The Sarabite: Towards an Aesthetic Christianity

There is a continuous attraction, beginning with God, going to the world, and ending at last with God, an attraction which returns to the same place where it began as though in a kind of circle. -Marsilio Ficino

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Why Iamblichus? Why Now?


"To no man is it permitted to change these prayers...."

Some books do not merit just a review, but rather a series of meditations. Gregory Shaw's book, Theurgy and the Soul: The Neoplatonism of Iamblichus is just such a book. I have written a lot of theological reflections in this blog that many might find hard to understand. Like other Christian writers, I think philosophy can come to the rescue at least to improve our clarity on many of the issues I have addressed. This book will help in that process.

First of all, I would like to caution that I am well aware that drawing parallels between fourth century Neoplatonism and 21st century Christianity may be like comparing apples and oranges. We after all, have the truth who is Christ, these pagan philosophers were in the dark, and in some cases struggling against the Light. As a movement, however, the Christian phenomenon has an all-too-human aspect to it, and this is where the parallel lies. Iamblichus (+ c. 325) was trying to struggle to revive the pagan religion that was well into its twilight. He is a philosopher who tried to defend the old system not only from threats from without, but most importantly from real threats from within.

Iamblichus was not a Greek, but rather a Syrian by birth of royal blood. Indeed, he has some rather harsh words for the Greeks:

"For the Hellenes are by nature followers of the latest trends and are eager to be carried off in any direction, possesing no stability in themselves. Whatever they may have received from other traditions they do not preserve, but even this they immediately reject and change everything through their unstable habit of seeking the latest terms."
- Iamblichus, De Mysteriis
( Sound familiar?)

The primary object of Iamblichus' polemic was the philosopher Porphyry, who had been a follower of Plotinus. The latter persisted in attacking the traditional pagan cult, calling it superstitious, outdated and "unspiritual". Iamblichus' task was to defend the traditional pagan order against those who would turn religion into an abstract philosophy using the tools of Platonic philosophy.

For Iamblichus, unlike Porphyry, what was important was not "theologia" (thoughts about the Divine), but rather "theourgia" (the works of the gods). Iamblichus argued that our thoughts about the Divine, no matter how exalted, were still very much human thoughts. While the Plotinian school could be interpreted as saying that man deifies himself, or rather by shedding himself of the many (including matter) unites with the immaterial One, Iamblichus wrote that deification was accomplished from the outside of the soul: the gods deified man through participation in divine acts, or theurgy. The use of matter in ritual was thus not something superfluous, but rather a process by which the soul participated in cosmogenisis in order to remember the source of the material world: God.

More can be said, but for now.... to be continued.

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