God’s Abdication as the Principle of a New Western Political Theology

IWMPost Article

Even though the war against Ukraine has mobilized the West to counter Russia's aggression, the Western countries are not guided by a long-lasting, consistent vision of themselves. In the long run, however, such a vision could prevail. That is why this article adumbrates a political theology that could fill the vacuum of indecisiveness.

Tsimtsum is the idea of God’s “contraction,” invented by Isaac Luria (1534–1572), a Jewish kabbalist from Safed in Galilee. Although Luria was active as a charismatic teacher for only two years and left almost no written legacy, his reinvention of the Kabbalah survived through the handwritten copies of his followers, which circulated from Palestine to Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands, and reached Poland and Ukraine, where Chassidism was born out of the Lurianic spirit. 

Before Gershom Scholem rediscovered and explicated Lurianism’s philosophical meaning to a wider audience in the 1930s, the idea of tsimtsum had wandered through the Jewish world and become the impulse for Sabbatianism, a messianic movement in the 17th century that almost turned Jewish traditional life upside down. Later, Sabbatian heterodox ideas found refuge in Polish Frankism, another forgotten movement that has been recently reintroduced by Olga Tokarczuk in The Books of Jacob (2014). Also, not many people are aware that Lurianic visionary thinking largely inspired the German Idealism of Hegel and Schelling, thus entering the center of European philosophy. Hence, recalling Luria’s theology today is meant to reform the center, with the aim of strengthening it by inventing a suitable political theology for the Western world, which, as it stands, lacks consistency when confronted with Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. Here political theology is not about religious belief or dogma, but rather seeks to provide model, inspiration, and guiding principle.
Lurianic Kabbalah has multiple versions, yet one can discern its fundamental idea: namely that God, in order to create the world, had to limit their power and either disappeared or at least made an “empty space,” otherwise the Creation never would have occurred or humans would have been created as marionettes. If Ludwig Feuerbach is right and visions of God are projections of our own existence, then late modernity in the West could find the most obvious symbol of its own fatigue and anxiety in a God who vanishes. We find this God not only in the Lurianic Kabbalah but also in modern philosophy. Each theogony has its distinct orientation however. In Philipp Mainländer’s Die Philosophie der Erlösung (1876), the author imagined a God who could be a patron the era of entropy. The scientific hypothesis about entropy claims that the ultimate point of the cosmic odyssey is the exhaustion of energy down to the zero level. According to Mainländer, God initiated a great move of undoing reality, which seems to be nothing but divinity’s prolonged suicide, in which all the suffering creatures participate. Although the idea of expending less energy sounds congruent with today’s proposals of degrowth, Mainländer’s groundless pessimism makes him more a prophet of doom than a visionary reformer. The troubling question is how to motivate ourselves to work on improving human living conditions if one believes that God’s (and the world’s) ideal destination point is a dissolution into nothingness. Can we live without a secular “faith in the world, a wish and hope that the world will survive our own death?

Another reading of the self-limited God was provided by Ivan Ilyin (1883–1954), a Russian philosopher who is most cherished in the Kremlin today for his nationalistic philosophy that helps reunite Russia’s imperial past with its Soviet era and fascism. In his interpretation of Hegel—the philosopher who saw world history as the conceptual fulfilment of Absolute Spirit—Ilyin, in contrast, came to the morose conclusion that God failed, because, out of his excessive love, he created humans endowed with too much freedom. This, in turn, made any reconciliation of the human and the divine impossible because of human capricious unpredictability. Instead of fulfillment, God left chaos. Human excessive nature reflects God’s own “original sin. Ilyin’s antidote to that deficiency was dictatorship as the only way to correct God’s mistake. Since human freedom interrupts the realization of the ideal, totalitarian rule could help by steering sinful creatures in the right direction and establishing a permanent order. For Ilyin, Russia was called to establish such an order and save the world. Such political messianism was built on an abysmal pessimism not that different from Mainländer’s. For Ilyin the world seen ontologically is “God’s failure,” an “infinitely continued cosmogony” that brings “chaos and endless suffering.

I claim that the kabbalistic vision of Creation—tsimtsum—especially in its modern reappropriation by Gershom Scholem, Hans Jonas, and Hannah Arendt, is able to refute Mainländer’s and Ilyin’s logic and to compete with their pessimistic narratives, thus giving the exhausted West a new spirit. In short, the tsimtsum stories acknowledge that God is absent in the world or at least nonoperative in the domain left for humans. Yet, contrary to Mainländer, Jonas sees God’s gesture not as a suicide but as a divine abdication, a generous act of letting beings be. Tsimtsum is like an encouraging wink from the divine parents, who believe that their adult progeny can survive without external assistance (providence, miracles, last judgment). What is more, this kind of theogony clearly resituates human freedom as something wanted by God. This psychotheological moment instructs humans not to have nostalgia for some kind of lost, mythical fullness. It was God’s deliberate choice and risk to leave Creation in the hands of the creatures. Otherwise, they could not be free. It is from this angle that one can ask of thinkers like Ilyin why they contradict God’s will? Who are they that they would usurp the power to limit human freedom by force, whereas God abdicated from such an absolute position?

In the end, the limitation of human freedom is necessary. Nevertheless, the crucial disagreement here with the political right (not to mention religious fundamentalists) about this concentrates on how it can be achieved. Lurianic political myth is a sort of persuasion, a strong image that defines ethics as making a space for the others. However, Lurianic theological imagination respects the limitations of the human condition, its fragility. Imitatio Dei is also limited; that is why nobody is encouraged to annihilate oneself in order to make space for others. 

Analyzed philosophically, tsimtsum—God’s withdrawal—means that the ban on absoluteness is the condition sine qua non of plurality and life on earth. Hence, freedom should not be mistaken for total sovereignty. Tsimtsumic cosmology is a theology of the world, in contrast to the theologies of the absolute. Beyond the question of worldview and faith, Jonas wrote that “we must regard ourselves and all life around us as a cosmic rarity, a stroke of luck that caused a potentiality, hidden in matter’s womb. Tsimtsum is the story about the divine sparks—freedom or spontaneity—that must be collected and protected to be cherished. This moment dialectically links cosmological scale and individual liberties. It is exactly this link that could be sacrificed as first in the shadow of ecological apocalypse, because the urgent task of the salvation of the planet will make individuals less and less significant. Here a political reading of Lurianic legacy shows itself as a necessary counterpoint: it could give the West a strategic vision of how to abdicate from absolute hegemony and legitimize human self-limitation without sacrificing non-sovereign freedom. 

Gerold Necker, Einführung in die lurianische Kabbala, Frankfurt and Main/Leipzig 2008.
See Paweł Maciejko, The Mixed Multitude: Jacob Frank and the Frankist Movement, 1755–1816, Philadelphia 2011.
Christoph Schulte, Zimzum: Gott und Weltursprung, Berlin 2014. See also Agata Bielik-Robson, Daniel H. Weiss (eds.), Tsimtsum and Modernity: Lurianic Heritage in Modern Philosophy and Theology, Boston 2020.
See Rafael Zawisza, Ludger Hagedorn (eds.), “Faith in the World”: Post-Secular Readings of Hannah Arendt, Campus Verlag, Frankfurt am Main/New York 2021.
On the political dimension of Ilyin’s theogony and his role in contemporary Russia, see Timothy Synder, The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America, New York 2018, chapter 1.
Iwan Iljin, Die Philosophie Hegels als kontemplative Gotteslehre, Bern 1946, pp. 361, 375, 415. 
Hans Jonas, Prologue, transl. Hunter and Hildegarde Hannum, in: Hans Jonas, Mortality and Morality: A Search for the Good after Auschwitz, Evanston 1996, p. 51.

Rafael Zawisza is an independent scholar and Józef Tischner Fellow at the IWM (2022)