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, May 06, 2006

And We All Fall Down....

Soul - Theurgy - Liturgy

"Descended from royal blood of the priest-kings of Emesa.... Iamblichus possessed a unique perspective to reinterpret Plato's esteem for those races who maintained an unbroken contact with the gods. In Iamblichus' estimation the responsibility of Platonists to value and explore this contact had recently been ignored and Plato's cosmological principles overlooked due to an excessive rationalism. This rationalism exalted the powers of the mind while diminishing the prestige of the traditional cults of the gods that, in Iamblichus' view, were the basis for all genuine culture and wisdom."

-From Gregory Shaw's Theurgy and the Soul: The Neoplatonism of Iamblichus, p. 4

This is the best summary of our meditation on Iamblichus as it has proceeded so far. Iamblichus was fighting to preserve the pagan order from enemies within: the "modernists" of his time. What, we shall now ask, was the philosophical basis for his apologia? He was far from a knee-jerk reactionary, and his defense of the traditional cult would return to principals that were at the heart of the philosophy of Plato and start at the very root of the issue: the soul.

What will follow will not do justice to the argument that Shaw presents, but it will give the reader of this a rough idea of the issues involved. We must begin a little before the emergence of our beloved Syrian philosopher and return to the meditations of the thinker Plotinus on how the soul is constituted. For Plotinus, there is part of the human soul that is unfallen:

"And if one may be so bold as to express one's own conviction against the common opinion of others, even our soul has not sunk entirely, but there is always something of it in the Intelligible World." -from the Enneads, cited on p. 64.

Plotinus was not always consistent in this, but the problem he was trying to solve was that of the soul's suffering and the experience of evil. In doing so, however, Plotinus and his disciple Porphyry (Iamblichus' opponent in the debate), began a process of divorcing mankind's profound being from the cosmic order. Embodiment and matter itself were under the threat of becoming an afterthought in mankind's search for union with the One. The soul would become in this system a "floating ego" that could achieve union with the Divine by itself through contemplation. Iamblichus and other Platonists after him would see this view not only as almost Gnostic (matter is evil) but unorthodox according to the Platonic system.

Restoring a more balanced view of the relationship of the embodied soul with matter, Iamblichus expounded a system in which the cosmic order was key in the soul's ascent back to the One. The soul in Iamblichus is totally fallen, totally embodied, but this was not an inherent evil, but rather made the soul the mediator between the physical and spiritual realms. This dichotomy was not the result of a primeval cosmic catastrophe, but rather the will of the good Demiurge. The soul, however, had to "climb up" the cosmic ladder using theurgy, a recapitulation of cosmic principles by "remembering" them even in the most unconscious of things:

"Intellectual understanding, " Iamblichus writes, "does not connect theurgists with divine beings, for what would prevent those who philosophize theoretically from having theurgic union with the Gods? But this is not true; rather it is the perfect accomplishment of ineffable acts religiously performed and beyond all understanding, and it is the power of ineffable symbols comprehended by the Gods alone that establishes theurgical union... It is not awakened by our thinking." -De Mysteriis

In a sense, it is the soul knowing its place at the lowest level of the intellectual cosmos and thus using material symbols given it by the Gods that allows it to ascend to the One. Shaw writes, shadowing the Christian concept of kenosis:

"Iamblichus maintained that only when the human soul fully accepted the unflattering reality of its rank [as totally fallen into a material body], would it spontaneously be drawn to the gods." -p. 112

How does this effect our own situation in a postmodern, anti-traditionalist, anti-ritualistic world? First, I would like to compare how similar Plotinus' and Porphyry's view might be to that of one of the founder's of modern thought: Rene Descartes. Jacques Maritain, in his excellent book, Three Reformers, accuses Descartes of trying to ascribe angelic attributes to human cognition, thus leaping over matter in order to attain pure, disembodied knowledge. In a way, this has been the hubris of modern man even when it comes to theology: certainty must be achieved by trying to leap over sensual experience, deemed as being too unstable and fleeting. Man must cut out all mediators and search ever for direct mathematical certainty about reality, even when it comes to the mysterious, transcendent God. Truth is thus deemed as something to be possessed and manipulated as one's personal possession. Mystery is thus forbidden, symbols anathematized, and traditions of the ancients deemed superstitions from an unenlightened past. Porphyry is very much alive today.

This is the foundation of the Bugninis', Dom Bottes' and other would be reformers of liturgy, not the "neo-Patristic ressourcement". Liturgy for them is a necessary evil, but one that can be cleaned up a bit by cutting out vague phrases, repetitions, and all other ceremonies that no longer "make sense". Clarity, simplicity and "participation" are thus the desirable goals, even if this participation is rationalistic, banal, and overly simplified. The Word of God is something that the people "must get", not a mystery into which they must enter. The liturgical synaxis for them must be like a convoking of Congress or a PTA meeting. Something here, however, has been tragically lost....

(to be continued)


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