Officially Sanctioned Catholic Kabbalah?

If there is any popular association for the term “Kabbalah,” then it is most likely with Madonna, Ashton Kutcher, Lindsey Lohan, and the star-studded craze of the 2000’s. The international self-help (and merchandising) group known as the Kabbalah Centre courted these celebrity endorsements to help sell merchandise and peddle vague New Age nostrums. Or, for those familiar with 90’s anime, Neon Genesis Evangelion (recently re-released on Netflix) may be the only reference point for Kabbalistic imagery such as the Sephiroth. The eclectic and often arbitrary nature of popular appropriations partly explains why even intellectual historians tend to downplay or omit this manifold of Jewish exegetical, philosophical, and theological discourses and practices.

Through painstaking research, scholars of Kabbalah have been overcoming these prejudices by cataloguing and contextualizing texts like the Sefer ha-Bahir, the Sefer Yetzirah, and the Zohar. For the traditional student of these overwhelming and enigmatic works the process is as much one of prayer and devotion as it is of scholarship and linguistic ability. The goal of true Kabbalah is insight into the divine realities, union with the divine life, and the restoration of all things in Creation, not cheap self-help gimmicks or even general mental health. It is my goal to introduce you to four Catholic Kabbalists from the Renaissance and propose the continued relevance of Kabbalah for Catholic theology. Before we can do that a (very) short history of Kabbalah, a quick look at three of its defining symbols and concepts, and an overview of its modern reception is in order.

Scholars usually locate the emergence of Kabbalah, which simply means “what is received” or “tradition,” in Spain and France during the 12th and 13th centuries. While it was undeniably a novel and innovative form of mysticism and theology, it was also the development of exegetical themes and tendencies that far predate this period. In particular, there are organic relations between the medieval flowering of Kabbalah and traditional rabbinic mystical exegesis relating to the creation narrative (ma’aseh bereshit) and visionary narratives like those in Ezekiel 1 (ma’aseh merkabah). Expanding on these readings, the Kabbalists “attempted to penetrate and even describe the mystery of the world as a reflection of the mysteries of divine life.”[1]

The Sefirothic figure is the most evocative and widespread symbol of the union between creaturely existence and divine life. Often depicted as a tree with ten branches or nodes, it conveys (depending on which Kabbalistic school does the interpreting) the names and attributes of God, the emergence of Creation from the Godhead, intradivine theogonic processes and potencies, or, all of the above. The Sephirothic symbol created a structural space for discussing mysteries that pre-existed the world and how those mysteries keep the world in being. This allowed for maximal, one might even say incarnational, understanding of God’s presence in Torah and the commandments. In what sounds like a retelling of the prologue of John’s gospel, R. Menahem Recanati taught that “God is accordingly not something transcending the Torah, the Torah is not outside of God and He is not outside of the Torah, and that is why the sages of the Kabbalah were justified in saying that the Holy One, blessed be He, is Himself the Torah.”[2] R. Isaac the Blind and Nahmanides describe the Torah as “black fire written on white fire” insisting on the mystical reality of the words and even punctuation as being part of divinity being made corporeal. Many Kabbalists also held the literal and mystical meanings of the Torah in a fourfold schema. This is officially taught in the Zohar, but even Jewish scholars such as Wilhelm Bacher and Gersom Scholem find it impossible to deny the Christian influence here. The complement to this maximalist view was the theosophical belief among many Kabbalists that the performance of the commandments, prayer, and exegesis, restored harmony on earth, and in the Sefirotic pleroma. As one early Kabbalistic text puts it:

Even if the facilities [of the Temple] have been destroyed, there remained for Israel the great name in lieu of the sacrifices, to cleave to it in holy places, and the righteous and pious men, and those who practice mental concentration and unify the great name, they also stir the fire on the altar of their hearts. [Thereby] all the Sefirot will then be unified in its [Israel's] pure thought and will be linked to each other until they are drawn [up] to the source of the endlessly sublime flame. And this is the secret that all Israel is cleaving to God, blessed be he.[3]

The Torah, in its mystical fullness, was sometimes identified with the last (or last two) of the ten Sefirot. This point, where divine descent meets creaturely ascent in contemplation, exegesis, and ritual, was called Shekhinah. The word shekhinah was used in mainstream rabbinic literature to refer to the indwelling glory of God in the pillar of cloud, tabernacle, and temple. In Kabbalistic readings, it became a much more hypostasized and primarily female symbol. She is the manifestation of God in the Torah as the mystical pardes ha-Torah (the garden of the Torah); and she is also the manifestation of God in the divinely ordained structures of the tabernacle and temple, as well as the unity of the congregation of faithful Israel. She is variously displayed as God’s spouse, sister, mother, and daughter. These multiple functions and roles at times sound very similar to certain strands of Catholic Mariology and ecclesiology. More than one scholar has explored how the Kabbalistic Shekinah may have been influenced by the Marian theology of the 13th century, especially with respect to exegeses of the Song of Songs.[4]

As mentioned above, the Creation narrative was extremely important for Kabbalists. The Sefirot was drawn in part from the enormous role played by the tree of life. Another phrase that caught the attention of the Kabbalists was the revelation that man and woman are made in the image of God. This was not reducible in their eyes to a simple identification with human rationality or even human creativity. To their minds, this text opened a window into the mystery that God desires to be corporeal and that our corporeality is rooted in the divine. Since one of the favored exegetical techniques of the Kabbalists was gematria (the practice of investigating the numerical value of letters for hidden meanings) the fact that the numerical value of Adam and the Tetragrammaton were identical (45) only added to the significance of this topic. Adam Kadmon was the name of this figure who was both the primordial human and the Sefirot. It was a daringly mythical and anthropomorphic move to make. In these mythic theologies, the Adam Kadmon has been wounded and must be repaired through adherence to the Torah and commandments to usher in the future paradise. Again, the resonances (though not parallels.) with aspects of Christianity are striking. St. Paul’s Christology prominently features Christ as the God-man who is the New Adam and also the mystical body which will contain the fullness of the universe.

The modern establishment of Kabbalistic studies as a rigorous field of inquiry by Gershom Scholem, Moshe Idel, Michael Fishbane, Elliot Wolfson, has made authentic Kabbalah accessible to non-Hebrew speakers and has done much for its scholarly reputation. Additionally, the work of excellent intellectual historians attentive to the esoteric dimensions of Western thought like Frances Yates, Brian Copenhaver, François Secret, Sarah Hutton, Allison Coudert, and Antoine Faivre, have opened the door for more of modern philosophy to be understood in relation to Kabbalistic ideas.

The German Romantics and the Cambridge Platonists are the two philosophical movements with clear debts to the Kabbalistic tradition. Schelling, Schlegel, and Anne Conway are among the few modern philosophers that speak explicitly of Kabbalistic topics in their philosophies of nature[5] and language. Yet even philosophers considered to be more in a rationalist bent, like Leibniz[6] and Spinoza,[7] are now being reconsidered with respect to these sources and influences.

Modern theology has also made use of Kabbalah, though this role is usually ignored or suppressed in histories of theology and theologians. It is foolish to avoid these ties, especially when religious scholars like Michael Fishbane are using Kabbalah to reflect on questions of fundamental theology like the relation of myth, divine revelation, and biblical exegesis.[8] The opportunity to build more bridges between religious studies and theology departments is open if we allow ourselves to examine our own tradition without blinders.

Vladimir Solovyov, Sergei Bulgakov, and Pavel Florensky, the three giants of speculative Russian religious thought, were very interested in Kabbalah and how it related to Orthodox theology. In England, contemporary theologian John Milbank has pointed to the Christian reception of the Kabbalah as a highly creative and promising moment in the history of theology, which we are only now beginning to redeem. Milbank also calls the work of exegete-poet-theologian Olivier-Thomas Venard O.P. a masterwork of “Thomistic Kabbalah.” His attention to these resonances in Venard’s work is matched by Notre Dame’s Cyril O’Regan who applauds Venard’s “extraordinary reflections which recurs to Adamic language and Jewish reflections on this language in the Kabbalah.”[9]

But the story of Kabblah and Catholic theology goes back much further. And none other than Hans Urs Von Balthasar praised the Catholic engagement with Kabbalah  during the Renaissance saying:

Among those who later endeavored to understand these teachings was Reuchlin in Germany, Ficino and especially Pico della Mirandola in Italy, whilst the extraordinary Cardinal Giles of Viterbo wanted to explain the Holy Scripture with the help of the Cabbala . . . Enjoined by Pope Clement VII, this zealous, reform-hungry Cardinal wrote his ebullient dissertation on the “Shekinah” . . . Here the important point is that although this penetration into the secret teachings of pagan and Jewish origin was pursued in the spirit of humanism, in the hope of bringing new life into rigidified Christian theology through collecting such scattered revelation and illumination, no one for a moment doubted that despite the disparities everything could be accommodated into the true Christian faith. That Pico, in particular, did not aim at syncretism, he himself made quite clear: “I bear on my brow the name Jesus Christ and would die gladly for the faith in him. I am neither a magician nor a Jew, nor an Ishmaelite nor a heretic. It is Jesus whom I worship, and his cross I bear on my body.”[10]

1. Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494)

Balthasar was right to single out Pico della Mirandola because with him the Catholic reception of Kabbalah began in earnest. The absence of any substantial interest in Renaissance philosophy within the Anglo-American world is yet another reason why the story of Catholic Kabbalah has remained in the dark for so long. Renaissance philosophy was not a recognized period in the standard histories of philosophy and it was commonly set aside without much notice on this side of the Atlantic until the efforts of Paul Oskar Kristeller and Ernst Cassirer made it impossible to ignore completely. Like the paradigmatic sages of late antique Neoplatonism, another disparaged intellectual period, the central figures of Renaissance philosophy are still often disparaged as eclectic, syncretic, perversely opaque, and embarrassingly religious. The great modern French theologian, Henri de Lubac, spent some of the last years of his life writing a major study on Pico della Mirandola. The lack of an English translation of this volume to this day constitutes yet another embarrassing evidence of Anglophone biases of even our theological discourse.[11]

Pico had an omnivorous desire for wisdom and his researches into the Hebrew language, rabbinic exegesis, and Kabbalah were always meant as supplements and new terrain for the existing Catholic intellectual tradition. His mind traversed the sum of available human knowledge including Egyptian, Chaldean, Arabic, Platonic, Aristotelian, and Scholastic sources. His humanism was not weaponized against metaphysics or speculative theology seeking instead to synthesize the most precious insights of the rhetoricians, linguists, grammarians, logicians, and philosophers, and sages into a truly divine wisdom. Because he spoke fervently and eloquently concerning human dignity and the sapiential dimension of Christian life, some have mischaracterized him as a precursor to secular humanism or even suggested that he was guilty of a most un-Christian lust for forbidden knowledge.

This mischaracterization is also due, undoubtedly, to an unfortunate series of events that involved Pope Innocent VIII cancelling Pico’s planned public defense of his work in Rome. The famous Oration on the Dignity of Man was meant by Pico as a preface to 900 theses he wished to defend drawn from the full breadth of his studies. Pico had with equal parts filial piety and intellectual fervor gone to Rome to defend his Conclusiones nongentae only to be cut off and later censured for writing an Apologia. Always a son of the Church, he made the required retractions of his work and even of the Apologia which he had written to defend it. The last period of his short life (he died at 31) was spent as a friend and follower of the charismatic and eschatologically inclined preacher Girolamo Savonarola.

After obtaining an invitation to Florence for his Savonarola, Pico finished his Heptaplus (1489), a hermeneutic masterwork on the seven days of Creation which presented his full range of Neoplatonic, Kabbalistic, and of course patristic and Scholastic approaches. This work was not done in vain as Pico was at least given the consolation of living long enough to see Pope Alexander VI remove all censures and condemnations from his name in 1493.

Pico saw the Kabbalistic teachings (especially those of the Zohar) as manifestly open to Christian interpretation. He says in the Oration on the Dignity of Man that reading Kabbalistic books:

There was to be found the mystery of the Trinity, the Incarnation of the Word, the divinity of the Messiah; there one might also read of original sin, of its expiation by Christ, of the heavenly Jerusalem, of the fall of the demons, of the orders of the angels, of the pains of purgatory and of hell.

That this was not simply idiosyncrasy on his point can be deduced from the warnings of some rabbis at the time that Kabbalah should be avoided as a kind of disguised Christianity. It seems that there was a limited number of converts from Judaism to Christianity based on Christian Kabbalist arguments. Pico himself relates one such account in his writings. Pico was the fountainhead of seeing analogues of Christian doctrine in Kabbalistic writings and was the first to identify the three topmost Sefirot with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. His interest, however, was not simply speculative as he was a prominent adherent of the Renaissance tradition of natural magic. Unlike the practitioners of goetia which seeks to invoke demons and perform other unsavory activities, Pico (and many other Christian Renaissance magoi) sought to enter the interconnected harmonies of the natural and supernatural world in a spirit of piety. Pico thought that practical Kabbalah was a welcome addition and improvement on other systems of Christian natural magic (like Ficino’s). Also in a practical vein, Pico drew on concrete Kabbalistic practices of prayer in order to seek affective union with God; and as Christian Neoplatonist he noted parallels between the ecstatic “death by kiss” in mystical erotic union described by R. Menahem Recanti and the same concept in Platonic literature.[12]

Some scholars have hastily suggested that Pico’s project was dead on arrival as the turn to a purely historical-grammatical hermeneutic among Renaissance scholars was already making the symbolic and spiritual interpretations of the Bible anachronistic. This narrative is simply wrong. The influence of Pico and Christian Kabbalah would continue to influence friars, bishops, cardinals, popes, and even one martyr throughout the 16th century—and the brilliant Quaker student of the Cambridge Platonists, Anne Conway, continued to use Kabbalistic exegesis to demonstrate the dogma of the Trinity even in the 17th century.

2. Johann Reuchlin (1455-1522)

Johann Reuchlin, a German aristocrat and scholar of international fame, became the immediate heir to Pico’s Kabbalistic researches after meeting him during a trip to Italy in 1490. He was at the forefront of philological research, biblical translation, and preaching reform, and developed many resources for studying Hebrew and its grammar. His desires for reform, research, and speculation were inextricably tied. His advocacy for the Hebrew language went hand in hand with understanding Jewish rabbinical traditions as well as the more exotic forms of Kabbalah.

This was no mere academic exercise for Reuchlin, and when the Dominicans of the University of Cologne began to confiscate and burn Hebrew texts he felt obliged to oppose them. This decision made him many powerful enemies and damaged him financially. It was years before the papal court and the international community of fellow scholars combined to clear his name from the condemnations of German inquisitors. Pope Leo X asked the Franciscan friar Pietro Galatino, another brilliant Orientalist and theologian, to write a public defense of Reuchlin.

Galatino produced a masterful apology for Reuchlin and his Catholic use of Kabbalah called De Arcanis Catholicae Veritatis (1516). Pope Paul III would later decree that this and all of Galatino’s works (who was among other things a fierce proponent of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception) be preserved in the convent of Santa Maria in Ara Coeli. These events fly in the face of any historical narrative which asserts that Pico and his Kabbalistic interests fell on fallow ground and bore no fruit. Reuchlin made careful researches into the available Kabbalistic texts and produced two works on how they might be used by Christians: De Verbo Mirifico (1494) and De Arte Cabbalistica (1517).

Reuchlin shared Pico’s enthusiasm for the Kabbalah (particularly the Zohar) as a tool for evangelization. He was also convinced that the primary Catholic dogmas could be demonstrated from these texts and continued the reading of the name of Jesus as the Tetragrammaton made visible through the interpolation of the letter Shin in the center. This pentagrammaton was the “wonder-working Word,” which was the subject of his fictional dialogue between a pagan, a Jew, and Christian on holy names. Again like Pico, he thought that the discovery of the most divine name of Jesus was more than just correct knowledge—it was an efficacious power.

Elliot Wolfson, one of the leading contemporary scholars of Kabbalah, has recently brought more attention to Reuchlin’s work and argued that, despite the obvious points of departure that come from transposing a Jewish discourse into a Christian idiom, Reuchlin was an assiduous, respectful, and insightful student of these traditions. Not only this, but Wolfson demonstrates that Pico and Reuchlin were not cherry-picking hermeneutic strategies from Kabbalah, they were embracing the full significance of religious ritual as theurgy.[13]

The significance of this deep appreciation for the realism of symbolic forms and participation in the divine should not be lost on us. Protestants like Oecolampadius, Zwingli (who after an initial fascination with him left Pico behind), and even sometimes Catholics like Erasmus would in this century make vigorous objections to the role, significance, and efficacy of pilgrimages, veneration of saints, icons, and relics. Some of these Protestants would soon radicalize this suspicion of material participation to exclude the reality of the divine presence even in the sacraments proper. The Catholic theologians who were open to Kabbalah (and other theurgic discourses like Neoplatonism) had more motivation and deeper resources to defend a sacramental and incarnational realism for religious symbols and rituals.

3. Giles of Viterbo (1455-1532)

One of Reuchlin’s most distinguished correspondents, and fellow admirer of Pico’s Catholic Kabbalism, was Cardinal Giles of Viterbo. As a member of the highest echelons of the ecclesial hierarchy, Giles was in a position of great influence for reform and research. As a gifted linguist, Giles worked furiously to read and translate every extant Hebrew text he could get his hands on. Talmud, Midrash, and Kabbalah were his constant intellectual diet; and, like Reuchlin, he attempted to protect the Hebrew texts from destruction and Jewish communities from persecution.

In 1531, he (with another cardinal Geronimo de Ghirucci) tried without success to protect the Spanish Marranos from the Inquisition. He did, however, manage to provide a home for the Jewish grammarian Elijah Levita and his family in his own palace for a decade. Their intellectual friendship was immensely fruitful. Giles learned Hebrew, Aramaic, mystical and Kabbalistic secrets. Elijah learned Greek and classical texts. Because of his friendship with Elijah and other teachers, Giles had a firsthand knowledge of the Zohar and other mystical texts. This access, combined with his means and scholarly zeal, led to a prodigious library and impressive productive output.

According to intellectual historian John W. O’Malley, Giles’s work in combining Kabbalah into a genuine synthesis with Christian theology “far outstripped the accomplishments of Pico and Reuchlin.”[14] Amazingly, Giles was able to combine pastoral urgency, concern for reform, and scholarly acumen during his time as a bishop and later cardinal. His more exotic researches did not lead him into contempt for more traditional modes of theology and he even wrote a commentary on Peter Lombard’s Sentences (the time-honored ritual of passage for all theology students). He did, of course, creatively read this traditional work ad mentem Platonis bringing to bear his friendship with Marsilio Ficino and love for Neoplatonic philosophy.

Unfortunately, though we have a voluminous wealth of his manuscripts, only a few of his works have been edited for publication. One of these is simply titled Shekinah, and it is the crown jewel of his corpus. In this text, which has been called his swan-song, Giles writes in the first-person as the Shekinah—the enigmatic and fascinating female manifestation of divine glory described in many Kabbalistic texts—and promises to lead the reader through a labyrinth into holy mysteries.[15] This summation of his experience with Jewish lore was commissioned by none other than the reigning pope, Clement VII, and dedicated to the reigning emperor, Charles V.

Giles’s treatment of the figure of the Shekhinah has no parallel in Pico or Reuchlin. In fact, he is the first Christian Kabbalist to engage substantively with this symbol. This is extremely important as it demonstrates that Kabbalah was not simply something to be decoded into already perfectly understood Christian dogmas. It could also be a positive resource for creatively rethinking and developing the tradition:

Egidio was remarkable for the degree to which he subsumed Mary, as both mother and bride of Christ, into the Kabbalistic category of the Shekinah . . . it seems quite likely that we have come across an important innovation of Egidio’s kabbalistic system . . . This, of course, is not in any way to suggest that Egidio da Viterbo became through the Kabbalah any less pious or committed a Christian, but it does show how this encounter could lead, in prominent, albeit rare cases, to new exegetical and theological frameworks for important aspects of Christianity.[16]

Fewer than 50 years had passed from Pico’s authorship of the Heptaplus in exile to the writing of Giles’s Shekinah. The ecclesial and political hierarchies moved from suspicion and outright hostility toward Catholic Kabbalah to curiosity and encouragement in a miraculously short amount of time. Not only were these traditions no longer censured, they were public theology at the papal and imperial court.

4. John Fisher (1469-1535)

The last figure in our brief survey of the major Catholic Kabbalists of the 15th and 16th centuries is by far the most well-known. His fame does not, however, derive from this little known aspect of his theological writings. As the slaughtered bishop-martyr of Rochester, St. John Fisher holds a dear place in the canon of saints and is seen along with Thomas More as a patron of religious freedom by the bishops of the United States. St. Charles Borremeo held him in such high esteem that he venerated an image of him alongside St. Ambrose of Milan in his room.[17]

But now, apart from his defense of papal primacy, his theology is scarcely known and his interest in Pico, Reuchlin, and Catholic Kabbalah seems to have evaded detection entirely. Nevertheless, in a polemical sermon against Martin Luther, St. John Fisher is the first to use the English-usage term “Cabala.”[18] While it was only later in life that he learned Greek and some Hebrew, he took to the languages with child-like joy. He was helped in this by his friend Erasmus, with whom he corresponded frequently.

There was, however, a fundamental difference in the shape and character of their respective theological humanisms. Erasmus desired a spiritual and intellectual philosophia Christi by which he meant an emphasis on morals, learning, and interior devotion. Any biblical hermeneutic beyond a strict historical-grammatical approach or a cool and controlled allegorical one raised his suspicions. John Fisher’s outlook was a much wilder and less anthropocentric horizon of theological possibility.

He was, unlike fellow martyr Thomas More, a fervent supporter of the strange prophetess known as the Holy Maid of Kent. Neither did he shy away from the exotic intellectual terrain and symbolic realism of the Catholic Kabbalists. While Erasmus was a great admirer of Reuchlin’s linguistic researches, as far as Kabbalah was concerned he, like the disaffected Hamlet, saw only “words, words, words.” Saint John Fisher on the other hand, saw Reuchlin primarily as the heir to Pico and part of the project of synthesizing scholastic, humanist, and mystical learning. In one letter to Erasmus, Fisher wrote that Reuchlin’s “scholarship delights me so hugely that in my reckoning no man alive comes closer to Pico.”[19] In another he wrote that, with respect to knowledge of the arcana, Reuchlin “seems to me, in comparison with everyone else whose works I have read so far, to be the best man alive today.”[20]  

Unlike Pico, Reuchlin, and Giles, Fisher never wrote a volume on Christian Kabbalah and did not expand its horizons. He was content to follow the paths of others into the arcana, including, as we have mentioned before the linguistic technique of interpolating the letter shin into the unpronounceable YHWH to reveal the pronounceable name of Jesus. Presumably, Erasmus’s contempt for Catholic Kabbalah—“I would rather have Christ mixed up with Scotus than with that rubbish of theirs”[21]—was the reason why when Reuchlin sent a personal copy of his De Arte Cabalistica to Fisher via Erasmus, the bishop of Rochester had to wait more than three months to receive it. Fisher’s support of charismatic and eschatological figures like the Maid of Kent and Savonarola notwithstanding, the bishop of Rochester also applied himself to practical matters with great success.

Unlike us, he saw no contradiction between a devotion to mysticism, speculative theology, and taking an active role in human affairs. Awarded a lifelong tenure as chancellor of Cambridge (as uncommon at that time as now), he wasted no time in funneling resources to the college in order to expand the number of chairs in theology and in sacred languages. The establishment of a chair in Hebrew was uncommon and no doubt due in part to his respect for Kabbalah. As with all of the Catholic Kabbalists, Fisher presumed the goodness of the Scholastic model of university theology and did not vilify it as an obstacle to wisdom.


The point of all of this is not to satisfy idle historical curiosity. The purpose for which genealogies are meant is intervention in the contemporary moment. History should be used to marshal forgotten resources and try alternative paths in the present. We will not know the full value of Kabbalah for Catholic theology until after we commit to a more extensive engagement. However, the most obvious areas of interest are in the theology of revelation and theology of nature. Gersom Scholem, Elliot Wolfson, and Michael Fishbane have been very attentive to the Kabbalistic approach to tradition and revelation. Specifically, they have highlighted the significant role human social-symbolic participation in “receiving” the divine word. The fertile dynamism of Kabbalistic exegesis brings the full significance of human creativity to bear.

As Balthasar mentioned, the Catholic Kabbalists of the 14th and 15th century did not seek Kabbalistic erudition to compose a perverse menagerie of exotic tidbits. They were seeking to breathe new life into theology and religious practice that had become in many ways moribund. And when these discourses resurfaced among Lutherans and Catholics in the 18th and 19th century it was for the same purpose. The Catholic mystic, philosopher, and theologian Franz von Baader (1765-1841) framed this primary motivation quite succinctly:

I should like to draw your attention to the two causes of the stagnation which has struck speculative theology for a long time: the first is the contempt for the efforts and results of the theory known as mysticism, especially during the 14th and 15th centuries; and the second is the contempt for philosophy of religion, or, if you wish, for Jewish mysticism (that is to say the Cabala). I find it all the more necessary to dwell on the first of these two causes of the decadence of philosophy of religion, as my own vocation and personal goal is to reintroduce the forgotten or despised works of this old theory into modern philosophy.[22]

It is impossible that the divine life of God in the sacraments of the Church could ever be negated by any human opposition. Ice cannot block out the sun, but entire expanses of earth can become frozen and uninhabitable tundra. It is the task of theology to use every resource at hand to chip away, uncover, and thaw out the soil beneath the wasteland to make it as receptive as possible to grace. Where there are seemingly impenetrable bands of intellectual and imaginative resistance, we must be more fervent and more creative. As John Milbank has seen so clearly, it is when the Word of God is made strange to us (and not simply absurd) that we can wonder and see divine things as the saving mysteries that they always were.

But, even if some (or most) are unconvinced that our theology of revelation requires fresh resources, it would be hard for anyone to maintain that we have an adequate theology of nature. In our present moment, we seem unable to resolve massive ecological and economic crises. Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si reminds us that at the root of political economy and ecology there are fundamentally philosophical and theological questions. The reduction of nature to standing-reserve and the posture of science as a dominating instrumental rationality are problems deeply rooted in the Western psyche, particularly after the Enlightenment. The integrity of nature as more than standing-reserve cannot be maintained without locating its significance in something more than a concatenation of haphazardly juxtaposed efficient causes.

Interestingly, historian of science Carolyn Merchant, in her 1980 book Death of Nature, saw Anne Conway’s Kabbalistic philosophy as proposing a more organic model of the world. In a similar vein, Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s late turn to Schelling (one of the most explicit borrowers of Kabbalah) was also motivated by the search for a richer philosophy of nature. If non-theologians are turning to theological and mystical sources in order to meet the problems of the age, Catholics should be more ready than anyone to have those discussions.

The concepts and symbols of the Sefirot and the Shekhinah foreground the nuptial intimacy between the Creator and the creation and allow our interaction with the natural world to be far richer and more complicated than that of a subject harnessing an object for use. Instead of assuming that nature is a dead mechanism or that language is simply an instrumental tool, we could take up Kabbalah as one way to contest the demythologization of nature, language, and ritual.

It also gives Catholics a chance to go further in our ecumenical conversation on several fronts. Toward Judaism, it opens up a conversation about of the influence of Christianity on medieval Kabbalah and the resulting counter-influence on Christianity. The Catholic scholar Franics X. Martin once related what a Rabbi told him about Giles of Viterbo:

He tried to penetrate into the riches of Jewish religion, of the chosen people. And he went a great distance in his understanding. But the Reformation and the Council of Trent reversed all that progress. You Christians have withdrawn to mutually hostile and embattled positions. Forget your squabbles! Bury your common enmities. Turn again to what Giles of Viterbo was investigating, the common ground between the chosen people and the early Christians.

With the Eastern Orthodox, Kabbalah allows us to open a critical conversation about Sophiology. Among the admirers of Solovyov, Bulgakov, and Florensky, not only can we talk about how von Balthasar drew on Russian Sophiologists, but how there are Western origins of Sophiology in Catholic Kabbalah and 19th century German Romanticism. These are ways to move past facile canards about a rationalist West and a mystical East. In every direction, it seems that Kabbalah holds out conversations we need to take up and territory we must explore.

The fertile symbolic exegesis of Scripture faded at the same time that our vision of nature became flat and sterile. They must be revivified together, or not at all. Far from being a naive plea for a return, championing an organic model of nature was for the Romantics, Anne Conway, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty a creative path through the mechanistic and atomistic tendencies of the Enlightenment, and a way forward. The possibility for creating an alternative modernity (rather than an alternative to modernity) gives this project an urgency for those of us joined to the kerygmatic witness of the one holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church.

[1] Gersom Scholem, On the Kabbalah and its Symbolism (Introduction).

[2] Ibid, 124.

[3] Moshe Idel, Kabbalah: New Perspectives, 53.

[4] See Arthur Green “Shekinah, the Virgin Mary, and the Song of Songs: Reflections on a Kabbalistic Symbol in its Historical Context” and Keter: The Crown of God in Early Jewish Mysticism.

[5] See Ernst Benz, The Mystical Sources of German Romantic Philosophy (Chap. 4 “The Cabalistic Sources of the Romantic Philosophy of Nature”).

[6] See Carolyn Merchant’s The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution (Chap. 11 “Anne Conway and Other Philosophical Feminists”).

[7] See Miquel Beltran’s The Influence of Abraham Cohen de Herrera’s Kabbalah on Spinoza’s Metaphysics.

[8] Michael Fishbane. Biblical Myth and Rabbinic Mythmaking.

[9] Cyril O’Regan Foreword to Olivier Thomas Venard’s The Poetic Christ.

[10] Afterword to Meditations on the Christian Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism by Anonymous.

[11] John Milbank is yet again the English exception to the rule and makes generous use of Henri de Lubac’s reading of Pico in The Suspended Middle.

[12] See the first Platonic epigram to Agathon in Diogenes Laertius’s Life of Plato.

[13] Elliot Wolfson, “Language, Secrecy, and the Mysteries of the Law: Theurgy and the Christian Kabbalah of Johannes Reuchlin” in Invoking Angels: Theurgic Ideas and Practices Thirteenth to Sixteenth Centuries ed. Claire Fanger

[14] John W. O’Malley, Giles of Viterbo on Church and Reform, 87

[15] Daniel Stein Kokin “Entering the Labyrinth: On the Hebraic and Kabbalistic Universe of Egidio da Viterbo.”

[16] Ibid.

[17] Stephen Thompson, “The bishop in his diocese” in Humanism, Reform, and the Reformation, ed. Eamon Duffy and Brendan Bradshaw

[18] See pp.88 and 121 of English Works of John Fisher Bishop of Rochester: Sermons and Other Writings ed. Cecilia A. Hatt.

[19] We only have this passage because Erasmus quotes Fisher in his own letter to Reuchlin. Erasmus to Reuchlin, Basle, August 1514.

[20] Fisher to Erasmus, Rochester, 30 June 1516.

[21] Erasmus to Wolfgang Capito, Louvain, 13 March 1518.

[22] Ernst Benz, The Mystical Sources of German Romantic Philosophy, 6

Featured Image: Taken by Giogo, St. John Fisher from the St. Thomas More window at St. Dunstan's, Canterbury, taken on 12 August 2018; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.


Andrew Kuiper

Andrew Kuiper usually writes about Christian theological appropriation of esoteric discourses and lives in Michigan with his wife and three children. His essays and poetry have been published in various magazines.

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