In my previous discussion in Chronicle 654, I tried to show that our relationship to bears (understood as stuffed animals of any species) allows us to understand, and in a way to participate in, the relationship—which even the believer cannot claim to be empirically present outside his scene of representation—of God to Man.
That is, the ontological otherness that allows God to create Man as a being “in his image,” whose transcendental persona (his “immortal soul”) is the product of God’s action and persists only through his loving will, is paralleled by my personation of a stuffed animal that I may find, for example, in a pile of similar creatures in a department store. I pick one to be “my” bear, and he acquires a name and above all, a claim as a “person” on my love.
I do not hesitate to speak of love, although needless to say one loves a bear somewhat less profoundly than another human. Stacey and I will never forget a couple of bears that were lost over the years for one reason or another, and our regret is surely less painful but of a similar nature to regret for a lost child—someone who depended on you but whom you were unable to protect.
The key difference is that our emotions concerning a bear are wholly internal to our family. A child, even if our own, is a member of the human community with enforceable rights to care and protection. Even a dog has such rights. Whereas our moral failings toward bears remain entirely our own responsibility. Which is to say that our love for bears is truly gratuitous and unforced, as we can imagine is God’s love for us.
After the previous Chronicle, in which, following Pierre Whalon’s theology of marriage, I noted the capacity of the Trinity, as the Christian configuration of God in his relation to/within himself, which also governs his relation to his creatures, to help us to understand and value human love, I thought about the Trinity’s possible application to human love for a bear.
The Trinity’s paradoxical inclusion of the human within the divine, not as a mere creation, but as an internally related person, is arguably the ultimate degree of articulation of the anthropological within a religious framework. This use of the Trinitarian model seeks to understand the relationships among humans singly and as a community, including language and the semiotic apparatus of cultural phenomena, as not merely phenomena taking place under God’s benevolent supervision, but as derived from aspects of God’s “image” in which we are created.
Which is also to say, independently of any religious belief, that the internal relations of the Trinity are mirrored in human relationships, or in other terms, that they can so to speak be tested for their adequacy, not simply in modeling these relationships, but in pointing the way to their optimal configuration. For whether this configuration is the result of God’s will or, conversely, our conception of God’s will is a reflection of our efforts to attain the clearest possible ethical intuition, the intuitive effort at articulation is the same.
And to add one more point: the Trinity, unlike the Creation or the Crucifixion, is not found in the Biblical text; it is an extrapolation from it, one that not all Christians accept. Its formulation allows us to understand that, if not empirical social scientists, then certainly humanist (generative) anthropologists are seeking the same thing as religious thinkers: defining the place of the human community and its members in the universe.
Although I have all my life had a certain liking for bears, their active participation in my life began with my marriage to Stacey, who had with her a small family of bears with which she “communed,” and into which family I was admitted. Over the twenty-plus years of our marriage, we have accumulated dozens of additional bears, almost all of whom have names and “personalities.” And even those who do not, merit a smile or a pet when we pass by, as “persons” of potentially equal value, but with whom we are simply less well acquainted.
The presence of another, particularly a spouse, provides what might otherwise be lacking in one’s relationship to a bear, the possibility of dialogue. One can no doubt talk to a bear, and even reply in its name, but to do this by oneself is not a satisfying experience. An invented dialogue with a bear is almost invariably a performance that needs an audience to be effective.
As it happens, Stacey is much more at ease playing the role of a bear than I am, perhaps because her involvement with them began at an earlier age. But in any case, most of our conversations with/about bears do not involve such performances, but rather discussions of what they would say or do in particular circumstances on the basis of their past “history,” to which a new explanatory incident might be added; we imagine how they might individually and collectively judge our past or prospective actions. Such conversations may help us to make our own decisions, but in any case they are pleasurable in themselves, embodying as they do the circulation of love within our “family.”
Once one has decided to bestow on a bear a name and a personality, one no longer thematizes this “gift,” but takes the bear’s independent persona as an object of affection. I cannot help but understand this as a valuable parallel to what a believer in God understands as their relationship, and to use it as a model for what I might not otherwise intuit so clearly. I discussed this to some extent in Chronicles 470 and 654, but in the present context it deserves further analysis.
It is in fact paradoxical to say that God’s creation of Man provides a parallel to our personation of a bear. We have no direct evidence of God’s activity other than reports of religious revelation, whereas we do have direct experience dealing with bears. Hence we should rather say that our notion of God creating Man is something we can try to understand by grasping what goes on in personating a bear. This is a casual rather than a dramatic process, and certainly involves no “ceremony,” although naming the bear differentiates it from a bear-in-general that one might give a pat en passant.
As human subjects, gifted with language and human (self-)consciousness, we find it natural to treat objects in our world, even many that unlike bears were not especially designed to be personated, as persons having a will—which is not the same as “instinct.” We begin to personify a machine, not when it simply does something, but when it seems to want to do something (usually the opposite of what we want). But the machine’s actions, actual or potential, exist prior to the personation—although we can give our car a name before driving it, we know in advance what the car will be “doing.”
A bear, in contrast, need not “do” anything. As I wrote in one of my better lines of poetry:
Bears are the stares of pairs of eyes
Although one can have a bear without visible eyes, one cannot deny that it is primarily in looking into its eyes that one relates to it as a person. Obviously God would not have to be “triggered” in this way, although in the Genesis account, he would have had plenty of examples of “pairs of eyes” before getting to Man.
The personating effect of looking into an Other pair of eyes, real or fabricated, has been discussed by phenomenological thinkers such as Buber and Levinas, but in the sense of recognition rather than creation. I recognize you in your regard. But the bear’s regard is something I recognize as well, while fully aware that I have freely determined to honor its figuration of a look with the stamp of reality.
This effect is particularly obvious when choosing a bear among others, in a store, for example. The experience of choosing a bear is, in a lighter vein, like adopting a child from an orphanage. To adopt a bear is at the very least to accept it as having a regard. Stacey and I were at Marks and Spencer in Paris in 2000 or so when we came upon a display of several dozen hedgehogs. After looking at a few, we chose our own—the most beautiful, of course—our mascot Henri, who has accompanied me to every GASC conference.
No doubt we really are persons, and bears are not in the normal sense; but there is no need to choose between claiming that God’s creation is a reality that we imitate with our human limitations in personating a bear and claiming, conversely, that our ability to attribute personhood, e.g., to bears, as opposed to merely recognizing it, is the anthropological basis for our understanding of God’s transcendental status. Such attribution is not experienced by us as a gift, but as a recognition; we recognize the bear as a person, rather than create it as such, while at the same time affirming the potential personhood of the other bears one leaves behind.
Similarly, belief in God’s creation implies that each human being does not genetically inherit his personhood, but is individually recognized as a person by God, independently of any ceremony such as baptism in which he is made part of a specific church. More than the act of “molding” Adam, divine recognition is the essence of God’s transmission of personhood. We are very much the bears of God.
Which obliges us to examine this phenomenon more closely. If God’s personation of us is real, we know that our personation of bears is not, in the sense that, left to themselves, they are merely physical objects. The frequency of personified animals and objects in folklore or animated films makes clear our ease in conceiving and interacting with them.
Yet personating a bear is not passive, nor purely imaginary. It is not like watching an animated film or reading Winnie the Pooh. It is not even like writing Winnie the Pooh—although the bears from which the story was derived were apparently Christopher Robin’s real playmates. Because the bear is a physical object, his body becomes, independently from ourselves, the foundation of his persona, just as ours is. We are responsible for his well-being, and any damage to a bear, let alone its loss, is not just painful to us like watching a character suffer or die on screen, but like an injury to a member of our family, although we do not have to answer for our responsibility to any public authority.
The possibility of personating a bear, or a familiar object, derives from the fact that the source of personhood is not worldly, like our bodies or those of our bears, but transcendental; it belongs to the realm of the sacred, of the sign. Whether God exists as the source of the transcendental, or the transcendental realm created by the sign is a human discovery/invention, this realm is not essentially material.
Fiction, the invention of imaginary personae, is in principle coeval with language itself. For even the ostensive sign must be understandable in the absence of its referent, although in principle it points to this referent and to be correctly used must be confirmed by its presence. The boy who cried “Wolf!” should have been aware of this. (The derivation of the imperative from the ostensive in The Origin of Language supposes that an ostensive sign pronounced in the absence of its referent will come to be interpreted as a request for this referent, thus as an imperative.)
The bottom line is that in personating a bear, we are performing a make-believe version of the essential operation of divine creation. This is not the creation of matter, of which neither theologians nor physicists have the slightest understanding—or even, I would say, understanding of understanding, for what does it mean to speak of there “being nothing,” followed by “something”?—but the creation of personhood. God may have created many things before creating Man, but only Man, as a person created in God’s image, could tell the story of God’s creation.
A note on the Trinity
As I have tried to show in Chronicles 419 and 675, beginning with Eve, female resentment against the “patriarchy” can be understood as the source of the felix culpa that defines earthly humanity. But to admit this is also to admit the reality of the masculine firstness resented by Eve and her daughters down to the present.
As the originary hypothesis presupposes, the most likely scenario for the origin of language was masculine. Whence the Trinity, which uses an all-male model of generation, although the most traditional form of Christianity honors the human Mary with a devotion often more fervent than that accorded to either Father or Son. We conceive of God as creating Adam; to conceive God as gestating him would contradict the very purpose of the creation of Man, which transcends the biological through the sign.
If we take Michelangelo’s image of the creation of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel as its iconic artistic representation in Western culture, the “creation” is entirely spiritual. God’s finger as the source of enspiritment or personation is also the means of designation, the minimal form of language, as in the originary hypothesis, where pointing is the root form of the aborted gesture of appropriation. And the fact that the original purpose of this gesture/sign is to avoid mimetic violence (presumably as a result of many experiences to the contrary) makes clear that language is in the first place a transcendent mode of communication rather than a signal derived from “animal language.” As a means of deferring violence, the sign repurposes a gesture susceptible of provoking it.
This enspiritment defines the paternal nature of the originary Father-Son relationship. That the male is the primary cultural gender because it is the secondary biological gender is the bottom line of human sexuality and its conflicts. What defines Adam as spirit is not speech itself but the capacity for language, the human nature that is instilled into him in an instant, and that permits him and God the Father to share access to the Spirit in which they communicate.
Like that of Adam on the Sistine ceiling, bears’ accession to personhood is entirely spiritual. In the case of bears, I think the quarrel between West and East over the filioque—the Western church considers the Spirit to be “spirated” by both Father and Son, the Eastern, only by the Father—would best be settled in the more conservative Eastern fashion; language/spirit remains the creation of the Father, although it cannot be realized without the Son’s participation in second place.
The difference between bears and humans appears to argue for the Western interpretation in the human case. Yet there is certainly something to be said for the comfort of seeing oneself as a bear of God.