CFP: Conceptualising the Abyss in religion

Submission deadline: July 1, 2024

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Conceptualising the Abyss in religion

As a common expression and proverb, "the abyss calls to the abyss" is intended to signify both a chain reaction and a deeper, potentially endless or bottomless fall: one excess leads to another excess, one crime leads to another crime, one evil throws us into a greater evil. However, in its original biblical sense, taken from Psalm 41:8, it has less pejorative connotations, in that it expresses the indefectible bond that exists between the believer and God, especially when the latter tends to merge with the invisible. The abyss that calls (Abyssus), on the other hand, is that of the apostle insofar as he represents all believers, because he is aware of the road ahead and the trials that will face him in his quest for God. The abyss that is called (Abyssum), on the other hand, is that of God, unfathomable, abstruse we might also say, eluding all human knowledge/understanding, both in his answers and in his presence. As for the verb to call (invocare), this invites us to think of a call to ourselves, close to ourselves, which is above all a call for help: the distress of a fallen and sinful creature. The abyss of man asks, and therefore hopes, that the divine abyss will answer his call and save him from an inner battle that he is not certain of winning alone. From then on, the act of calling is not devoid of hope, in which anxiety and the desire for a response are intertwined. Finally, the certainty expressed in Psalm 41:12: "He is my saviour and my God" indicates the noblest attitude to adopt, even when God remains silent and absent. Commenting on this psalm, Augustine multiplies this already twofold abyss, since the abyss refers not only to God's incomprehensible judgements, the divine ways and God himself, but also to the human heart - the deepest abyss, so subject is it to inner distortion - to mankind in general, to human weakness, to sin, or even to the depth of the sea. For the Bishop of Hippo, the notion of the abyss refers to the mysterious depths of man and God, because each in its own way is an inexhaustible source of incomprehension that we must try to unravel and grasp (1). The Confessions themselves could be read as a human attempt to approach the abyss that we are in the face of a second, much nobler abyss, which is God, into which we must try to plunge ... to sink. And yet the silence and absence of God nonetheless open up an abyss of meaning that never ceases to question and is conducive to doubt. The absence of God is perceived as a void, if not a vacancy to be filled by something else: where Job remains faithful to God despite trials and afflictions, the contradictory existence of evil and suffering, the "death of God" leaves man alone in the face of an abyss, faced with the challenge of creating new values that are no longer hostile to life (the superhuman/the nihilism of the last man) (2).

The multi-faceted nature of the abyss is at the root of these diverse and even opposing reactions. Indeed, the abyss has a properly topological meaning: it refers to a concrete physical place, but one that has the particularity of always being unfathomable. As the Greek etymology ἄβυσσος "bottomless" testifies, venturing into it is already losing oneself in it. The abyss is therefore characterised by an impossibility of being identified in its depth and totality since it escapes, by definition, any attempt at understanding and mastery. With its pejorative connotations, it often gives rise to fear and anxiety (3) and is associated with Hell and sin. The same is true of the verb abîmer, which refers to the action of altering, degrading or even destroying something. However, it can also mean to damage, in the sense of modifying, in particular to make something better. To "fall into God" is not so much a fall as an elevation to him, but one that no one can accomplish and from which no one emerges unscathed. Finally, the abyss is a concept close to the infinite (4), in that they both refer to the idea of the unfathomable, so much so that the abyss becomes the other name for God himself (5). That this abyss escapes man is then a sign, even a proof, of God's existence and of a greatness to be respected and admired (6). On this point, the humility of not wanting to understand/know God outside the abyss that defines him implies assigning limits to theological discourse, to the very possibility and legitimacy of theology. In short, we need to ask what can be said about the abyss in religion, since it seems from the outset, by virtue of its definition, to escape discourse.

This issue of ThéoRèmes is an interdisciplinary issue, inviting epistemological and comparative reflection on the uses of the concept of the abyss in religion. The dossier is particularly open to studies of the notion in other religions: is there or is there not such a concept or its equivalent? How is it translated? What exactly is the religious conceptual framework in which it is used? The articles may deal with the notion in one or more authors or in the corpus of a tradition of thought or religion. Similarly, it is possible to approach the concept from other fields or disciplines, such as phenomenology, but it is important to make the link with the abyss 'in religion'. Proposals for articles may fit into one or more of the following areas of reflection:

  • The theological axis: how have different religions and philosophies conceptualised the abyss in religion? How are the different abysses (God's abyss, man's abyss, hell's abyss, sin's abyss) thought of, and in relation to each other? What does the abyss have to offer in relation to neighbouring concepts such as infinity?
  • The epistemological axis: what are the conditions of possibility and truth of all discourse and thought on the abyss? Should the faculties of knowledge mobilised to immerse themselves in the abyss reject reason in favour of intuition (sensitive, intellectual, mystical)? Does a theology of the abyss necessarily imply a doctrinal impoverishment?
  • The moral and political axis: what normativity can a theology of the abyss exercise, particularly for an ecclesial institution? Does a theology of the abyss imply doctrinal tolerance, given the unfathomability of God?
  • The literary and aesthetic axis: how can the abyss be depicted or represented artistically? What are the recurring metaphors used to evoke it? How is the sublime the aesthetic experience of the abyss?
  • The psychological axis: what emotions or affects does the abyss arouse (fear, admiration, fascination, humility)? How can we deal with the abyss within us? To what extent is the human interior, the heart or conscience, the abyss of his being?

How to submit :

Deadline for sending proposals, 500 words: 01/07/2024 at [email protected] and [email protected]
Reply to authors: 05/07/2024 at the latest.
Deadline for articles, 40,000 characters including spaces: 05/01/2025

Articles will then be submitted to the journal's evaluation procedure ( double-blind expertise, then submitted to the Scientific Committee for validation


(1) Georgiana Huian writes of Augustine's commentary that it "does not engage in a game of personifications of the abyss, but a breakthrough of the mystery that calls into question the constitution of the 'subject' by referring to intersubjectivity", Augustin. Le cœur et la crise du sujet, Paris, Cerf Patrimoines, 2020, p. 187. See also: Françoise Vinel, "L'abîme appelle l'abîme... (Ps. 41 (42), 8). Plaidoyers pour l'allégorie dans quelques commentaires du psautier, d'Eusèbe à Augustin", in Pierre Maraval (ed.), Le psautier chez les Pères, Strasbourg, Centre d'Analyse et de Documentation Patristiques, 1994, p. 251.

(2) All of Dostoyevsky's thought is also haunted by this question of the death of God, of his absence, of the abyss of incomprehension in the face of the violence of the world. For example, the "Revolt" chapter of The Brothers Karamazov.

(3) Kierkegaard, faced with the anguish that freedom can provoke in man, compares anguish to vertigo: "when the eye plunges into an abyss, one has vertigo, which comes as much from the eye as from the abyss, because one might not have looked", Le concept d'angoisse, Paris, Gallimard, 1935, p. 90.

(4) In his fragment "Disproportion", Pascal mentions the term abyss several times in connection with infinity, explaining that he wants "to make him see a new abyss in there" (emphasis added).

(5) Apophatic and mystical theology more generally have taken seriously this definition of a God who can neither be named nor defined, by associating him, for example, with nothingness, and by placing experience itself at the heart of their thinking. See, for example, Maitre Eckhart.

(6) The notion of the sublime in Kantian aesthetics holds together this idea of a positive abyss that arouses fascination and respect, as well as fear. The sublime, as abyss, absolute immensity and transgression of limits, exceeds the human scale. As Paulette Carrive explains, "the analysis of the sublime is undoubtedly at the heart of the entire Kantian system, for it reveals man in the interiority of his greatness and humility" ("le sublime dans l'esthétique de Kant", in Revue d'Histoire littéraire de la France, 86e année, no. 1, Le sublime (Jan.-Feb., 1986), pp. 78-79. See Critique of the Faculty of Judgement, II, "Analysis of the Sublime", § XXIII to XXVIII.

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