This week’s column is the text of a brief talk I gave at a symposium at UCLA in honor of the centennial of the Iranian philosopher and theologian Ostad Elahi.


Good morning. I am greatly honored to be able to say a few words to open this symposium commemorating the work of Ostad Elahi. It is fitting to remember those who have insisted on the primacy of the spirit in human affairs.

Let me begin by informing you of the recent creation of the Center for the Study of Religion at UCLA. The Center will begin operation this Fall on Thursday, November 16 at 6 PM in the UCLA Faculty Center with a talk on Religion in the Global Village by the eminent religious and anthropological thinker René Girard; other events will shortly be announced. On behalf of the Center, I urge you to take an active interest in its activities; our intention is to serve the Los Angeles community as well as the academic community.

There is a significant point about the Center that is directly relevant to my remarks: that it is lodged within the Humanities Division. The College of Letters and Science that houses the academic departments at UCLA comprises four divisions: Humanities, Social Sciences, Life Sciences, and Physical Sciences. Religion is clearly not a physical science, and although it may be for many a science of life, the Life Sciences division is concerned with the life of the body rather than that of the spirit. But one might well expect the study of religion to fall within the social sciences. Is not religion an essentially social phenomenon, one that indeed provides the basis of social organization? Emile Durkheim, the founder of scientific sociology, considered religion to be the fundamental expression of communal solidarity. Yet I think it quite appropriate that our center has been located among the Humanities. As one who works in that division, I think of it as the domain of knowledge most profoundly concerned with, and characteristic of, the human spirit.

The simplest definition of the humanities is that it comprises those branches of learning that are concerned with the study of texts. The first texts to be studied were sacred texts: the Vedic hymns, the Bible, the Koran–texts that continue to occupy the lives of scholars in both religious and secular institutions. Just as the idea that religion is the primary expression of the social order is the founding conception of the social sciences, the idea that secular texts–poems, plays, novels–are worthy of the same close reading as religious texts is the founding idea of the humanities. Durkheim‘s justification for sociology was that although religious ritual and myth expressed more or less transparently the communal unity of primitive societies, the absence of such direct expressions in the modern world obliges us to seek evidence of the changing social order in statistical studies of the trends and correlations of everyday behavior. A similar case may be made for the humanities: in the age of the death of God, we can understand humanity only through works of secular literature.

It might appear ironic that having created a domain or “division” of knowledge by displacing studious reverence from religious to secular texts, we now desire to incorporate the study of religion and its texts within this domain. Does this mean that we intend, in the terms of an idea popular some years ago, to read the Bible as literature–that is, to study religious texts as examples of narrative technique rather than as expressions of revealed truth? There may be some who conceive the study of religion in this fashion, but it does not correspond to my conception of the spirit of the humanities.

This spirit should not be confused with that of secular humanism, the view that religion exists merely to provide a mythical basis for ethical values that in fact require no other foundation than human nature and human reason. Voltairean reductionism is not representative of the humanistic spirit. How do we know this? The true spirit of humanistic study is revealed in the fact that it accords its supreme prestige neither to our “natural” effusions nor to logical constructions but to texts that exemplify the categories of irony and paradox–categories that, incidentally, are no strangers to Voltaire’s own writings.

In irony, one says the opposite of what one means; in paradox, one negates what one says in the process of saying it. The father of all paradoxes is the so-called Liar paradox: the sentence This sentence is false. In the sciences, including the social sciences, irony is inappropriate and paradox is a sign of error. Philosophy treats paradox with more respect but ultimately rejects it: how could a discipline grounded on logic do otherwise? Avoidance of paradox is thus the fundamental criterion of philosophical rigor. But among literary humanists, irony is cherished and paradox revered. The more ironic we find a literary work, the more greatly we esteem it. The term paradox is less often used, but the thing itself is no less appreciated. In the greatest masterpieces of all, works like Oedipus Rex, Hamlet, Phèdre, Don Quixote, A la recherche du temps perdu, irony distills from every line. Self-reference, mise en abyme, the very stuff of paradox, are features of all great literature. It is no accident that all these archetypes of irony are marked by paradoxes of self-inclusion–Hamlet’s play within the play, Oedipus’ oracle, Phèdre’s labyrinth, Quixote’s encounter, in the second part of the novel, with persons who have read the first part, and most centrally of all, Proust’s generation of the novelistic text from within the world which that text has created.

Irony and paradox have the same fundamental structure. Words that mean their opposite or that include their own negation make us suspicious of the simple difference between signs and things, between representations and what they represent. This difference cannot be dispensed with; it is what guarantees the objectivity of scientific discourse. But to accept unquestioningly the difference between signs and things is to refuse to examine the mystery of the origin of that difference, or of the species that both creates and discovers that difference–the species I refer to is of course our own.

What then is the spirit of the humanities? It is not merely the reverent study of texts, but more specifically, the elucidation of what texts show us about the problematic nature of the human condition. The humanist’s fondness for irony and paradox reflects our intuition that these structures, or rather, these ways by which structure puts itself into question, are more profoundly central to our condition than logical thought–that they are in fact what enable the existence of logical thought. Structure putting itself into question may indeed be the simplest way to define the human.

The work of the humanities, whether undertaken by believers or unbelievers, is not an activity to which the notion of revealed truth is directly relevant. A humanistic reading of a text pushes its coherence to the point at which it puts itself in doubt, as the literary text casts doubt upon the false assurances provided by the less openly paradoxical texts such as laws and oracles that it includes within itself. Reading the Bible as literature is false to the spirit of the humanities, not because it fails to show proper reverence to the biblical text, but because it fails to show proper humility before texts in general. It is not wrong to claim that the Bible is like a work of literature; but it is illegitimate to deduce from this that the workings of either the Bible or of a secular literary work are understandable as products of something like narrative technique. On the contrary, comparison of the Bible with a literary work makes us aware that in either case the text reveals the limitations of any technique that would provide a positive, instrumental understanding of human language and thought.

For many people, such signs of human limitations give proof of the existence of a higher power who has imposed them on us without being itself bound by them. The text points beyond itself to a source of coherence that it can neither realize nor formulate; how then could it have come into being if not through divine inspiration?

For others, however, it suffices that texts leave us with a sense of mystery, of inexhaustibility. Their inherent irony reflects the contrast between the need for closure that defines our practical intelligence and the infinity of desire that language has the power to arouse in us. Whether or not we give a personal name to this power, the very fact that we all know and in some sense understand the word God shows that there can be no simple answer to the question raised by the humanistic spirit as to the origin of the human and its limits.


In order to remain faithful to this spirit, we cannot treat as an end in itself the positive exploration of different religious customs and beliefs, however profound the revelations that emerge within them. The fundamental benefit of the study of religion is rather the awareness it provides us of the necessary incompleteness of our human self-understanding. This incompleteness arises not from our mind’s respect for predetermined restrictions but from its paradoxical resistance to closure of any kind, including religious closure–by which I mean the blockage by dogma of humanity’s unending movement toward self-knowledge. The social sciences, including psychoanalysis, offer us a wide selection of positive anthropologies, but only in the humanities will we find the proper respect for the paradox that lies at the heart of the human spirit–the paradox that most often goes by the name of freedom.