A golem is an animated being crafted from inanimate material. It’s a popular figure in Jewish folklore and legend. There’s always something lacking in a golem because it has been created by man, not God: “Much as Man is Created in the image of God, the golem is created in the image of Man, a replication that loses fidelity.”
We’re all engaged in creating our own golems. These are idealized images of what we hope someday to be. A creature that has no doubts, no anxieties, no misgivings, no uncertainties, no fears, no miseries. Our project is to make the golem come alive as the person we are not now, yet imagine ourselves being in the future.
As I said in my previous post, I’ve been enjoying my re-reading of Luther Askeland’s great book, Ways in Mystery. The past few days I’ve made my way through his “Nobody Knows My Name” essay. Luther speaks about golem projects and why it’s so important to dismantle them.
Our attempt to create a golem-self takes place in our own consciousness, of course—not in a workshop. But there are similarities between an attempt to fashion an idealized being that will be known as “me” and a effort to construct, say, a canoe. In each case building materials have to be collected from various locations and brought together in a central location.
A canoe is built out of material things: wood, metal, glue, lacquer, and such. A golem-self is built out of concepts, beliefs, ideas, hopes, and such. Often a religion or spiritual philosophy offers up a ready-made golem blueprint, a model of a person that is held out as the ideal we should seek to realize.
No matter from where our golem project springs, the basic goal is to define ourselves by concentrating what is now dispersed. Luther says:
We instinctively try to draw all that is fluid, dispersed, and formless about ourselves into a center, to ‘concentrate’ our tenuous, spectral reality into one place. Why? Our goal is to work this ‘concentrate’—ourselves—into the form of a human being and then to create for this human being a ‘life.’
The problem, though, is that we already are alive. We already have a life. This is our clear and present reality. We’re just not satisfied with it. We want more. We seek to be saved from existing as the person we are now by the person we one day hope to be. We envision that all the time and effort we’re putting into the construction of our golem will be worth it if our idealized blueprint springs into being and replaces the unfinished messiness of who we are now:
Clearly there is something quixotic, even messianic, about the golem project—that human being we are working so hard to create is as it were the purely personal messiah of our own particular history. The golem is the savior who someday will redeem me from the formless nothingness, the future-craving pure potentiality, in which I think I begin: my golem constitutes that future reality which is the one possible justification of my present travail.
The craziness of undertaking this golem project eventually will sink in. For Luther points out that in virtually every religion and mystical tradition, “God” (who goes by many terms) is beyond all human attempts to confine the ultimate within bounds. God is mystery: formless, edgeless, wordless.
So if the reality we call “God” is the security that we seek, the foundation that finally will give our lives a solid grounding, what is needed is to break free of the limited human existence that we are now—which includes the idealized human existence that we are envisioning ourselves becoming in the future.
It isn’t concentration that we should seek, a bringing together of the parts that we believe will constitute our ideal golem-self, but rather a dissolution of those fantasies, concepts, imaginings, beliefs and what-not that we currently are trying to assemble in the workshop of our mind.
We hope it will be something that holds together but deep down we know that it never will. For who we truly long to become isn’t someone made out of lifeless abstractions, nor does this being have a name. Call this person “soul,” perhaps, though that word is just a vocalization lacking substance.
We won’t become who we truly are, says Luther, until we give up the attempt to make sense of ourselves. Our golem project has to be dismantled. For what we’re trying to do is make the mysterious private soul into a visible public golem, something that we can display to others, describe in words, delimit in defined characteristics.
It’s crazy, this attempt to confine the boundlessness of God and soul within the body of the golem we envision ourselves as being one day. Instead, we should pull up anchor and allow ourselves to be drawn over the distant horizon into mystery, floating free.
But there is another form of solitude—‘floating solitude’—in which the tether binding us to our golem project is at least temporarily broken. Floating solitude may be voluntary or the unplanned result of circumstances. I may simply yield to a sudden impulse to do nothing—to drift—or I may find myself in a situation in which I am temporarily cut off from all possibility of working on my golem. Whatever the cause, the soul now has its back turned to those sheltered coves and inlets in which our golem projects, our ‘lives,’ normally pass; it is now drifting toward an open sea.
At first, we are going to feel like we’ve lost something precious: the promise of a well-fashioned life where everything finally fits together. The open spiritual sea can be scary. There are no landmarks there, no solid ground, no dogmas, theologies, or belief systems that we can anchor ourselves to. But anchors keep us bound to one place. That’s what they are designed to do.
The reality we call God lies in a direction opposite to where we were turned while working on our golem-self.
The condition we normally seek—a golem condition of defined, crystallized, visible, self-comprehending particularity—is the reverse of a blessed and godlike condition. The direction and place toward which we are normally turned—the clear, common light—is a place of failure and certain doom, but in the opposite direction, in those fringes toward which our backs are turned, lies uncontained divine ‘life.’Now, everything I’ve been saying, and quoting Luther Askeland as saying, might sound like just a more refined golem project. That is, the goal of the project now is to create a golem-self that will dismantle the original half-finished golem. This would be meaningless, if it were to be the case. We’d simply have traded a castle in the sky for another castle from which attacks could be launched at our original creation.
Instead, we have to take away the raw materials from which golems are created: words. Words are fine for building conceptual structures in material reality, but useless for any sort of genuinely spiritual pursuit. So dismantling our golem project means dissolving the faith we have put in the reality of concepts such as “God,” “soul,” “divinity,” “spirit,” “revelation,” “grace,” “guru,” “enlightenment”—all those meaningless sounds that we utter within via our mind and without via our lips.
The first phase of conversion, the via purgativa, means therefore to work at dismantling our golem, to let its parts return to dust as we walk away…We will no longer aspire to a structured understanding within that particular form of knowing we call English. Instead, breaking out into that edgeless realm which lies outside English, we will begin learning to fly shaman-like outside the word-body.
That word-body is our golem. It has to die, at least during our seeking of the truth about God and soul. Wordlessness is the path to reality. I’ll be saying more words on this subject soon, I'm quite sure.