Claude Brunier-Coulin


L’HOMME PÉCHEUR (Man as sinner)

Review published in Golias Magazine, n°162-163, June 2015, pp. 129-135

As the construction of Rome, Claude Brunier-Coulin’s books were not built in one day; this might explain the rarity of his publications. It is because his research itself is not about the discussion of a theological thesis, but is rather about the “theological fact itself” (p. 25), as he says in his introduction. In particular –here-, he writes it about Luther’s famous citation, “simul justus et peccator”, linked with the imaginal category, which is coming from the Iranian theology of the 12th century, represented by Ibn Arabi and Shihabbudin Yahya Suhrawardi.

As a good dialectician, the author organises his reflection in three parts, each corresponding to one part of the book. In 700 pages or so, using a large amount of references the impressive final bibliography testifies to, he ventures into an unknown land, mixing two distinct universes: to the categories of the scholastic coming from Plato and Augustine, he adds the intuitions of the Persian mystics, whose works have been discovered thanks to the great French school of Islamic studies, with Louis Massignon and –especially– his disciple Henry Corbin. The difficulty of this work comes from the entanglement of two worlds, two visions, and different types of vocabulary, from the most classical for Western readers to the most esoteric, and also with the specific vocabulary of the Protestant theologian Karl Barth, who is a important source of inspiration for the author.

This first part opens with a long chapter of more than a hundred pages, denouncing the temptation of our times to escape from Man’s tragic situation “just and sinner at the same time”, through the elaboration of a speech about an object it paradoxically does not want to evoke. Claude Brunier-Coulin reviews the different deconstructions: the deconstruction of philosophy through the affirmation of the “transcendence of the immanence” (p. 40), of language through neutralization of gender, of the Trinity through the reduction of the religious conscience into a philosophical and historical conscience, and so on. As philosophy “has no substance, nothing to say anymore” (p. 61), everything becomes an object for the historical-critical sciences (among which theology), from the biblical text to the events of a day-to-day existence that has become far away from reality, events which are considered as mere “possibilities or probabilities of series” (p. 71). The whole daily life is turned upside down by this conception. Far away from reality, it becomes the scene of successive, frequent and recurrent abnormalities (p. 98), hitting as much the individual as the group; Man escapes from it thanks to transformation –comprising the extreme abnormality of death- in a vast “encompassing” situation. Against this cyclical vision of daily life, the author reaffirms a linear salvation history, in which Man experiences of the conversion of his wrath and of his fear of God, until comes the election of Jesus and the victory against Satan, until that (here the theologian knows he takes position in one of the most important and difficult theological debates of the 20th century) “sinner-Adam in turn stops existing in Christ” (p. 117). If Man as a sinner can only feel reassured with a global and cyclical world’s view, how can he thus find his place? Claude Brunier-Coulin reviews several possible places, from the phenomenological adhesion to the subversion of philosophy through the “Christ” event, already launched by Paul and resumed by Augustine (p. 136-137). For the person who sets in God his act of faith, acknowledging the present established state of “Man as a sinner”, it is necessary to know and understand, ie to found through language what he has lived through the rites: “Theology is thus included in faith” (p. 143).

The frequent evocation of “Man as a sinner” through these prolegomena echoes to the double introduction of the book so as to Andersen’s Ugly duckling, which has become the myth of modern human condition. The question which gnaws at the reader page after page is suddenly asked by the theologian: “What is “Man as a sinner”?” (p. 166), because there cannot be any “Man” at all, unless through abstraction, as a beginning, an original “site”, as a non-actualized eternal future.
In order to answer to this fundamental question, Claude Brunier-Coulin introduces the main concept of is book: the imaginal. He suggests “to set up a theology of the imaginal”, giving its right place to “imagination as a faculty to reach the real” “because the imaginal is a life scheme”, the “meeting place between soul and reality” (p. 178), reconciling truth and fiction, ie contraries that a rational theology, responding to the knowledge scheme, could never unite, because of the non-contradiction principle. The imaginal world turns contraries into complementaries; it is a coincidentia oppositorum. The imaginal intervenes thus as a world of its own between the sensitive and the intelligible, which could but remind of the scholastic category of internal meaning, if the author had not added an essential spiritual dimension: the imaginal is the place where the soul experiences of God, where the real receives communion from the spiritual. In the problematic of “Man as a sinner” waiting for justification, and more precisely of Man simul justus and peccator, ugly duckling and white swan, the imaginal is after all the only world able to understand what reason perceives as opposites.

Henry Corbin writes: “The function of the mundus imaginalis and the imaginal Forms is defined by their median and mediating situation between the intelligible world and the sensitive world. On one hand, it immaterialises the sensitive Forms, on the other hand it “imaginalises” the intelligible forms and give them form and dimension. The imaginal world symbolises on the one hand with the sensitive Forms, on the other hand with the intelligible Forms. This median situation thus straightaway imposes an unthinkable discipline, where it has been debased in “fantasy”, secreting only pieces of imaginary, unreal, and likely to indulge in all kinds of dissoluteness.” (“Preludes. For a charter of the imaginal” in Spiritual body and celestial earth: from Mazdean Iran to Shi’ite Islam (p. 267). There is thus a setting of the imaginal in the real: the first concept only belongs to the sole subject, whereas the other is shared by the “I” and the Other. Claude Brunier-Coulin compares this categorization imaginal/real with the “Paul/James categorizations, or decision/intention, righteous/sinner, creator/creature” (p. 267). We understand the rapprochement made between “imaginal” and “righteous” on the one hand, and on the other hand between “real” and “sinner”, the one revealing itself as the mirror of the other. The notion of justice, of such a delicate perception, can only be grasped with the imaginal category, with the contribution –to say it with a psychoanalytical vocabulary- of a “symbolic material”; the imaginal world thus becomes a principle or even a hermeneutic model for Luther’s citation.

The second part asks precisely the question of the model of justification’s understanding. Claude Brunier-Coulin becomes a disciple of Henry Corbin, not only with the appropriation of the Iranian notion of the imaginal, which he introduced in France, but also with the choice of a vocabulary taken from Martin Heidegger, whose books Corbin was the first to translate into French. The great problematic of the second part, which is the beating pulse of the book, is the hermeneutic modelisation which should not be “epochal” (Heidegger), ie temporary in the full meaning of the word. Nevertheless, the answer that the author proposes to scrutinise is not the one of the German philosopher, but the one proposed by the theologian Karl Barth. There is no dogmatic report to come, as the debate opposing Catholics and Protestants no longer applies (pp. 287-310), but the in-depth scrutinising of the intuitions of the great Protestant thinker about the justification, through the prism of the mirror which confronts the real world to its major effective interpretation; the imaginal world. If God makes Himself present in the world’s phenomena, if theophany is near the real, the imagination thus appears as indispensable to perceive this divine face in things and beings. So we can discover in Man as a sinner the possibility –and moreover the reality, as the frontier with the imaginal is not impenetrable- of his justification…

If Karl Barth is the conducting reference, the difficulty of the reflexion lies in the amplitude of the references used by the author, which correspond, as we already explained, to as many distinct vocabularies. But the mirror thematic precisely espouses a mirroring structure, with echoing questionings: Martin Luther and Jean-Paul Sartre answer each other, so as Hans Küng and Paul O’Callaghan, James Joyce and Amélie Nothomb, Lewis Caroll and Louis Aragon, Meister Eckhart and Jacob Boehme… The ambivalence of the simul justus et peccator citation does not first ask the question of dualism, but of language, of each element (justus and peccator) and their binding conjunction. This explains that the question of justification has taken on different forms over the centuries, with first an emphasis on justice in general (Virgil), then on the justice towards oneself (Luther), and finally on personal election, ie God’s action towards this “self” (Barth).

The mirror underlines and crystalises a certain amount of diverging opinions –coming from philosophy, theology, and literature- gathered by the author, in order to in fine confront them to Karl Barth’s reflexion and give his own answer. The mirror is the place of consciousness, of face to face, where Man sees himself and acknowledges himself justified, through image: vision precedes thinking and reflection precedes reflexion. The real finds in the imaginal the possibility of the intelligible: “I see myself so I am” (p. 377). Such an experience does not go without ordeal, because the mirror remains the instrument of ambivalence, showing the same while remaining other, revealing the breathtaking “separation from oneself” (p. 406). It induces, paraphrasing Jorge Luis Borgès, an Argentinian writer for whom the mirror played a major role, “the imminence of a revelation that will not happen”. But the mirror not only reveals and puts some distance to the I, but it also is the impalpable frontier we continuously cross, as Alice when she falls asleep in the lounge. Why do fictional works have such a success? Because they are purely unreal or because they do not seem to be so far from us, while introducing some kind of magic? Fiction and real are like set in one another, the one giving a frame to the other and conversely, the one nurturing the other and conversely. Just as the imaginal reveals the real and its aspirations better that the latter could ever do, just as a writer reveals more about him in writing a book, thus our reflection reveals more about ourselves than anyone could do.

The mirror, as a metaphor of perception (real world) and of interrogative thinking (intellectual world), affects directly our intimate relationship to the Other and ourselves; thus it is necessarily interesting for theology. Is not Man image and likeness of God? Is not Christ image of the invisible God? Is not present, in hollow of the theological act, the model of the mirror, which helps Man understanding his virtual place of origin? “Barth’s theology is based upon an exact knowledge of the relationship between Man and God and between God and Man” (p. 443). Karl Barth earns then recognition as the theologian is likely to deploy the mirror as a “theological object” -, with the asymmetrical dialectic of God’s call and Man’s answer, of Word revealed by incarnation and predication, of the theophanic imaginal world and the anthropomorphic real world. The image the mirror reflects us, because it is epiphanic, because it sets the divine vocation within the real, is not a “copy of the real” but the “copy of real’s soul”, the place of our potential divinisation instead of our judgment, or the definitive verdict: “We then have to know and interpret the real through the mediation of the mirror” (p. 524). There is a mutual interrogation between the real and the image, for a right apprehension of both worlds, for –more deeply- a right reunification of our true “I” in God who ignores any dualism: justification is told in the imaginal world, throne of God’s law, but paradoxically realises itself in the real world, place of the law of sin. Or, resuming the introductive tale: the ugly duckling understands, in the imaginal world, that it is a swan, in the real world. The initial separation is only the prelude to path towards freedom, as the Jewish people experienced wandering in the desert, from the slavery in Egypt to the settling in the Promised Land.

The perception of the real world –in its whole reality- can only be accomplished through the mirror of the imaginal, so that the frontier appears sometimes tangible, some other times allegorical, and sometimes impalpable. Passing from one world to another becomes similar to the grammatical controversy that unifies the two worlds in the First Epistle to the Corinthians (7, 29-31): is it an as if, a what about or an if not? Karl Barth answers with an identification of the two worlds: just as the ugly duckling is really a swan when it sees itself as a swan, so Man is “intrinsically”, “entirely”, “positively” justified, seeing himself righteous (p. 568). The fact of seeing oneself justified justifies, because it opens to faith, according to the Protestant theologian. The imaginal does not reflect passively the Real, but becomes –as a theophanic place- effective word about reality itself: the one who does not look at himself in God’s mirror is not justified. The act of liberation happens this way, according to a dialectic movement of which the author becomes a disciple, in three steps: real world or “bascule of the look”, setting up the real and imaginal worlds in mirror or “crossing of the looking glass”, and conversion of the real through the imaginal or “glace breaker” (p. 268).

In the crucial application of justification, “the face to face is also a face to Face”, as the unveiling leads to the possibility of an act of faith, to the acknowledment of being simul justus and peccator, not in a irrefragable opposition, but through this mirroring confrontation which in fine places us in the eschatological perspective. This one is not an indeterminate future, but is part of “the act of Christ” (Lubac), in an “already-there” and a “not-yet”, in a present always renewed, made actual, through the intermediary of the “transitional category” of the mirror, which tears once and for all the veil of sin.

Pierre NILEG