after being emptied of our material and spiritual idols, which on a different day, made it possible for us to see the infinite within a tomb that was once again empty.

Hence turn «in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes» (Daniel 9,3). After the eyes, the whole body turns - gaze itself is already a body. Prayer is an integral experience, it is an anthropological posture, the "mouth" of prayer in fact is the whole body. Fasting and ashes are not just signs of penance and repentance; they are also and above all time (fasting) and space (clothing), the two fundamental dimensions of life. However, we have forgotten these notes of biblical humanism and hence, we have forgotten prayer. Words only come at the end, as an epiphany of a flesh-spirit: «Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love (...) we have sinned and done wrong. We have been wicked and have rebelled (...)  We have not listened to your servants the prophets (...) Lord, you are righteous, but this day we are covered with shame» (Daniel 9,4-7). The people's misfortune is the just punishment for infidelity, the penalty for having betrayed the covenant transmitted by the prophets: therefore, the punishment is justified and well deserved. This is an example of so-called "retributive theology": the things that happen to us are nothing but the just consequence of our actions. God is righteous, and we are punished because he is righteous. A very common view of religion in ancient times, which we also find in part of the soul of the Bible. This (elementary) kind of theology, however, experienced an innovation in the Bible that became a resource for not making punishment eternal: since God is merciful and faithful to his covenant, if we repent, God will redeem us. By linking himself to the people with a pact of reciprocity, God in fact limited his freedom as he cannot but forgive us if we sincerely repent. Perhaps this faith in YHWH's eternal fidelity is one of the aspects of the Bible that still surprises and moves us to this day.

However, retributive theology had (among others) a great empirical limitation: how do you explain the continuation of exile and suffering despite the sincere repentance of the people? The simplest, but also the most banal way was to convince oneself that repentance had not been sincere. We continue to be the sinners we have always been and therefore God continues to punish us. This shortcut always works, because a definitive exit from sin is not part of the human repertoire and sins are always everywhere. The path of imperfect conversion is as easy as it is perverse. It is a dissipative and degenerative management of religion because, while feeding on an always abundant and cheap source of energy (faults), it always finds a justification for its misfortunes, but never the resources to get out of it. Another effective way could be the abandonment of retributive theology, which we find in some prophetic and wisdom literature (Job) as well as in the Gospels (less so in the Christian tradition).

Eschatological and apocalyptic theology found a new solution to non-ending misfortune. Once again, the angel Gabriel is the one who reveals it to Daniel. This time, however, the angel-interpreter does not explain a vision or a dream; instead, he offers an intuition, delivering a speech. In the Bible, the word in Scripture is also binding for the words of angels: they can explain it but they cannot change it. This is also the root of the superiority of the biblical word over the private visions of mystics, however holy a person is and however extraordinary his visions-revelations are, the infallible test is their consistency with Scripture. The word "YHWH" is used only once in the Book of Daniel, in this chapter in fact (v. 2), to certify the words of Jeremiah, perhaps telling us that: "As for my visions, I hope it was God who sent them to me, but I have no doubt that the true God is at the origin of the word of the prophets". The Bible's esteem for the prophets is immense.

The conclusion of the prayer is marvelous: «Lord, listen! Lord, forgive! Lord, hear and act! For your sake, my God, do not delay, because your city and your people bear your Name» (Daniel 9,19). We find a constant of biblical prayer in this particular prayer: «for your sake», or «for the sake of your name». An expression that I love exceedingly, because it also reveals something intimate about human life. In order to start over again after a relationship fails, the greatest hope lies in the other party’s "name". One day, after much suffering, when we meet again and look into each other's eyes, "remember yourself" are the first words we should repeat to each other – and then try to rise again together.

«While I was speaking and praying (...) Gabriel, the man I had seen in the earlier vision, came to me in swift flight (…) and said to me, “Daniel, I have now come to give you insight and understanding (…) Seventy ‘sevens’ are decreed for your people and your holy city to finish transgression, to put an end to sin, to atone for wickedness, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the Most Holy Place“» (Daniel 9,20-24). Gabriel is the first angel described in the act of flying. He explains to Daniel that Jeremiah's seventy years should be interpreted as seventy weeks, that is, 490 years. In order to make sense of a persecution and injustice that lasted well beyond the seventy years of the Babylonian exile, the angel does not in fact change the words of Jeremiah but interprets them (with creativity). Telling us that eternal justice has not yet arrived but that it will, soon (the 490 years were about to be fulfilled during Daniel's time). Hence, all the suffering for being faithful and just is not wasted, because the Kingdom of heaven will come and the Son of man will redeem every drop of truth and love. Our story of pain will have its Goel, the earth will see the promise come true. It is the hope of the yet-to-be that protects biblical humanism from the great illusion.

The persecution by Antiochus IV in Daniel's time ended, but then came that of the Romans who violated and destroyed the temple. Then Jesus came, but even in the time of the Church, the persecutions and injustices have never ended. 490 years have passed many times over but sins are yet to be put to an end and "sealed" and that Kingdom of "eternal justice" still seems a long way off.

The Bible has kept hope alive by not closing the door to a different future. It has kept it open for three millennia, resisting the strong headwinds of history and the wind of vanitas of our hearts that would like to stop believing, hoping and loving when the seventy weeks of years never seem to end: «And now these three remain: faith, hope and love» (1 Corinthians 13,13).

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