Guidance for the Times of Ruins

Listening to Life/1 - Isaiah and the "first words" to love, believe and seek

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire  on 26/06/2016

Spighe di grano ridGod conquers omnipotence to provide comfort, eternal life is born from the infinite need of consolation.

Sergio Quinzio, Un commento alla Bibbia (A Commentary on the Bible)

Meeting the prophets is a milestone in the journey of spiritual and moral person. Many people live their lives and die without reaching this meeting, just as many men and women end their lives without having had an experience of beauty in front of a work of art, without having read a poem, without feeling the breath of the universe in a starry night, without ever having fallen in love without having said a prayer or having worked.

You can live without all this, even without Leopardi, Fernando Pessoa and Shakespeare, but when we manage to reach to an encounter with these and the many other spiritual gifts scattered throughout the world that are there for us, too, life broadens its horizons and draws on the deeper layers. All this is only grace, full gratuitousness, there is no merit involved. For this reason, the first and truest experience we have when we receive these great gifts is to feel the pain in the flesh for many, too many men and women who are excluded from this gratuity, and without any guilt. Human existence is also, perhaps above all, a process of discovering gratuitousness around us, often covered by the shell of pain. It is a treasure hunt that will end only with death, not a single moment before (and one of the greatest gifts will be to find we have learned to die, and we did not know).

Many, almost all people live without ever encountering Isaiah. Although his book is a pure and amazing gift preserved in the heart of the Bible for millennia in the company of the other prophets. A single chapter of this book would be enough for endlessly thanking the ancient scribes and singers for having saved the biblical texts from sieges, persecutions, fires, deportations and mass killings. Only the experience of the absolute value of the word could protect us from the fire and sword of those fragile written words. Having only the word, they were able to save it. Biblical humanism cannot be revealed without the prophets. It stays foreclosed from us without Isaiah, who stands out among the prophets with his immensity. Isaiah is a peak of the human genius. His most beautiful pages should not be missing from any literary anthology compiled for school, where it is still totally excluded can only be for a radical lack of true secularism, in a culture that's too plain to see and yearn for heights. Without Isaiah we do not understand Christ, or even the characters around his manger (Isaiah 1.3). The Gospels were written on the back of the scroll of Isaiah, and if we forget this we transform them into a collection of moral texts or a set of miracles.

Bible prophecy is a "common good" of the humanity of all times. All prophets are like the pruning, fertilizing, weeding, cropping, harvesting of the spirit and therefore of life, which is human life only because it is spiritual. All are like this, but first and above all Isaiah. His meditation is a valuable exercise to find or rediscover the meaning and truth of the soul and salvation, to begin or re-start hoping after the times of destruction, ruins, deaths, vain hopes and false consolations that accompany these events. Few others can stand besides the greatness, beauty and poetry of Isaiah. Job is certainly among these, because just like Isaiah, he helps us a lot to understand what God is not, and must not become if we do not want to turn him into an idol in which to believe or not (just as there are many believers of idols, there are also many non-believers of idols).

The book of Isaiah is longer than the text written by Isaiah "the son of Amoz" (Isaiah 1.1). The text that has come down to us is produced by many hands. Three are now known such as those of the first (chapters 1-39), the second (40-55) and of the third (56-66) Isaiah. But for nearly two centuries (between the eighth and sixth centuries BC), a prophetic tradition has taken the first text, enriched it by involving it in a dialogue with the events of the different seasons of the history of Israel and the neighbouring peoples, and so making it more and more poetic, brilliant and immense. As it happened to many great works of human genius, at the end of this long process of creation we ended up with a collective work that surpasses the genius of its first author. The Isaiah after Isaiah loves and enriches the Book of Isaiah. What the spirit has inspired the biblical word and many other human words to do is writing greater words than those of the authors of books. it is not necessary the action of many hands to make a text great, often it only takes a single good one; but for the biblical texts collective action increases the power of the word, it makes it become a community, it builds the ekklesia. This team work has never been stopped, because those texts keep making us richer every time someone tries to write a new commentary, dares to write a note or uses those words to learn how to pray. It was this spiritual freedom to amend, to update, to "touch" the texts, even the immense ones by Isaiah, why the word has not become an idol in Israel - and it had the potential to become one because of its absolute value.

The book begins with Isaiah calling heaven and earth (1.2) as witnesses for the accusation of corruption that YHWH, by the same word of Isaiah, starts to turn to his people: "What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts; (...) Bring no more vain offerings; (...) Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood." (1, 11-15) Like Ecclesiastes, Isaiah simply tells us that the sacrifices are useless and foolish. And they are not useless and wrong because they are offered without being righteous, but because they are wrong and that's all. And he says this at the beginning of his song, because he knows that he won't be able to speak the word unless he first liberates the field from the wrong idea of ​​God, one that's hungry for sacrifices and is acting within the accounting logic of give and take. Every religious reform begins by denying the economic god, the god doing business with men, by driving the market out of the temple.

The prophets are not balanced, nor are they educated or prudent. Unlike us, they do not end their criticism and accusations with "however" and "even if ..." in order to prudently dampen the strength of their complaint. They are always biased, exaggerating and excessive. Here Isaiah does not say, as perhaps we would like to hear, "however, the sacrifices should still be made, we still should go to the temple." No, Isaiah does not give up the proper religious sense of his time-and-temple, and resists in his partial denunciation. The first effort of prophecy is not giving up anything to good sense and prudence: if the prophets dampen the strength of their denunciation by auto-censuring their complaints in order not to not appear excessive or imprudent, or not to be too inconvenient to the institutions that are the subject of their criticisms, they deny their vocation. The only way for the prophets to love their people, including institutions and leaders, is not to mitigate the radical and excessive power of the word. Common sense, caution and moderation are the virtues of the institutions, not those of the prophets. But without the excess and imprudence of the prophets, the institutions become sad offices of bureaucrats, power only injustice, the poor are not seen anymore and are abandoned in the suburbs. By their own voices, the prophets make us see what the powerful cannot see or do not want to see. All the prophets. Especially Isaiah.

To hope to truly meet Isaiah - the major encounters of life cannot be programmed: we can only hope and wait for them -, we need to start reading his words as if we were born today. We must do everything possible to try and free ourselves from the religious and anti-religious ideologies we grew up with, letting these build a sense of being in the world for us. Isaiah is a gift for everyone, and especially for those who have never believed and, above all, for those who no longer do even if they still desire to. His is an auroral song, a breeze of dawn, a morning star. It is an introduction to life in the time of ruins, the ruins of each and every time. Over the centuries many have started or re-started to believe, hope and love along with Isaiah. We should approach him as if being ignorant of the words of our religion and our non-religion. We should start reading his book as if we had never heard the word "God." We should return to the moment of "in the beginning", open our eyes and, together with Adam, hear the word sounded in the world for the first time: "Elohim". We should experience the original and utter force of that word, spoken to us by someone who has "seen" it (Isaiah 2.1). The prophets see the word that they then say so that we should see it, too. This is the opportunity to be able to see a God on earth who cannot be seen, because if we see him then he is simply an idol. The sensors of the word are the ears and the eyes. The word that the prophets announce to us is not vanitas, not a sigh, not a breath, not wind or fog: it is flesh.

Isaiah, therefore, is the prophet of our time. We have forgotten the first words, we know. But this immense poverty can become our wealth: this way we can have the experience of listening to them for the first time. And then that of re-learning to listen to life.

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