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The Esoteric Philosophy of Henry Corbin

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Though an exhaustive list would be difficult to produce, there are several main themes which together form the core of the spirituality that Corbin defends. The Imagination plays a crucial role in the human and divine orders. It is the primary means by which we engage with Creation and provides the link “without which the worlds are put out of joint.” Prayer is the supreme form of the creative imagination, and as such is the ultimate exercise of human freedom. Opposing the imagination is rigid literalism in its myriad forms. Corbin presents a vehement triple critique of idolatry, dogma and the institutionalization of religion, coupled with a radical assessment of the doctrine of the Incarnation. He considered himself a Protestant Christian but he abandoned a Christocentric view of history. The grand sweep of his theology of the Holy Spirit embraces Judaism, Christianity and Islam as manifestations of a single coherent story of the ongoing relationship between the individual and God. He pleaded for recognition of the over-arching unity of the religions of Abraham. He was a passionate defender of the central role of the individual as the finite image of the Unique Divine. It is the bond between the human soul and the face of the Heavenly Twin, the Angel Holy Spirit, who appears uniquely to each of us, which is the ethical bond par excellence. This mystical spirituality depends upon the capacity of the human soul to travel a path towards the Angel, and towards perfection. The status of Person is not simply bestowed upon us at birth – it is a goal to be achieved. The true journey of our lives is measured on a vertical scale. Our progress on this path is gauged by our capacity for love and, linked to this, our ability to perceive beauty. His mysticism is no world-denying asceticism but regards all of Creation as a theophany of the divine. Beauty is the supreme theophany, and human love for a being of beauty is not a hindrance to our union with the Divine, but a threshold to Divine Passion. This vision has much in common with what has become known as Creation Spirituality, and the figure of the Angel Holy Spirit is similar to what is sometimes called the Cosmic Christ. Some who desire a future for the prophetic tradition which transcends mutual suspicion, hatred and violence postulate one in which Corbin’s work can play an important role.

An example of Corbin's lucid articulation of metaphysical concepts, which is not unrelated to his own spiritual hermeneutics, is finely demonstrated in his Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi. Despite the fact that much of the information- both historical and doctrinal- presented in this book has been corrected and updated in more recent Ibn Arabi scholarship- particularly the works of William Chittick, Michel Chodkiewicz, Claude Addas, James Morris, and Gerald Elmore- Corbin's elucidations of such concepts as the metaphysics of the heart and the function of imagination are phenomenal. In a chapter entitled "Theophanic Imagination and Creativity of the Heart", Corbin makes a sharp distinction between two functions of imagination. On the one hand, it deals specifically with "theogony", that is, the Divinization of the Cosmos through the Divine Names. Corbin distinguishes theogony from creatio ex nihilo, which understands the cosmogonic process as beginning in one point in time, and which insists on maintaining some type of a ‘distance’ between the Principle and Its creation. Corbin uses the phase "theogony of the cosmos" to refers specifically to cosmology, but that type of cosmology which takes place within the Primordial Cloud (the linguistic place where words become articulated or ‘existentiated’), in which the Principle and Its manifestation are not separate from one another, except from the standpoint of the manifestations’ multiple levels of being as descents from their Principle. Since reason can only understand creatio ex nihilo, imagination is required in order to understand the cosmos as theophany. The other function of imagination which Corbin identifies is its purely spiritual/psychological role as “an imaginative potency in man”.

The purely psychological functions of the imagination also play a ‘creative’ role in that the imaginal faculty allows for certain modes of ‘creation’ to come about. How this takes places is related to the fundamental distinction between the two types of imagination (to be distinguished from the two functions of imagination mentioned above) articulated by Ibn Arabi: "conjoined imagination" (al-khayal al-muttasil) and dissociable or, as Corbin suggests, autonomous imagination (al-khayal al-munfasil). The former denotes the existence of an imagination connected to the imagining subject, whereas the latter denotes an imagination which is entirely separate from the subject, subsisting in its own right in the World of Images or the Imaginal World (‘alam al-mithal). It is the autonomous imagination that allows the emergence of the images which present themselves to the "conjoined imagination". The way in which imagination is ‘creative’ is intimately related to an understanding of these two types of imagination. When an image from the World of Images presents itself to the subject, its (re)presentation takes place in the imagining subject’s imaginal faculty (Phenomenological reality), thus allowing for the significance of the image proceeding from the World of Images to emerge, that is, the significance that that image holds for the imagining subject. The (re)presentation of the image depends entirely on two concepts, that of the heart (qalb)- which Corbin astutely refers to as the ‘organ of mystic physiology’- and that of spiritual will (himma), or, perhaps more accurately in this context (Corbin does not translate the term), ‘creative imaginal potency’.

But it is important to keep in mind that when the Image from the World of Images represents itself to the imagining subject, it reflects in his ‘heart’ which itself functions like a mirror. The mirror of the heart reflects that Image which is cast upon it, thus producing a purely imaginal representation of the Image’s true ‘mode’ of being. Objects in mirrors are both real and unreal. They are real because they convey to us, rather accurately, the reality of that image which is reflected in it, yet they are also unreal in that the image is, actually, not ‘there’, and is, in fact, non-existent. Images in mirrors are, therefore, at once existent and non-existent, which is precisely the way Ibn Arabi envisions the ‘situation’ of the cosmos. When the Image from the World of Images reflects into the heart of the mystic, it is the mystic’s imaginal faculty, his Active Imagination as governed by his himma, which can then ‘create’ that image into a ‘representation’ or ‘apparition’ of the Image itself, thus reproducing the Image in a purely ‘imaginal’ way which stands ‘outside’ of the imagining subject. It is with this important concept in mind that the notion of ‘theophanic prayer’ may be understood, and which Corbin discusses in detail in the following chapter. Theophanic prayer refers to a method in which God reveals Himself to the mystic in the mystic’s ‘act’ of prayer, or, rather, how the mystic ‘creates’ an Image of God for himself in prayer. The formless form of God is made manifest to the mystic by virtue of his himma, thus producing an Image of the Divinity to whose qiblah he has turned his attention. But it is through the Image of the Divine produced in the heart of the mystic that this can, in fact, take place. God at this point is reminiscent of the vaporware of a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is actually God who reveals Himself to Himself in the act of prayer, but it is to the degree of the purity of the mystic’s heart (read ‘spiritual consciousness’), that he will have a vision of God’s Image and, by the same token, that God will have a vision of Himself, His own Image. Thus prayer is a purely ‘creative’ act for the Gnostic because it allows him to recast the Image of the Divine presented to his heart by virtue of the creative power of his himma. This imaginal power creates a mode of presence of the Divine which simply would be unperceivable without recourse to imagination. It should also be noted that Corbin looks at how the notion of creative imagination plays itself out in several key events related in the Qur’an and hadith. For example, the Qur’an mentions one of Prophet Solomon’s companions (someone who had “Knowledge of the Book”) who was able to reproduce, in an instant, the throne of the Queen of Sheba. What happened was “that the “transfer” of the throne took place on the plane of Imaginative Presence…”. This example finely illustrates the importance of the power of imagination in producing images instantaneously, but which can only take place on the plane of Imagination itself, the possibility of which is entirely determined by one’s himma.

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