The Tree of Life/1
Reflections on
the Book of Genesis by Luigino Bruni

A Journey to the End of the Night

Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market-place, and cried incessantly: “I am looking for God! I am looking for God!” As many of those who did not believe in God were standing together there, he excited considerable laughter.“(F. Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra).

Arvore da vida 3There are historical passages in which people realise that old things have passed away, a certain ‘world’ is about to end, and there is a yearning desire for the new. Our time is one of these moments. It is certainly true for Europe that is going through a great cultural night, which sooner or later will pass, but we do not know at what cost, or with what outcome.

We should start a ‘journey to the end of the night’, which can begin only in the collective hope that this night will culminate in a dawn. The many types of loneliness, sadness, mutual immunity, and the indifference towards the poor cannot be the last words of the human, nor those of our generation. We do not want to, and we cannot accept this.

To set out on a journey means not to wait for the new day passively, but move towards the east to meet the rising sun, and so anticipate its coming. Journeying means work, both in terms of culture and thought, a painful job because it goes in the opposite direction to the wave of ‘thinking’ of the people on the payroll of those who derive huge profits and increasing revenues from the loneliness, sadness and immunity of our times. This capitalism will pass because in its last phase it has not any more been capable – and neither we through and in it – to direct the strongest desires of human beings onto the goods (good things), and it got satisfied limiting its attention to merchandise. But by taking away from the horizon all that is not for sale, even desires are lowered, to the level of merchandise, and so we end up desiring only what we find inside the market spaces.

To say Europe and the West World is to say Judeo-Christian humanism in its various forms, gemmations, contaminations, diseases, reactions, but especially in its copious and extraordinary fruits of civilization. This Humanism has its own articulate founding codes. One of these, the deepest and most fruitful one, is the great Bible code, from Genesis to Revelation that provided us with the words to say politics and love, death and economics, hope and doom for millennia. In an era in which our words are tired and do not speak anymore because they are ‘worn out’ and reduced to a ‘breath of wind’ (Ecclesiastes), it is necessary to start out on a journey in search of words bigger than us and our age. Some of these words of life are found in literature, poetry, art and also in the great myths and popular narratives that have saved us during the many wars and famines, and continue to do so.

However, there are other Words, stories and narratives that are even greater and deeper. They are the ones of the Bible that have nurtured and inspired our civilization. They were revived and reinterpreted by hundreds of generations, they have filled up our most beautiful works of art and the dreams of children and adults, they made ​​us hope during the many painful times of exile and slavery that we have gone through and are going through still. There are no stories of liberation that could be greater than those of the Exodus, no wounds could be more fertile than those of Jacob, no blessing could be more desperate than that of Isaac, no laugh more serious than that of Sarah, no contract more unjust than that of Esau, no obedience more saving than that of Noah, no sin more cowardly than that of David against UriahtheHittite, no misfortune more radical than that of Job, no crying more fraternal than that of Joseph, no paradox larger than that of Abraham on Mount Moriah, no cry could be more piercing than that of the cross, no disobedience fonder of life than that of the midwives of Egypt. Or if there are, let me know – I, for one, have not come across them yet. There are many reasons making these narratives “greater”. One is their radical ambivalence, which if accepted and understood makes it possible to avoid the dichotomies that are always the first root of every ideology. These stories tell us, for example, that fraternity – sorority is always bordering with fratricide, and that these are the two paths that fork in the many crossroads of the stories of individuals and peoples. The Bible invites us to ask ourselves about the crossroads where these two roads intersect, and to realise that both are always possible, and that our responsibility is to ensure that the reasons for fraternity prevail over those of fratricide.

All the great stories are above all a free gift of words that we do not have, words donated to us to pray, think, feel and love. When the great stories and words are missing, we tend to borrow the words from gossip and fiction, and with these bricks we can only build small houses, shacks waiting for a future remission. However, with the building bricks of slavery in Egypt one could build roads to liberation, too. The Bible has always inspired a lot of literature, a great deal of art and sometimes law or politics, too. Not modern economics, though, that, apart from some rare exceptions (Genovesi, Wicksteed, Viner and a few others), has never let itself be inspired by the Book of Books. Economic life had been ‘under the protection’ of the sacred texts (on credit, interest…) for great many centuries, but as soon as it reached adulthood, it sought and wanted its freedom, and ran away from all that. But today, a few centuries later, it is possible, and I believe necessary, to start a new dialogue on freedom and reciprocity. The Bible has many words to offer to our economy, and therefore to our lives. It can tell us things it hasn’t said yet, because it’s been too long that no one has asked it to speak, to speak to us.  But if it is true that reading the Bible can enrich the economy, it is equally true that new ‘economic’ questions can make those texts say things that they have not yet said. Human history has always been but a dialogue composed of new questions and new answers; and if on the one hand the Word has pushed forward the human, on the other hand, and on a different level, the history of mankind has also allowed us to understand ever new meanings of the scriptures (this is where the enormous dignity of history lies, too). If the Bible starts to speak again in the streets, in business, in the markets, all these human-inhabited places will have great benefit from it; but the biblical text, too, will end up enriched as it will be able to offer new answers that it has not yet given because of the lack of questions. Without the nourishing environment of the squares and markets, without the humus of everyday life and the fatigue of work, the Great Book does not become the tree of life.

With this background and with a strong sense of intellectual, ethical and civil responsibility, next Sunday I will start – not without trepidation, but with great enthusiasm – publishing my reflections on some of the books of the Bible. The first will be the Book of Genesis, whose richness will make us stop for several weeks reflecting on its extraordinary ‘stories’. I will also try to make these ancients texts say some contemporary economic and civil words by asking questions to them, but the most interesting and currently most needed questions will be those that these texts will pose to us. The greater part of the challenge will be not to try to update those ancient pages, but to make ourselves their contemporaries. And we will read them along with thousands of years of history, in the company of many, believers or not, who have entered into dialogue with the Bible, and by enriching it they have enriched the world. The St. Matthew Passion has become more splendid after Bach, Jacob is better after Rembrandt, Joseph is more beautiful after Thomas Mann. If it were not so, history would be an unnecessary background of a theatrical performance of a script that is already completely written, or those early books would no longer be alive.

If we want to save ourselves we must imitate the midwives of Egypt: do not obey the murder commands of the new Pharaohs, and save the children. And we shall have a land for ourselves again.

by Luigino Bruni – published in Avvenire on February 16, 2014

Translated by Eszter Kató