Tissot: Dimensions of a Vision

Belief in God is one thing. The kind of God in whom one believes or does not believe is quite another thing and often more to the point. What is belief in any case? For many, belief is the mental acceptance of something as true, even though absolute certainty may be absent. For others, belief is more a trust or confidence in the nature of God, the actual existence of God being for them a self-evident reality.

“God,” writes Hegel, “is the absolute spirit: In its non-mythical truth, it is the pure dialectical essence of all Being which objectifies itself in its own otherness, by means of which it returns eternally to itself; it maintains its identity in and through its non-absolute and finite manifestations.”

“God,” writes John, “is love, and whoever abides in love, abides in God, and God in him.”

For Hegel as philosopher, God is the Absolute: “Reason is the conscious certainty of being all reality,” he posits. “ . . . This unity is consequently the absolute and all truth, the Idea which thinks itself.”

For John as the beloved disciple, God is a personality, as exemplified in the words of the Christ Jesus in the gospel that he composed: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have ever-lasting life.”

To believe in the Idea that thinks itself, or to believe in the Person who gives of Self so that all other selves may live: surely there are implications as to which belief holds greater reality for the believer, even though one can certainly argue that the one view does not by any means cancel out the other. Having no feeling for the Personality of whom John speaks, however, can I see myself going to the wall for the Absolute, i.e., for “the Idea which thinks itself”?

To find a philosophical basis for the personality of God was the life-aim of Immanuel Hermann Fichte (1796 – 1879), whose anniversary of death, August 8, is today.  Son of the idealist philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte (“God is not the mere dead conception to which we have thus given utterance, but he is in himself pure Life”), he saw in Hegel’s pantheism a devaluing of human personality, leading to an inadequate recognition of the inner demand one can discover in oneself for the development of moral consciousness. To say with Hegel that God is the Absolute, he reasoned, is to say in effect really nothing at all about God. God is no abstraction, he held, but the most concrete reality there can possibly be in anyone’s life. God is an infinite Person who desires to realize himself in finite persons, which persons are objects of his love. If love is, or is to be, a reality in the world, there can be no love apart from the person who loves, the ultimate source of all love being the Person of God himself. 

Between every human person and that being we call God there is the higher being of that human person – the genius – which is the link between the infinite personality that is God and the finite personality that is the earthly human being. It is this genius that allows moral experience – through love – to be realized in interaction with others. For Fichte Christianity is not just about the salvation of the individual. For Fichte Christianity is about the salvation of the human personality in community, true community realized in freedom by human personalities through an experience of divine love.

Thus, for Fichte, it all comes down to the development of moral consciousness within each personality: “If we cannot live so as to be happy,’ he declared, “let us at least live so as to deserve it.”

Concrete theism is the term Fichte proposed for this philosophical approach to God. From a wider perpective, his concrete theism definitely belongs to the school of philosophy called personalism, a current of thinking that sees in the personality the central reality of all existence.

After experiencing a vision while visiting the church of Saint Sulpice, the bon vivant and society painter James Tissot (1836 – 1902), who also died on this date, must have been moved by an idea rather like this.

“A Catholic more by courtesy than by conviction”, he experienced this vision when the priest raised the host during the mass. Renewing his ties to the religion of his youth, he gave up his great success in Paris and London in the 1870s and 1880s, devoting himself henceforth to an ambitious project to illustrate the New Testament. These illustrations he set out to accomplish with utmost exactitude, enhancing his efforts considerably through photographs, notes, and sketches he made on expeditions to the Middle East in order to record the landscape and architecture, the costumes and customs of the Holy Land and its people.

This is from James Tissot: The life of Christ – The Complete Set of 350 Watercolors (Merrell, New York, n.d.) page 21.

“Tissot’s sojourns in Palestine allowed him to match an exacting attention to detail in the service of historical accuracy with a mystical process bordering on revelation, evocative of his Saint-Sulpice epiphany. At least two sources from the period indicate that the artist himself referred to his seeming eyewitness accounts of biblical events a ‘pencil reporting from the life of Christ,’ noting that Tissot viewed himself as ‘the reporter for an illustrated paper in Rome under Tiberius.’ Invoking the example of the German nun and stigmatic Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824) whose rapturous visions were proving immensely popular at the time, Tissot described his research voyages to Palestine in the following terms:

[I]t is in the Holy Land itself . . . that the mind is best attuned alike to receive and grasp the significance of every impression. . . . I felt that a certain receptivity was induced in my mind which so intensified my powers of intuition . . . I meditated on any special incident in its own particular sanctuary, and was thus brought into touch with the actual setting of every scene, the facts I was anxious to evoke were revealed to me. . . .

And we have the following words later on from the same book:

“Given the complex requirements of the undertaking, the cogency of Tissot’s narrative is nothing short of extraordinary, following the plotline of Christ’s life through the harmonized Gospels in a lucidly chronological and compelling fashion. . . .

“In addition to apocryphal literature, Tissot relied upon a wide range of literary sources to piece together The Life of Our Lord Jesus Christ. From the Church Fathers to the visions of the nineteenth-century German mystic Anne Catherine Emmerich, he incorporated voices both ancient and modern. Over the course of the narrative, he named more than seventy-five such sources, including both Christian and Jewish historians from the first several centuries. Although he was not a biblical scholar himself, the sheer bibliographical scope of Tissot’s citations was designed to demonstrate scholarly erudition.” (Ibid. p. 71)

Clearly Tissot was an artist, not a philosopher. Yet we can see in his single-hearted devotion to illustrating as accurately as possible the life of Christ a “concrete theism” of his very own, a personalism that, so to speak, experiences itself perceptually through form and color. The more we look at these pictures, the more we are able to see spirit in the person. The more we contemplate these pictures, the truer the words of Nicolai Berdyaev, the existential personalist, become:

“We cannot think of personality in biological, or psychological, or sociological terms. Personality is spiritual, and presupposes the existence of a spiritual world. The value of personality is a higher hierarchic value, value of the order of spirit. The basic item in a doctrine of personality is the fact that the value of personality predicates the existence of super-personal values. It is just these super-personal values that produce the value of personality. Personality is the bearer and the creator of super-personal values, and only this produces integrity, its unity and eternal significance. This is not to be understood as meaning that personality is not a value in itself, and is only a means to super-personal values. . . . This means that the existence of personality presupposes the existence of God; the value of personality presupposes the supreme value of God. If God does not exist, as the source of super-personality values, the personality is valueless, and there remains only the individual, subject to natural and racial life.

“Personality is primarily a moral principle; from it the attitude toward all values is determined. Hence the idea of personality is the basis of ethics. An impersonal ethic is ‘contradictio in adjecto’. . . . The center of moral life is in persons, not in relationships. . . . The unity and value of personality do not exist without a spiritual element. The spirit constitutes the personality, brings illumination and transfiguration of the biological individual, makes personality independent of the order of nature. . . . The spiritual element which constitutes personality does not mean a bloodless spiritualism. Only for personality do such things exist as the collision between good and evil or between differing values. Tragedy is always linked with personality, with the awakening and the wrestling of personality. Personality is created by the idea of God and the freedom of man. And the life of personality is not self-preservation, as is the case with the individual, but self-determination and self-development.” (The Destiny of Man: Harper & Brothers, New York, 1960, pp. 61-2)

Self-determination and self-development. At the heart of Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophy is the path of self-development leading to a transformation of the personality. This transformation has for its foundation the development of such inner qualities as clear thinking, inner tranquility, and positivity. His Philosophy of Freedom affirms the human personality in its potential as a spiritual being capable of self-determination through the practice of pure thinking.  “Each of us has it within himself to become a free spirit,’ he writes, “just as a rosebud has in it a rose.” Pure thinking is for Steiner, even as the human personality is in ordinary consciousness asleep to the spirit, the royal road of any personality to becoming illuminated in the spirit, i.e., to becoming a free spirit serving others in love for the ideal.

Martin Luther King Jr., also a personalist, has this to say in his essay “The Measure of a Man”:

“There are three dimensions of any complete life to which we can fitly give the words of this text: length, breadth, and height. The length of life as we shall think of it here is not its duration or its longevity, but it is the push of a life forward to achieve its personal ends and ambitions. It is the inward concern for one’s own welfare. The breadth of life is the outward concern for the welfare of others. The height of life is the upward reach for God.

“These are the three dimensions of life, and without the three being correlated, working harmoniously together, life is incomplete. Life is something of a great triangle. At one angle stands the individual person, at the other angle stands other persons, and at the top stands the Supreme, Infinite Person, God. These three must meet in every individual life if that life is to be complete.”

Or we could say that the three dimensions of the Divine, the three dimensions of the triune God, which dimensions are creator, redeemer, and sustainer, must meet in the consciousness of the personality if the personality is to be complete.

But there is work to be done if these three dimensions are to meet in us. If we cannot live so as to be happy, as Immanuel Fichte said, we can at least live so as to deserve it. The spirit may blow where it wills, but living so as to deserve the spirit, which is the same as to seek the spirit, actually bids the spirit come to us.

Today is the feast day of Saint Dominic (1170 — 1221), founder of the Order of Preachers, otherwise known as the Dominicans.

“A person who governs his passions is the master of the world,” he once said. “We must either rule them, or be ruled by them. It is better to be the hammer than the anvil. ”

Here is the length, the inward concern for one’s welfare. This is the Sustainer — or Holy Spirit.

Legend tells us that he gave away his money, that he sold his clothes, his furniture and even his precious manuscripts, in order that he might relieve the distress of the destitute. When his astonished companions asked why he would sell his books, Dominic replied: “Would you have me study off these dead skins, when people are dying of hunger?”

Here is the breadth, the outward concern for others. This is the Redeemer — or Son.

“Arm yourself with prayer rather than a sword; wear humility rather than fine clothes,” admonished Dominic. “I kept on digging the hole deeper and deeper looking for the treasure chest until I finally lifted my head, looked up and realized that I had dug my own grave,” he said.

Here is the height, the upward reach for God. This is the Creator — or Father.

This, dear Reader, is the human personality as free spirit: the living triune image, the true striving likeness, of God. This is the human personality in whom Holy Sophia, Daughter of God, delights.

Pax et bonum,
Randall Scott

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