The Holy of Holies: 
On the Constituents of Emptiness 

Mitchell Stephens     Professor of Journalism     New York University

This page contains a running transcript of all conversations taking place inside "The Holy of Holies." Click through the table of comments to view comments for individual sections. For any comment you can click its icon to go back into the paper in the exact place where that comment was made.

Dawn Youngblood, PhD says:

Are you aware that the Arc of the Covenant reappears in Revelation — the last book in the Christian Bible?

Chris Oldfield says:

the assumptions behind this paragraph are telling of ignorance of the most basic structure of biblical history.

why refer to Exodus and nowhere else when even a cursory knowledge of the OT history would record:

- the notable lack impressive image in the tabernacle; just some words of agreement/promise/contract (covenant), which just shows the shape of biblical spirituality – how to relate rightly to God: He can be trusted to keep his word

- the difference between the tabernacle and the temple and how that is associated with the king (1 Kings 6-7)

- how God “moves in” but by no means lives there – the heavens cannot contain him (1 Kings 8 c.f. 2 Samuel 7)

- how God leaves his temple and abandons his people in wrath against their rebellion (Ezekiel 10, Lamentations 5)

- how God re-announces his commitment both to his temple project (Ezra, Nehemiah) and his promises to gather people from all nations into it through an ultimate and unique priest-king (Zechariah 3-6, Psalm 110)

- how this provided incentive to rebuild physically but as nothing more than a visual aid (Zechariah 2) because God’s real temple project was vast and unmeasurable…He would live among his entire creation, such that even the pots and pans and horse bridles would be “holy” like the temple arrangements had been a picture of (Zech 13)

- how the Old Testament people are still spiritually in exile, even having rebuilt a 2nd temple, which is nothing like the glorious first one anyway…and they are still waiting for YHWH to return to his temple (Malachi 3), to keep his promises.

- This finally happened in Jesus, where God lived among us fully (John 1 echos Exodus 34). He was the real temple (John 2), such that geography was over and the nations could come in to him. God was not to be found in Gerazim or in Jerusalem (John 4) but in Jesus.

so any conclusions about Pompey’s discovery are utterly beside the point, biblically speaking. If you think you are free to ignore the history & development of God’s promises for the world then fine, say what you will. Just dont think you’ve somehow made a problem for the God who created us and doesnt need us yet comes in to live with us.

Bob J says:

There is no need to delve into the particular when a premise is faulty

Scholars to have their sacred and profane spaces; even if they are different then those of specific religions, they are still religious (note the distinction).

The scholar has his or her own sacred and profane space, even if they are not equal to those of a particular religion, they are religious (note the distinction).

Um, careful with the use of “The Other” which is a religious relationship, cf. Hegel, Levinas

mitch says:

And here is my response, again from my blog, to JM’s comment:

Yes, this is the argument, to which I was not doing justice.

First response: some of the comments on the subject of belief and disbelief I find most sweeping and, consequently, most invigorating come from one of the mothers of this scrupulousness: Jacques Derrida (in his essay “Faith and Knowledge,” which haunts my essay on the Holy of Holies and will haunt sections of my book). In spiraling in on certain elemental questions of consciousness connected to religion, he is characteristically attentive to the limitations of the language we use (noting, for example, that since “religion” lacks cognates in other Indo-European tongues, when we speak of “religion” we are “speaking Latin”). Nevertheless, Derrida does manages to make his way towards larger questions of the sort that intrigue me (toward question that are not, in fact, exclusively European Christian). Derrida (and his pals) have crafted a marvelous language of the hem and haw. In deference to my audience, I will want to take a more direct path. I don’t think they will be wanting a tangle of etymologies, doubts about the nature of doubt, or meditations on the limitations of the Enlightenment. But I think you are right, JM, that such hesitations/qualifications/acknowledgements will have to be in there in some (less intricately woven form). Indeed, I think you are right that they are part of the story (or “story”) I am telling — the late-20th century part, perhaps (which, since I have lately been stuck in the 4th century, seems somewhat far away). I had Derrida’s note on the word “religion” in an endnote. Probably it should be invited to join the main text. But I am still going to allow myself to talk in my way, as he does in his way, about the “nature” of “human” “religion.” And my way will, I fear, involve less rigorous use of quotations marks than his.

mitch says:

This important response to my blog post is from “JM”:

This is, I agree, the fundamental question your work at this moment must ask. The manner in which you choose to address it will determine how your book participates in the transdisciplinary theoretical project(s) of the past 30 years (with which you have in quite important ways aligned yourself in other projects). That project seeks to address ‘large human questions’ in ways that no longer take western, Enlightenment categories for thinking them for granted — thus seeks to address them through an acknowledgment that this thing called ‘the human’ is neither monolithic nor ‘natural.’

The days when feminist theorists (to use your colleague’s example) addressed the ‘continuities of oppression of women in various times and places’ are over because they could only go as far as their methodological ground allowed them to go… they essentialized the multiplicitous conditions of women as *Woman*: that all women everywhere shared such oppressions, in mostly the same ways, regardless of cultural specificities (+ a whole range of other critical factors). That kind of theorizing was still fundamentally grounded in Enlightenment categories of ‘the human.’ Thus, if you choose not to acknowledge the very real theoretical and methodological problems associated with that humanistic discourse you not only disregard the critical work in the humanities and social sciences that have fundamentally altered the ways in which we think about language, culture, etc. You risk marginalizing your work from much important contemporary critical scholarship, pedagogy, etc.

More importantly, though, your work already constellates itself with that project, no? To challenge that methodology and refine it in order to address the questions of your particular project here would seem quite valid. Ignoring it would come at the risk of losing a crucial audience and base of support for this important book (and make this book an aberration in your own series of projects). ‘Translating’ that methodology for a more general, not necessarily academic audience — one not steeped in all this critical, philosophical discourse — in order to talk about disbelief across cultural, temporal borders would seem to be the particular strength you bring as a cultural historian, or at least that is how I have read your work to this point….

mitch says:

And another thought from me on the subject from my blog:

Still thinking of the rather large question of method in historical and social science research.

Spoke with a colleague today who remembers when the sort of feminist inquiry into continuities in oppression of women in various times and places went out of fashion — to be replaced by the study of inequities in gender relations in specific cultures.

Hope there is interest in learning of continuities in disbelief in across societies. That is what most interests me. Why do people disbelieve? What form do such disbeliefs generally take? How have they developed and changed. An anthropologist who listened to my paper insisted that I also note that different times and places have been more or less hospitable to disbelief. And, yes, that is interesting and important and certainly part of my book, too.

mitch says:

I’m going to copy here a serious of coments on the large question of methodolgy in this paper and the book I am writing from my “Without Gods” blog.

This first comment, from me, acknowledges the debate on method in the room where this paper was presented:

How valid or useful is the sort of sweeping historical study I am undertaking in my book (and have undertaken before)? The argument against it is that cultural differences tend to get trampled in the search for human constancies and that, in the process, modern categories and understandings are inevitably and inappropriately imposed on other cultures. The argument for it — my argument — is that the basic work on tracking cross-cultural causes of and elements of disbelief has not been done and must be done if we are to have the background against which cultural differences might better be understood. Of course, this argument depends upon there being such cross-cultural causes and elements — similarities among disbelief in India in at the time of the Buddha, in the Tongo Islands in the early 19th century and on the best-seller lists in America today. It also depends upon my ability — in trying to get a handle upon disbelief in such a wide variety of societies – to get what they think right.

William Bailey says:

If, indeed, you, as a scholar, are like Pompey who blunders into the Holy of Holies and finds it empty–a result of spiritual separation from that which he would explore or exploit–then how can you (like Pompey) hope to “steal a glimpse of the nothings” or the related “somethings”? I find it difficult to simultaneously live in the objective, critical world and affective, spiritual domains. In the former, one seeks not to get lost; in the latter, getting lost is fearfully desired.

george says:

it is indeed fabulous analogy–appropriate here but also to any large historical or even ethnographic work. But historians and anthropologists do their work, arguing that really working at empathy, really trying to understand how the other thought and made sense of the world, is an antidote to imperialism.

mcvicker says:

For some reason I couldn’t get myself to comment on what I admit to thinking was the wrong metaphoricsfor this. Glad others have brought up the bad puns. Think it sets the wrong tone for what is such a thought-provoking paper overall. Why would you want to align yourself as a historian w/ imperialism, promiscuity, Pompey-like brutish arrogance and sense of entitlement? can such behavior ever be ‘justified’? does something ‘general to be found’ justify such tactics/attitudes? must you rely on these sexualized metaphors which, by this time, are pretty tired (Luce Irigaray’s _Speculum of the Other Woman_ is still the best critique of the western philosophical tradition’s fascination w/ this)? ‘pregnant emptiness’ is, I’d suggest, far less interesting than the Nothing.

Arthur S. Hayes says:

I appreciate that these are excerpts but I am not sure I follow what you mean by “the nothings” in the context of your overall thesis. Well, at least as I think I understand it. Perhaps, the first sentence of this graf sends me on a different path than the rest of the graf? Hmmm. I think this graf needs to be less poetic and more straight-forward.
Does your book mean to discuss both disbelief in a particular culture’s god or gods, or disbelief in the existence of any type of god? I’ll read on.
–A.S. Hayes

Ted says:

Agreed about the critique of “holy holes.” I like the pun, but the diction is jarring.

Tom says:

I assume you’re not seeking purely editorial comments, but “…holy holes?” I see the pun with holy of holies, but other connotations render the expression kind of jarring, no? Holy places? rooms? chambers?

mitch says:

John P. Peters, “The Hebrew Idea of Holiness,” The Biblical World, Vol. 14, No. 5. (Nov., 1899), pp. 344-355.

mcvicker says:

are you going to have notes for these chapters? I’m wanting to know who John P. Peters is and why he’s credible & relevant to comment in 1899 on ‘the ancient Semitic view’ of ‘relations with a deity’ … academic readers at the seminar, I’m assuming, will expect this

Jay says:

Aren’t we all blind to the beliefs of others? We take what WE understand and call it what the other means. Pompey was not indoctrinated into the FAITH and could not see those magic things.

We love to make up magic tales while ignoring the magic at hand; actually, to hide from the magic at hand.