“Restoring the Divine to the Care of the Earth”: On James W. Heisig’s “Of Gods and Minds”

By Joseph S. O’LearyOctober 12, 2019

“Restoring the Divine to the Care of the Earth”: On James W. Heisig’s “Of Gods and Minds”

Of Gods and Minds by James W. Heisig

JAMES HEISIG’S ARRESTING and rather unsettling Of Gods and Minds: In Search of a Theological Commons is the fifth volume of “Duffy Lectures in Global Christianity,” a series founded by the indefatigable Catherine Cornille at Boston College, and inspired by the late Stephen Duffy’s insight that “[t]o the extent that Christianity opens itself to other traditions, it will become different.” James Heisig is the very incarnation of this difference. He has been a major force in Japan since his arrival four decades ago, his name synonymous with the Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture in Nagoya, where he has welcomed and encouraged many scholars, young and old, over the years. As translator, chronicler, and critic of the Kyoto School philosophers, as well as coordinator of the massive anthology Japanese Philosophy: A Sourcebook, Heisig has worked to broaden the definition of philosophy beyond its Western confines.

Heisig seeks to broaden theology in a comparable way. He is disappointed at the dwindling concern among Japanese theologians with adjusting Western Christianity’s ideas and images of God to their own religious sensitivities and intellectual heritage. He further laments the failure of interreligious dialogue to live up to its promise, having long since become confined to “a small caste of trained specialists in Christian academia and spiritual practice.”

Undaunted, Heisig voices here his original religious philosophy, refusing to indulge the chronic plaint of missionaries at “the failure of a universal Christianity to be inculturated into the particular religious cultures of East Asia,” and seeking instead “to exculturate received images of God.” This means “to lay bare the attachments that excluded radically different conditions from giving rise to images and ideas of God that would seem as alien to the Christian West as their God seems to Japan.” But what kind of “attachments” does Heisig have in mind? Is the very idea of a personal God such an attachment? Or the idea of eternal life? The method pursued in the first three of the five chapters of his book is calculated to make the reader quite uneasy. Doubts are sowed, and then nuanced and qualified, and left to linger on with the promise of being taken up later. This approach is presented as a rehearsal or replowing of our thoughts about God, which critically reappropriates traditions by opening “access to universal mental processes.” Central to these is unstillable desire — “Man is in love, and loves what vanishes” (Yeats). That desire, as far as we can see, is the most powerful motor behind the religious imagination.

The “theological commons” that these experiences shape is conceived in the widest perspective. The “most useful understanding of a global Christianity may not be Christian, and the most useful ideas for a vital theology may not be catalogued academically as theological at all.” Indeed, as Christian tradition registers ever more keenly its own historical contingency, it can no longer “call the shots” in its interaction with other traditions. But is there any guarantee that the alleged “universal mental processes” can do so either?

Heisig’s provocative question — “What are gods doing in minds?” — opens various subtle paths of thought, sometimes verging to the reductionist, sometimes to the mystical. A guiding thread is the idea that accounts of the birth and death of the gods, the rise and fall of religions, must first of all be read as mirroring the odyssey of the human spirit. Yet our prolific invention of gods attests not only a mystical creativity but also a receptive capacity that is “waiting to hum harmonic at the faintest note struck by those higher powers.” These brooding pages felt like a dark Mark Rothko painting. Look long enough into its depths and mystic shapes begin to shimmer. The play of queries and enigmatic affirmations built up a muted testimony to the presence of the divine. Heisig affirms that religion is more than a wish-fulfilling dream to palliate final extinction, and that the power and persistence of the human desire for eternity may be the index of some irreducible reality. This ineradicable desire “has its own reasonableness, or at least a kind of inexhaustible intelligibility,” where “the distinction between cognition and illusion no longer holds.”

What is most immediately real about the gods is their hold on our desires; they are “pure expressions of a satisfaction toward which we are powerless to progress.” They haunt us as images rather than data of knowledge. We must see through literal belief to “a nonliteral role for the gods.” In an existential sense, “the only real God we can know is our longing for God,” yet that desire opens us to the witness of visionaries and mystics who speak of an encounter with supreme reality.

To clarify the status of this discourse, Heisig draws on the Buddhist notion of “conventional truth” as he urges that we renounce the quest for “self-consistent doctrinal statements”: images of “the gods function more hospitably and honestly in minds when they have shed their literal meaning altogether and present themselves in the raw.” I am not sure that they do present themselves “in the raw.” Even the most stunning theophany demands the labor of interpretation, and the long traditions woven of that labor remain indispensable means for having a stable grip on divine realities. Yes, the texture of these traditions, as we more and more realize, is conventional and culture-bound. But Poincaré and Feyerabend would say the same of scientific traditions. Can there not be a science of theology that functions just as validly as these do in their very flimsiness? Our images of God may pile convention on convention, but their vitality depends on the intention to state what is actually or ultimately true. Heisig does not ignore this intention, but leaves us wondering if there is any way to find a firm footing in ultimate truth.

It is only in the fourth lecture that Heisig turns to the goal he set himself in his opening remarks, “to seek out a ground in reality for the presence of metaphorical language about God inside the mind and out.” Having released the desire for the divine from the logic of a longing in the subject for something in the objective world, Heisig resists the assumption that “the seeding of mind with desires projected into the gods implies the existence of a divine sower.” Quite to the contrary, he associates the divine with a “nothingness” within reality that is expressed in the being and becoming of the natural world, but that can never be identified with any particular entity or entities. The book is too short to pursue the ontological implications of all this, for which one would need to consult the author’s Philosophers of Nothingness (2001), Nothingness and Desire (2013), and Much Ado About Nothingness (2015). The resources of the notion of Being, as explored by Étienne Gilson and Martin Heidegger, could be drawn on fruitfully.

Recovery of the ultimate truth of the divine in nature requires “the elimination of the ‘violence’ of a transcendent omnipotent, absolute, eternal God,” without at the same time gainsaying the support that conventional metaphors of divine transcendence lend to “our nobler instincts in revolt and reform” that clamor for human dignity and justice. The violence is seen in the way belief in otherworldly transcendence has contributed to the ongoing destruction of the earth. Surely such an allegation is premature: the ecological crisis has sprung upon us suddenly, and orthodox Christian reactions such as Pope Francis’s Laudato si’ have drawn on Bible and tradition to face it.

For Heisig, the Shinto gods become a model of divine presence that is friendly to the earth: “They are not believed in literally, but neither are they simply symbolic. They occupy the middle ground that connects us to the outer edges of the knowable and controllable aspects of this world.” In Shinto shrines, one is aware of irreducible divine presences, which have sustained this religion for millennia. They are not what Heisig calls “supernatural” or “otherworldly,” but life-sustaining forces or images. The kenosis of classical Christology must be demythologized and restated in “language about the natural world”; this is demanded by “our inalienable duty to self-awareness for ourselves and for the earth that has given us the grace of consciousness.” Those who desperately want to preserve traditional belief in an invisible world beyond are “a minority for whom the forfeiture of a few lines of creed is too great a price to pay for helping our endangered earth by giving it a voice in the determination of orthodoxy.”

The many millions who joyfully recite the Nicene Creed will be surprised to hear this. It proclaims a transcendent God, but more particularly a God manifest in the cosmos (“creator of heaven and earth”), entering it in fleshly warmth (“incarnate of the Virgin Mary, crucified also for us”), revitalizing and glorifying it (“he rose on the third day, and ascended into heaven”), and remaining close to it as spiritual presence (“he has spoken through the prophets”). Christians know the divine presence in nature as well as Shintoists do: “How all creation is with God in a profound mystery” (Claudel). This contemplative respect for the earth is aligned with Heisig’s very worthy and timely aim of “restoring the divine to the care of the earth.”

The specific quality of nothingness that Heisig calls on to collapse the transcendent back to the natural world is the “universal connectedness” that characterizes reality. Although this declaration is itself a conventional truth, or a skillful means, it is something that connects with our perceptions, unlike the God “behind the scenes” imagined in traditional faith. But again this surely underestimates the resources of traditional theology, which sees God as the “internal eternal” (St. Augustine), closer to us than we are to ourselves.

Heisig draws on Buddhist interpretations of nothingness to push us to forfeit the pesky “few lines of creed”: “To bring the full weight of the idea of no-self to bear on Christianity would oblige greater solace in the final resignation of Jesus to the darkness than in the hope of eternal life.” Surely all that we know of Jesus indicates that his final resignation was not to darkness, but to the will of a loving Father? Yes, the curtain hung over futurity inspires doubt, anguish, or dread, and when faced with the question of old people — “Will we really see our loved ones again in Heaven?” — we often have no better response than to quote Scripture or to remind them of the Church’s doctrine of the Communion of Saints. Or we may say that the wonders of creation and redemption assure us that the end results may be safely and serenely left in the hands of God. Perhaps all religions offer some such assurance. Obviously, Heisig is not convinced by any of this. Yet such language, however faltering, has deep grounds in the conviction of the goodness and meaningfulness of being.

Heisig’s longstanding predilection for the esoteric underbelly of the Christian heritage, evident in these pages, erupts in the concluding commentary on a pseudo-hermetic 12th-century text, the Book of the 24 Philosophers. This set of aphorisms answering the question “What is God?” is presented as a tribute to universal connectedness seen as “the actualization of nothingness in the world through the restlessly burning desire of the human heart for justice, mercy, and love towards everything, everywhere, and always.” The oracular text is made a vehicle for spelling out the consequences of seeing God as a nothingness beyond being and becoming. Kurt Flasch and Peter Sloterdijk have likewise made much of these murky aphorisms, but to me Heisig’s own sayings are more illuminating:

So long as mind pleads against the limitations of human existence with desires as vast as the sky; so long as mind acknowledges its existence as a result of the parental instincts of life on earth, the idea of gods at home in minds will not have outlived its utility as a conventional expression of the ultimate and all-embracing truth of nothingness.

Heisig adds a 25th saying of his own to complete the medieval set: “God is the story of the earth, and the earth is the story of God.” For “the earth” we might perhaps write “the universe” or even “reality as a whole,” but that would blunt the point of the aphorism. The idea is exegeted in incarnational terms: “Kenosis becomes more ultimately real by ceasing to be an ontological event, by allowing the figure of Christ to represent the beauty in which the stories of God and of the earth tell each other, and in so doing from an ideal bond of truth and goodness.”

If you want to find God, open up to the earth and care for it. “Until the earth is restored to its rightful place in our stories of God, as the mediatrix of all grace, our best hope is that the religious and moral imagination of the saeculum will leave the established churches hugging their old certitudes and seek guidance elsewhere on the commons.”

I regret that the book ends on this negative note, for the incarnational world of Christian poetry, art, and theology provides many resources for an earth-centered theology. But the theme of the earth certainly provides a fulcrum for interreligious encounter that is of unparalleled importance today. Care for the earth is taking a more and more central place in Christian preaching and spirituality, notably in papal teaching, despite the mockery of climate denialists and heresy hunters, prone to find flaky Gaia-worship in every expression of concern for the future of the planet. To be sure, we must seek guidance from other traditions as well, to heal the alienation caused by centuries of endemic Platonism. The Instrumentum Laboris of the forthcoming Amazon Synod shows how far the Church can go in responding to the signs of the times imaginatively and creatively, rehearsing her traditions in a new key. The best of Heisig’s critical and constructive thought should be taken aboard in this great shift, which rejuvenates the Church’s mission as she comes to the rescue of humanity and its habitat.


Joseph S. O’Leary is an Irish theologian resident in Japan since 1983, former professor at Sophia University, author of books on fundamental theology, including Conventional and Ultimate Truth (Notre Dame, 2015).

LARB Contributor

Joseph S. O’Leary is an Irish theologian resident in Japan since 1983, former professor at Sophia University, author of books on fundamental theology, including Conventional and Ultimate Truth (Notre Dame, 2015).


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