A Symbolic Meditation on Hiroshima at 75: Divine-Human Transfiguration and Transhuman Disfiguration
We tend to forget that the advent of the Atomic Age, with the destruction of Hiroshima in a single bomb blast 75 years ago on August 6, 1945, was not greeted with dread so much as with wonder at mankind’s near-divine power over matter. For it was thought that man was now providentially endowed with the limitless ability to refashion reality according to his own purposes, bringing progress to ultimate fruition; this was worth the risk of destroying the world as collateral damage. These Promethean assumptions have since then migrated to seemingly more benign ways to harness the powers of Creation to further manmade projects. It is now widely assumed that these processes will eventually dispense with human agency altogether. AI will take over, moving on to the reign of transhuman “spiritual machines” that many technophiles look forward to as the meaning of history and evolution. Such dreams of an inevitable but relatively smooth transition beyond the human condition still entail the annihilation of man and nature through their replacement by something artificial and all the better. It is easy to overlook their continuity with the literal annihilation that has been haunting us since Hiroshima.
Not that nuclear holocaust is any less of a threat now, as the receding shadow of the Cold War allows to indulge in a false sense of security. Thus, treaties aimed at tempering the nuclear arms race are being allowed to lapse even as “limited” tactical nuclear strikes openly become part of military planning. As a result, the world is actually more exposed than ever to ill-considered or accidental nuclear hostilities likely to trigger instant escalation to mutually assured destruction.1 I will be arguing here that these enduring apocalyptic implications of Hiroshima —the obvious threat of nuclear war and the more subtle threat of transhumanism— can be illuminated by a symbolic reading of this pivotal event as a significant inversion of the Transfiguration of Christ that is celebrated on the calendar date on which it occurred, August 6.
Epiphanies of Differentiating Integration and Fusional Disintegration
The feast of the Transfiguration celebrates the luminous manifestation of Christ to three apostles —Peter, James and John— on Mount Tabor as a foretaste of his eternal glory as God, in which human beings would be called to share through his Passion, Resurrection and Second Coming. Taking that historical coincidence as revelatory rather than happenstance may at times seem to take us far afield in the pursuit of its various ramifications. But it is my hope the exercise will prove enlightening, as befits this feast of light as such, intimately related to Theophany, known in the West as Epiphany, though with different contents and emphases: the Adoration of the Magi rather than Christ’s Baptism.
Coming exactly eight months apart, both Theophany (January 6) and the Transfiguration (August 6) are among the greatest feasts of Orthodox Christianity, centered on concrete manifestations of God as a Tri-unity of distinct Persons. The apostle Peter emphasizes this in his Second Letter (1:17), with its account of the Transfiguration where Jesus Christ “was honored and glorified by God the Father, when the Sublime Glory itself spoke to him and said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; he enjoys my favor.’ We heard this ourselves, spoken from heaven, when we were with him on the holy mountain.”2 This witness of the Father on behalf of the Son has a precedent in Christ’s baptism in the Jordan when he emerged from a desert retreat to begin his public ministry. This is part of the meaning of the Greek term Theophany for “the Manifestation of God”, which also refers to the revelation of his trinitarian character, previously unknown in Hebrew tradition. The three Persons were manifested for the first time, at once distinctly and together, when the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus in the shape of a dove as the same words as those Peter quotes were heard coming from heaven, identifying him as the Son of the Father. Likewise, at the Transfiguration, the light shining out of the Son’s body and the bright cloud from which the voice of the Father came are both taken to be the Holy Spirit itself as God’s “Sublime Glory”.
Now let us consider some of the ways in which Hiroshima parodies these features of the Transfiguration. Hiroshima is also the consummation of a previous similar event, as the public revelation of a nuclear capability first tested in secret under the code name “Trinity” on July 16, 1945. It took place in the Jornada del Muerto desert of New Mexico, whose name appropriately translates as “route of the dead man”, with a reverse import which can suggest an inversion of the life-giving baptism of Christ by the desert prophet John, where the Holy Trinity was revealed at the opening of his ministry’s journey. This was thus a fitting site for that epochal rip in the fabric of reality (an opening unto hell rather than heaven), portrayed as such by David Lynch in a uniquely experimental television moment as part of his 2017 third season of Twin Peaks, set to the jarring sounds of the late Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima (1960). Where a bright cloud addressed the apostles with the Father’s voice on Mount Tabor to teach them about diversity in unity, the Trinity blast and fireball could be seen 200 miles (320 km) away and heard 50 miles (80 km) away, as deafening noise and blinding light. This radioactive burst of chaotic fusional interchange between matter and energy broke down communication and incapacitated human senses, instead of bringing light to them through the incarnate Logos. His uncreated energies brightly radiated through created forms without bursting or consuming them as might have been expected of divine fire, on the same pattern of the Burning Bush: “his face shone like the sun and his clothes became as dazzling as light.”(Mt 17:1)3
According to the Wikipedia article about the bomb test, the name Trinity had been chosen for this detonation under the inspiration of John Donne’s mystical poetry by Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Los Alamos Laboratory. But it was pagan theophanies that came to his mind at the moment of the explosion. In one account, he then recalled a verse from the Bhagavad Gita (XI,12):
If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one …
In a later account, Oppenheimer stated:
We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent.
These three contrasting attitudes before the shocking epiphany may recall the three different postures of Peter, James, and John in the iconography of the Transfiguration. The latter reflects a threefold hierarchy of levels of ability to gaze at the uncreated Light: being overwhelmed by it (like Peter), peeping at it through the hands (James), or gazing upon it (John). The Trinity test personnel’s three reactions betray less meaningfully demarcated versions of the cancelling of mind before matter turned energy: silly laughter, tearful grief, grim silence, the speechless majority being wiser than the emotional few, in contrast to the proportions found in gradual initiation to wisdom. Oppenheimer continues:
I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.
Now Christ’s Transfiguration in dazzling sun-like brightness was also his answer to questions about the end of the world. It is no coincidence that the verses preceding the Transfiguration story in all three Synoptic Gospels deal with time’s final goal and consummation in the Second Coming of Christ in glory —e.g. Matthew 16:28:
I tell you solemnly, there are some of these standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming with his kingdom.4
It has been argued that what the three apostles were to see about a week later on the Tabor already was the Kingdom of God, “free and invincible beyond all time and all ages,” to quote a sermon for the feast of the Transfiguration by Saint Gregory Palamas 5 This eschatological dimension of the Transfiguration has also been used by Constantin Andronikov to explain the symbolic significance of a custom of that feast: the blessing of seasonal fruits after the liturgy (be it grapes in southern climes or apples in northern ones, both rich in Biblical meaning).
The Transfiguration being the prophetic vision of the final illumination, the Church wants to extend its light onto the fruits of nature, which has undergone baptismal sanctification in the river Jordan, and this at the time of year when that produce ripens and when man is about to reap what he has sown. Before the Transfiguration, fruits are still “darkened”, like Adam’s nature and because of it ; they have not yet been touched by the light of Spirit; just as Adam, as microcosm and king of nature, has not yet received the capacity for divinization. The fruits of the earth are just matter. They have received the grace of living, since they exist; that of sanctification, since they have obtained the grace of palingenesis from Baptism; not yet that of illumination in Edenic beauty. The Trinity communicates it to them on Mount Tabor.6
What greater contrast could there be to the acutely toxic, sterilizing, distorting and disfiguring effects of radioactivity on all living things, as the fallout of the Trinity test, and especially of Hiroshima?
Empires of the Sun and Mass Holocaust
However, if we recall that, in the strictly physical terms of modern science, the sun itself is nothing but a massive, on-going nuclear explosion, the pagan context of Hiroshima becomes part and parcel of that symbolism. For Japanese militarism had been driven by a fundamentalist political form of indigenous Shinto, which in itself might well seem a rather innocuous animistic nature religion. But as a direct descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu, the Emperor was by then worshipped as a literal god to which all should be sacrificed with the total mobilization of society, as a kind of reactionary modernist answer to the challenge Western secular modernity represented for traditional values. Modernity’s most dubious traits of convergent industrial standardization and command-and-control state centralization had come to be wedded to fetishized archaic features of Japan’s traditional ethos: fanatical loyalty, heroic embrace of aestheticized death, etc. In harnessing them and heightening them to destructive absurdity, modern mobilizing processes also revealed once and for all the inherent impasse of even traditional paganism, no better in this respect than European fascism’s neo-pagan fabrications. Unchecked by post-Christian liberal scruple, Japanese culture was if anything even less immune to an all-consuming instrumentalization of resources, bodies, and souls, making all particulars expendable in service of the general collective. This nihilism of traditionalism gone mad was deployed outward in ruthless predation and unspeakable cruelties inflicted on most of Asia and the Pacific. But it was also turned inward through the nation’s own brutalization and the state’s readiness to sacrifice every last one of the Emperor’s subjects to his solar godhead. It was (we are told) to avoid extra months or even years of this butchery on the way to Japan’s inevitable defeat that total war was fast-forwarded with the nuclear option. Nevertheless, the latter was but an instant hi-tech version of the same process of total mobilization that Japan had brought to a pitch of inhumanity on a par with that of the worst totalitarian regimes. But it fell to the United States of America, as the vanguard and vortex of industrial modernity, to extend that process of mobilization all the way down from macroscopic social reality to microscopic material reality, and up to a symbolically cosmic scope.
This convergence in hubris played out as a striking continuity in symbolic patterns between losers and victors. For Japan, there was thus a kind of instant karma or poetic justice in having the sun fall on the earth from the sky in the heavy condensed form of a bomb, as a result of that country having itself blasphemously materialized the symbolic sun into a ruthless, all-devouring state machinery of death and destruction. A comparable fate befell the militaristic Aztec Empire, with the “industrialized” sacrificial sun-worship that drove its constant conquests, and its dramatic comeuppance at the hands of the Conquistadores of post-Reconquista Spain, which thereupon became the first global empire on which the sun never set. More literally in Japan than in Mexico though, the sun above as a living symbol was treated as a worldly process and fell down to the ground, unleashing irresistible material energy that blew away all the militaristic state’s spiritual pretentions. (One may be reminded here of the Gospel title of René Girard’s book I see Satan falling like lightning.) Japan’s Emperor Hirohito fortunately reacted to the second atomic bombing in Nagasaki as a man and a true sovereign rather than as a merciless, inaccessible god, revealing himself as such by having his voice broadcast for the first time in a call to national surrender. His divinity was appropriately snuffed out in the process, leaving him a merely mortal constitutional monarch in the aftermath. This marked the spectacular climax (with both a bang and a whimper!) of a process initiated by Christianity when, through the witness of its martyrs, it denied divine status to the head of the Roman state. After it later became the Empire’s official religion under Theodosius II, Christian rulers were left with only a symbolic iconicity, faintly echoed in today’s constitutional heads of state.
On the other hand, Christianity created a monster with its distant offshoots of the secular state and modern science. For in the process of desacralizing society and nature, impersonally efficient ways of mobilizing them were developed. They were allowed to acquire a sacred-like potency of their own; one that could rival —and even turn literal— the fiercest, most epic depictions of the divine, betraying its archaic roots in primal violence. This is the symbolic import of Oppenheimer’s epiphany at the Trinity blast site, with its sun-like fireball rising from the earth to the sky as a test run for Hiroshima. The old Japanese empire fell with the rising sun when the atom bomb brought its celestial symbol crashing down to earth. But a new imperial Christian nation took over the unholy fire of nihilistic violence driving ambitions for world-domination from the failing hands of the last truly pagan empire, having technologically perfected it to an ultimate level. America’s development of the bomb was promptly followed by its mimetic spread in handy, condensed form as a nuclear threat over Creation itself. Every second of time since then can only be an uncertain reprieve on a death warrant, rather like another spin in an-going game of Russian roulette, as a randomly reset countdown to planetary annihilation.
Existential Implications of Hiroshima: From Fiery Plasma to Cool Plasticity
I will never forget my first conversation with Bernard Charbonneau (1910-1996), a neglected pioneer of the critique of technological society (for which Jacques Ellul —usually associated with it— gave him the credit), when he brought up the epiphany of Hiroshima, as a blinding light thrown on our times.7Charbonneau felt the flash of the Hiroshima explosion blinded his contemporaries to its own epochal import as the revelation of the existential predicament of modernity. From then on, as he stated in late 1945 in a public lecture in Pau on “The Year 2000” to which Hiroshima catapulted mankind, the earth was made one under the threat of the final explosion; all that separates us from it is “a decision of our freedom”, making us like God through this power of suicide.8 It is no coincidence that existentialism came into vogue immediately upon war’s end, as some Christian thinkers noted even then. Atheistic existentialist Albert Camus and Protestant personalist Denis de Rougemont were among a tiny handful of French intellectuals who shared Bernard Charbonneau’s anguished reaction to Hiroshima at the time. During the conflict it ended, Charbonneau had regretfully passed up the chance to join the French Resistance, on account of the vital message he felt only he could deliver about what technological progress was doing to society. For it seemed to him that no one else saw it for what it was or cared enough to try to do anything about it, even though that was the real issue of World Wars I, II, and possibly III, regardless of which side won or lost. He felt bitter-sweetly vindicated in this choice by Hiroshima as the best illustration of his point: for this supreme abomination was not the deed of fascist dictators but of a Christian, liberal, democratic nation. And rather than mad scientists, those who thought up and devised the bomb were more “like saints or like children,” he told me on July 8, 1988. Charbonneau was thinking of people like Einstein or Oppenheimer, who were not evil by any means, on the contrary. They just played their well-meaning part for the lesser evil as greater good within the Manhattan Project as germ cell of the nuclear-military-industrial complex, hidden away in the desert fastnesses of a freedom-loving democracy.
Free of public or moral accountability, that totalitarian cancer growth was from the start given over to the autonomous development of technological means that make all stated ends and rival values equally pointless. For they treat all things as quantifiable dead matter, or rather as “standing reserve” (Heidegger) of energy to fuel their own aimless expansion. Technological society’s blinkered pursuit of efficiency blocks out any spiritual daylight from shedding meaning on the peculiar qualities of beings, rendering them all expendable. An Orthodox theologian like Andronikov might attribute such insensitivity to the lack of an organ for the uncreated energies pervading Creation as they did the body of Christ on Mount Tabor:
The denial of the Spirit of life and ignorance of Transfiguration through grace are among the greatest poverties of materialism. The latter commits matter to a futureless existence, and the flesh to a death without resurrection. It gives up on eternal renewal and condemns itself either to a status quo of indeterminate length, or to mortifying entropy. Aside from the notion of matter, and for the same “pneumatic” reasons, the notion of energy loses the better part of its meaning and of its depth in materialism.9
What truly troubled Charbonneau however was the willingness of many supposedly high-minded humanitarians to celebrate —as immanent spiritual epiphany and ultimate eschatological fulfillment— globalized modern technology’s Activation of Energy. This was the title of a book about the spiritual life inherent in atomic particles by the worst culprit, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955). This Jesuit evolutionary thinker posthumously became fashionable well beyond an initial coterie of progressive Catholics. He remains a kind of patron saint of transhumanism as its pre-war initiator. But at the height of his fame, Charbonneau’s first published book was devoted to debunking Teilhard de Chardin, Prophet of a Totalitarian Era (1963). The inherent inhumanity of Teilhard’s technophile theodicy was evident in “A Few Reflections on the Spiritual Impact of the Atomic Bomb” (1946) for the journal of French Jesuits, that failed to even directly mention Hiroshima and Nagasaki or their human toll. They focussed instead on the Trinity and Bikini research and testing facilities as harbingers of world peace, through global unanimity in the concerted effort to consolidate mastery of the energy at the heart of matter, portraying this as the divine fulfillment of man’s destiny and the goal of evolution.
Teilhard’s text is replete with inverted symbolic echoes of the Transfiguration, and especially of its defining role in the hesychastic practice of the prayer of the heart, to which I will be returning shortly. Let us first note that, as on Mount Tabor, through the atom bomb, “in each of us, man is opened up to the meaning, the responsibilities and the hopes of his cosmic function in the universe, that transform him willy-nilly into another man, down to his innermost depths.”10 For “by massively liberating the energy of atoms, man not only changed the face of the earth. Inevitably, at the very heart of his being, he happens to have set in motion, ipso facto, a long chain of reactions which, within the brief interval of a material explosion, made of him, at least virtually, a new being, who had not known himself.”11 —Rather like transfigured man as a partaker in divine nature, only by a process patterned on the chain reaction in fissile matter. By this activation of energy, the atomic explosion was “but a mere prelude to a series of fabulous events which, after having given us access to the heart of the atom, would lead us to break into, one by one, so many other citadels already more or less encircled by our science. Vitalization of matter, by the edification of super-molecules,” leading to the multiplication of plastics and other synthetic compounds. “Shaping of the human organism, using hormones” —including for sex change or test-tube reproduction? Why not: “Control of heredity and gender [les sexes], by the play of genes and chromosomes.” Genetically modified humans then. “Internal readjustment and liberation of our own soul through the direct operation of the drives gradually uncovered by psychoanalysis.” Psychotechnics then. “Awakening and capture of the unfathomable intellectual and affective powers still dormant in the human mass…” This sounds like 1960s California’s Human Potential Movement already; not by chance had Teilhard sponsored before the war the transhumanist Centre d’étude des problèmes humains (CEPH) alongside one of HP’s future luminaries, Aldous Huxley—though he clearly was more sanguine about the prospects for a Brave New World.
All these features of transhuman transfiguration for a New Age of limitless technological possibility were already implicit in the Trinity explosion: “Cannot any manner of effects be provoked by the appropriate arrangement of matter, and, on the basis of the results obtained in the nuclear area, are we not entitled to hope to sooner or later be able to arrange any kind of matter?” After “the famous sunrise on Arizona” (sic: that sun from below actually rose in New Mexico), “man must from now on collaborate in his own genesis” and “only think of growing and biologically perfecting himself.”12 The ultimate “effect of the light projected by the atomic fire into the psychic depths of the earth”, concludes Teilhard, is to raise in it, at its apex, “the question of evolution’s destination”, which is none other than “the problem of God.”13—As long, that is, as God is understood as continuous with evolution, being the providential endpoint (Teilhard calls this Cosmic Christ the “Omega Point”) of autonomous technological progress. For the atom bomb points the way beyond a humanity of mere mortal individuals, to the transhuman “noosphere” (from Greek nous for “intellect”) of a spiritual/electronic collective consciousness that totalizes the fully mobilized cosmos within its all-conquering intentional unity.
From that lofty perspective, it matters not then that the immediate “effect of the light projected by the atomic fire” onto the physical surface of human beings is more akin to the heat of hell, even leaving “nuclear shadows” as blank outlines of their bodies seared onto the walls of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These icons of annihilation were left there as vivid portrayals of the instant erasure of the human figure by a blast of fire from without. The latter may be contrasted to the heavenly light without decline (the Eighth Day of Creation that completes it with heavenly Risen Life) that illuminated from within every feature of Christ on Mount Tabor, as a model of the way it gently highlights the features of the human face in an icon. Inverting these effects of the eternal Lord’s Transfiguration, the invisible radiation of destabilized matter often inflicted horrible disfiguration on those exposed to it, as though to make hell visible on earth. Where divine energies suffuse created forms with the uncreated light of the Logos that brings out every creature’s particular logos, Hiroshima’s atomic energy was unleashed as formless plasma to blot out or destroy all forms, making them revert to primal chaos if not to nothingness.
Teilhard de Chardin was right to draw a straight line between such plasma’s limitless energy and the infinite plasticity of matter once all forms can be nullified, thereby becoming indiscriminately malleable. The Atomic Age is also that of Plastic: a “Plastocene” Epoch that follows the Holocene when historical cultures emerged, as it had the glacial Pleistocene. Reality is thus recast as a single boundless energetic potential to remake anything given into any shape or form assigned by man, like a “divine” display of arbitrary power. If the Transfiguration had reintegrated body and spirit, just as created forms with uncreated Light, Hiroshima ushered in their methodical disintegration, starting from the smallest unit of matter with nuclear fission, and giving off more heat than light, as one would expect from opening the gates of hell onto chaos. But Teilhard’s emphasis on atoms as the heart of matter that was pried open by the atom bomb also points in the opposite direction, to the human heart of the matter at stake in the Christian feast that Hiroshima’s commemoration overshadows on August 6.
Light in the Heart of Man and Fire from the Heart of Matter
For the Transfiguration of Christ on Mount Tabor provides the key to the mystical theology of the Orthodox Church, being the feast of divine glory as such. This uncreated light without beginning nor end, beyond time, space and the natural senses, shone through Christ’s humble human form to show his closest disciples Peter, James and John that in him, in spite of appearances, it was God Himself who would voluntarily suffer death on the Cross. Prior to the Resurrection, this light could only be seen by these chosen few among Christ’s apostles, through a miraculous transmutation of their physical senses, as an outer brilliance shining through his body. But the sacrament of the Eucharist instituted by Christ at the Last Supper allows the faithful to be part of his risen body, and to discover —to whatever degree—the same light within themselves, in their heart. The ultimate goal of Orthodox contemplative life is to be able to see this inner, uncreated light, called precisely the Taboric light by those —chiefly monks and nuns— who strive for this grace of being transfigured by it in turn through the ascetic discipline of the prayer of the heart.
It was with reference to Eastern monks’ contemplative posture when praying in the heart that the derisive phrase “navel-gazing” was coined by intellectualistic, action-minded Western clerics in the Middle Ages. It was more apt than they realized, since this was the technique for attaining the mystical vision of Taboric light, and the name “Tabor” means “navel.” It applies as much to the heart as the spiritual center of a human being as to a specific mountaintop as the symbolic spatial center of the cosmos, where heaven and earth, God and man first appeared as one in the person of Christ.
Many features of this theophany were fittingly inverted on August 6 and 9, 1945. It is the atom’s nucleus that was split, that is its pit or kernel, its core as innermost center, violently divided in contrast to the peaceful unity prayer brings to the human heart. To achieve this, the heart of inanimate matter was broken down and made to decay into unstable states (isotopes) of its heaviest elements, uranium for Hiroshima and plutonium for Nagasaki, whose names refer to ancient gods of heaven and hell respectively (Greek Ouranos, Roman Pluto). To release hellfire from heaven, the two bombs exploded above ground, 600 meters high in Hiroshima, 550 meters high in Nagasaki. Icons of the Transfiguration show us Christ on top of Mount Tabor, therefore 575 meters high (midway between the two blast altitudes!), surrounded by a radiating halo, sometimes including jagged edges —reminiscent to us of graphic conventions for the representation of explosions in comic strips. Christ is a light from above, as it were alighting on a natural height that men can do their part to ascend from below. The nuclear devices never touched ground but blasted it from high above in an irresistible shockwave as hot as the sun, flattening most buildings and instantly annihilating, killing, or maiming all flesh in the path of its firestorm. As a result, a mushroom column of consumed earth materials rose up like a dark artificial mountain of chaotic debris and toxic gas, top-heavy with a sun-like fireball in lieu of a halo, to storm the heavens like Babel’s answer to God’s guiding pillars of cloud and fire in Exodus 13:21.
The fascinating horror sacrum of this supreme symbol of man’s perennial drive to self-divinization in inverted imitation of God has misled many more Christians than Pierre Teilhard de Chardin over the last 75 years, in ways that would be tedious and perhaps sensitive to enumerate. Keeping closely to our symbolic focus, it seems safe to say that the Orthodox spirituality of the Transfiguration’s Taboric light should constitute a proper antidote against the poisons unleashed by its Luciferan counterfeit at Hiroshima. We might thus turn for inspiration to Saint Seraphim of Sarov, a famed early-XIXth-century hermit and spiritual elder who has gone all the way of the prayer of the heart to vindicate the on-going concrete possibility of the Taboric light and its transfigurative effects. Theologian Olivier Clément liked to portray Seraphim’s ascetic path in the Russian wilderness as a purifying descent through every level of Creation in turn, from the human through the animal to vegetative life and even their mineral bedrock. It is from within these essential depths of created existence, on a trajectory parallel to the scientific quest for material knowledge but driven by humility instead of pride, that the uncreated light eventually burst forth in and around him. He had after all received the name “of fire” (Seraphim) upon becoming a monk, and heaven did open up to him in this life, including through visitations from the Mother of God and, significantly, apostles Peter and John. These witnesses to the Transfiguration instilled in him a calling to spread its radiance in a spirituality encompassing the body and all of culture. He took up this mission in anticipation of future historical ordeals which Russia would be among the first countries to experience in the XXth century. Upon its start, the Russian religious renaissance was catalyzed by the publication of revelations Seraphim had made to his disciple Motovilov in 1831, about Christian life as a matter of acquiring the Holy Spirit. For it had spoken to him and even engulfed Motovilov alongside him within a luminous cloud where both appeared transfigured like Christ on Mount Tabor. Here was an eschatological consummation of created life in the Spirit shining through its concrete individual forms and brought within reach of even ordinary Christians along Orthodoxy’s path of inner prayer. What could be more antithetical to the explosive disintegration of organic structures in the raw energy blasting apart all forms indiscriminately, the threat hanging over every living thing since Hiroshima put the world in thrall to nuclear terror?
The Nuclear Option as Mystical Marriage of Sacred Violence and Political Religion
And yet, by a mind-boggling irony, “Russia’s nuclear arsenal also has its own patron saint—St. Seraphim, whose remains were discovered in 1991 in a disused monastery in Sarov, a small town in central Russia that was home to several key nuclear facilities in the Soviet era.”14 It is hard not to see this as a highly symbolic coincidence, precisely as the diabolical inversion of the spirituality of the Transfiguration of which Seraphim is most emblematic among the saints. For it is to be feared that, much of the time, Seraphim is invoked not to dispel the abomination of nuclear stockpiles through peaceful disarmament, but instead to bless them and further their development and deployment in the geopolitical interests of “Holy Russia”. “The Russian Orthodox Church also consecrated the country’s nuclear arsenal during a service in Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral in 2007”, only recently discontinuing the controversial practice of blessing rituals for world-destroying warheads.
Although the global Orthodox Church has condemned weapons of mass destruction, Patriarch Kirill has credited Russia’s nuclear capability with ‘preventing World War III’ and ensuring Russia’s state sovereignty.
Vsevolod Chaplin, an influential priest and former spokesman for the patriarch, told the Vzglyad newspaper that nuclear weapons were the country’s “guardian angels” and necessary to preserve “Orthodox civilization.” “Only nuclear weapons protect Russia from enslavement by the West,” Chaplin said.
Ideas such as these have been melded into a radical ideology described as “Atomic Orthodoxy” by Yegor Kholmogorov, a nationalist writer. “To remain Orthodox, Russia must be a strong nuclear power, and to remain a strong nuclear power, Russia must be Orthodox,” Kholmogorov wrote. Kholmogorov’s ideology was never officially approved by Patriarch Kirill, but it has gained a degree of popularity in recent years among radical Orthodox groups. 14
The deep intertwining of religion, politics and strategy in what has been described by Dmitry Adamsky as Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy (2019) is the most extreme example of “a near collapse of Russian ethnic, national, and even civic identity with Orthodox identity” in this century, prompting theologian Brandon Gallagher to muse that “Orthodoxy has ironically been secularized by its own self-nationalization. One is reminded of the nationalization of Shinto in post-1868 Japan with the creation of the state ideology of ‘Shinto secular.’”15 Vladimir Putin has been known to muse that in the event of nuclear conflict, Russians as a whole would automatically go to heaven as martyred victims of aggression, while Americans, not having any time to repent before Russia’s blessed missiles hit them, would all just as surely go straight to hell. This comes dangerously close to the kamikaze mentality that allowed Japan to industrially weaponize the spiritual claims of heroic sacrifice, to the point of taking it for granted on the mass scale of its entire population. The political instrumentalization of religion naturally issued in the sacralization of a nihilistic totalitarian militarism. But like fascism in the West, the latter had first taken root during World War I as a result of the total mobilization of society demanded by the industrial system, taking the proportions of a national suicide cult by the end of World War II.
There can be no doubt that, far from being an innocent victim of U.S. aggression, just like its ally Germany, Japan would not have hesitated to use nuclear weapons had it managed to develop them first. The willingness to destroy the world is intimately tied to a readiness to sacrifice the nation itself to its own all-consuming idol. The founding sacrificial violence channeled by religion in human society (see René Girard on Violence and the Sacred) has come to converge, coalesce and fuse with the totalizing logic shared by modern technology and state sovereignty, no matter the political regime or the religion/ideology it professes. Bernard Charbonneau thus never forgave Charles De Gaulle for having wedded France’s sense of past greatness and enduring dignity to an emblematic nuclear strike force (force de frappe) —however “symbolic” by superpower standards; for this amounted to putting a point of pride in “a certain idea of France” (une certaine idée de la France, his famous motto) above the country’s continued existence, along with the whole world’s. Having the ultimate weapon means being prepared to sacrifice reality as we know it to an idea; to undo Creation and bring it back to nothing, for the sake of a sovereign human power over life and death that would override the Creator’s. This annihilating power thus effectively becomes the new sacred, the actual God nations bow to as their supreme authority: “Death, the destroyer of worlds”, whatever deity is invoked or denied to wield it. Such is the reverse transfiguration of Creation as potential fallout that put this negative divine attribute in all-too-human hands at Hiroshima.
Transfiguring Visions out of the Heart of Darkness
But just as a profession of Orthodox Christianity is no guarantee against the diabolical reversal of the mystery of Transfiguration, the Spirit it manifests remains free to break through at any time well beyond the expected confines of nation, religion, or ideology, even in the heart of darkness. This is what seems to have happened to Morihei Ueshiba (1883-1969), “history’s greatest martial artist” according to his followers.16 He is known today as the founder of the popular Japanese martial art of Aikido, based on avoiding rather than inflicting blows and transmuting aggressive energies into their nonviolent play. Most of his career had unfolded at the heart of Japan’s military and nationalist establishment, and yet remained informed by a spiritual quest rooted in the Ōmoto religious movement, a universalistic offshoot of Shinto. Ueshiba took to heart Emperor Hirohito’s words in his radio address declaring Japan’s surrender after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, about “opening the way to an era of peace for all future generations.” Ueshiba himself had had a vision of the Great Spirit of Peace in 1942, which totally transformed his calling, since he now understood that “to smash, injure or destroy is the worst sin a human being can commit. The real Way of the Warrior is to prevent slaughter —it is the Art of Peace, the power of love.” Aikido was the first of the martial arts to be allowed by the American occupation authorities that had promptly made them illegal on account of their close ties to modern Japanese militarism. Morihei Ueshiba was no doubt thinking of the atom bomb when he then wrote: “The world will continue to change dramatically, but fighting and war can destroy us utterly. What we need now are techniques of harmony, not those of contention.”
The new body-mind techniques of Aikido were the fruition of an earlier epiphany that Ueshiba had experienced in mid-life in 1925, after defeating without weapons a top swordsman, by avoiding all his cuts and thrusts. Exhausted, he then went out in his garden and had an experience he described in terms strikingly reminiscent of those used by Orthodox hesychasts. His account thus includes something akin to the gift of tears, in response to the transfiguration of the flesh itself within a bright cloud of glory. Such phenomena are associated in a Christian context with the acquisition of the Spirit through the prayer of the heart, as witnessed by Christ’s apostles on Mount Tabor and by Seraphim’s disciple Motovilov near Sarov. At this point, we may perhaps also discern in the martial artist’s account a healing counter-image to the Hiroshima explosion twenty years later, that brutal fall of heavy material elements as disintegrative fire and gas that shook the earth to the core, and still cries to high heaven three quarters of a century on:
Suddenly the earth trembled. Golden vapor welled up from the ground and engulfed me. I felt transformed into a golden image, and my body seemed as light as a feather. All at once I understood the nature of creation: the Way of a Warrior is to manifest Divine Love, a spirit that embraces and nurtures all things. Tears of gratitude and joy streamed down my cheeks. I saw the entire earth as my home, and the sun, moon, and stars as my intimate friends. All attachment to material things vanished.
Amidst the dark clouds of human conflict and hubris, a clearing had appeared, bringing to light what had been there all along and now shone forth in a vision of peace without beginning nor end, that transfigured earthly struggle to reveal its true stakes:
The divine beauty
Of heaven and earth!
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- See Mathews, Jessica T. “The New Nuclear Threat”, New York Review of Books, August 20, 2020 Issue,
- Jerusalem Bible. Doubleday, 1968
- Jerusalem Bible. Doubleday, 1968.
- Jerusalem Bible. Doubleday, 1968.
- Palamas, Grégoire. In my own translation. Douze homélies pour les fêtes, at 194. O.E.I.L./YMCA-Press, 1987, p. 194.
- Andronikov, Constantin. In my own translation. Le Sens des Fêtes, at 253. Cerf, 1970.
- See https://thesymbolicworld.com/podcasts/christian-roy-technical-society-and-media/, and watch out for my upcoming podcast interview on Bernard Charbonneau at https://hermitix.podiant.co/.
- See the translation by Louis Cancelmi at https://www.signals-noise.com/2017/03/17/bernard-charbonneau-political-ecology/, accessed August 2, 2020[↩]
- Andronikov. In my own translation. Le Sens des Fêtes, at 253.
- Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre. In my own translation. “Quelques réflexions sur le retentissement spirituel de la bombe atomique”, in Études, 79th Year, Vol. 250, July-August 1946, at 228.
- Teilhard de Chardin, “Quelques réflexions sur le retentissement spirituel de la bombe atomique”, at 224.
- Teilhard de Chardin, “Quelques réflexions sur le retentissement spirituel de la bombe atomique”, at 227.
- Teilhard de Chardin, “Quelques réflexions sur le retentissement spirituel de la bombe atomique”, at 230.
- https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2019/july/blessed-be-nukes-russian-orthodox-recommends-end-to-ritual-.html, accessed August 3, 2020.
- Gallagher, Brandon. “A Secularism of the Royal Doors: Toward an Eastern Orthodox Christian Theology of Secularism”, in Papanikolaou & Demacopoulos, eds. Fundamentalism or Tradition: Christianity After Secularism, at 111. Fordham University Press, 2019.
- John Stevens’ Introduction to his compilation and translation of Ueshiba, Morihei. Teachings of the Founder of Aikido, at 5-10. Shambhala Pocket Classics, 1992, including the following direct quotes of the master.