Iamblichus Confronts the Dark Ages
A Critique, a Concession, and a Conclusion
According to Iamblichus, all theurgical ritual, by defintion, was rooted in ancient tradition; it could not be concocted to suit one's mood or personal desires..... The cosmogonic myth of the Timeaus demanded great skill of its interpreters, yet for Iamblichus this Platonic myth sustained a vital connection to the most primitive myths and rituals.... If there was a mathematical model of Iamblichean theurgy it would have been a Pythagorean schema reflecting the creative tensions of the One and the Many. These tensions, Iamblichus believed, were portrayed in the traditions of ancient and holy people, in their art, dance, sacrifice, and prayers, and would have been discovered as mathematical only after the fact of their cultural embodiment. Mathematical proportions simply outlined the intensity and valences of ritual patterns already established in nature and cult.
-from Gregory Shaw's Theurgy and the Soul, pgs. 209-210
We here conclude our series of reflections on the Neoplatonic philosopher and hierophant, Iamblichus. We have seen how he defended the pagan cult from enemies from within, affirmed the complete incarnation of the soul in the body, developed a system by which man uses the material and noetic cosmos to ascend toward the Divine, and have contemplated what this means for Christian thinking. Now, however, we must address some criticisms that we have recieved from some very thoughtful people.
The first of course is that we may be giving too much emphasis to the role of liturgy in the Christian mystery. One particular point is the tension between the word of God purely recieved and the omnipresence of ritual in all human life, religious or not. I have been told that the Christian Church has always had a rather tense relationship with its liturgical life, it has always been wary that it would deflect from the message of the written Gospel. This of course is a common criticism, particularily of the Reformers and more avant-garde "liturgists", but it is one that we must take very seriously. Smells and bells can indeed degenerate into going through the motions, and an uneducated Church is a bad church, no matter how beautiful its ceremonial may be. Many of the people who attended liturgy in the Patristic Church were illiterate, but if they would have been able to read and own books, they would have read the Scripture assiduously. We are still very much people of the Book, though we can exaggerate this aspect to much.
The second criticism is that maybe I might be exaggerating the cosmological aspect of liturgy. The Christian liturgy is historical in character; it remember primarily events in salvation history, not cosmic symbols embedded in matter. This of course needs more study. I realize my arguments might be very weak in this regard.
The third is a self-criticism: these are very personal reflections, perhaps even too personal. I do not know if I have done a good job expressing my point of view in these posts in a coherent manner. Maybe there has been too much of what "I THINK" liturgy should be, and "de gustibus non fit argumentum" (you shouldn't argue about taste). Maybe a good modern Roman Catholic Mass or mainline Protestant service can embody the ancient Patristic ideal of liturgy. I just know that I have never seen one do this. I could be wrong, though.
What can we conclude, then? The initial problem stilll stands: the disconnect between worship, thought and life. I do not think it is arguable that as Christians we live in certain compartments throughout our daily life. When we are in church, we are in one compartment; when we are at work, we are in another; and with friends yet another. This cannot be helped, we are now a minority in this society. The problem arises when this situation sinks into our thought-patterns, our manner of seeing things and our being as children of God. I have argued that many Christian bodies are changing their worship in order to speak to modern man without questioning why he can no longer understand the traditional voices of Christian antiquity. We have chosen to play on postmodernity's turf without even questioning its rules, principals, or methods of action. If we continue to do this, we will lose. The Church will survive, but as a much smaller remnant of what it could be.
The key to this is an integrated life: a Christian life that sees, thinks, appreciates beauty, and acts in a traditionally human manner. This means respect for tradition, discipline in learning (for knowledge and not facts, in order to grow in wisdom and not just win an argument), recultivating a sense of humility and hierarchy, and learning to appreciate art, music and literature. The trick is we must do this in our present society and not in a Potempkin village. We must re-learn to be human in the society that God has put us in, and not in one of our own making.
What we will probably not get, pace Alasdair MacIntyre, is a new St. Benedict. God is very stingy about giving out saints in this day and age. Some of us have been fortunate enough to know some, but they are few and far between. Neither do we need a new Plotinus. Elmer O'Brien, in his introduction to The Essential Plotinus, says that, "[m]any a latter day mystic has revealed himself as apparently a Plotinus redivivus," (p. 14), citing St. Augustine, Meister Eckart, and Hugh of St. Victor. I would add to this list, however, those who have not been thought as "religious" thinkers: Rene Descartes, Immanuel Kant, Frederich Nietzsche, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Michel Foucault, among others, who have tried to devise a solitary view of the world unrelated to the traditions and cultures of their time. The goal is not to transcend everything and live in the clouds: that would be suicide for preaching the Gospel in this day and age. The goal is to integrate worship, philosophy, theology, science, art and culture into whole, undivided system. For this we do not need a man who was ashamed to be seen in a human body. What we need, either as a person or as a movement, is a new Iamblichus.