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, July 08, 2006


Symbol- Cosmos -Liturgy

Whence indeed, the divine causes are not called into activity prompted by our thoughts. Rather our thoughts and all the noble dispositions of soul, as well as our purity, should be considered auxiliary causes, but the things that truly excite the divine will are the divine sunthemata themselves. And so the causes from the Gods are activated by the Gods themselves from their inferiors as cause of their own activity.

-Iamblichus, De Mysteriis

Sunthemata were the "wild cards" in Iamblichus' cosmological deck. They reveal the presence of the gods at any grade of reality since each was sustained directly by them. Yet the ascent of each soul was gradual, and its particular level of attachment only an encounter with a sunthema from that level allowed the soul to proceed.

-Gregory Shaw, Theurgy and the Soul, pg. 180

Continuing with our meditations on the Neoplatonism of Iamblichus, we come to yet another principal of mediation between the human and the divine. As we have seen, Iamblichus envisioned the ascent of the soul to the One as a process that involved greatly the gradual climbing of the soul through the cosmos. Man is not separated from his surroundings in the quest for eternal bliss, but is intimately connected to them. It is this aspect that we wish to investigate further.

The sunthemata, or symbols, were like clues in a giant cosmic mystery game placed by the gods to allow the fallen human soul to find itself truly. They too were not given to all at once, but rather according to the disposition of those who received them. The lowest grade of sunthema was of course material objects, such as rocks, trees, and other well known idols of paganism. Then came names, then numbers, and finally the greatest symbol of all, the Sun. According to the theurgist's level of integration with the divine, he could use any or all of these, and this system allowed any type of person, from the most educated philosopher to the most illiterate peasant, some involvement in the pagan cult. In devising this system, Iamblichus hoped to save late paganism from being too abstract and distant; in a word what he feared the Plotinian system was doing with its anti-cosmic prejudices.

I remember once being in a car, driving through the city of Cordoba in Argentina, and realizing that the liturgical problems of the Christian Church had a much more profound cause than I had first realized. I used to always enjoy my mother telling stories about growing up in her village in Mexico, particularity the ones she told about religious festivals: Easter, Christmas, May Crownings, and above all, the feast of St. Isidore the Farmer. On the latter feast, the children of the village would put chairs on their heads with the family picture of St. Isidore on it and process with the priest while he blessed the fields. Then I realized that it was the death of this culture after the Second World War that was greatly responsible for the liturgical and spiritual malaise that the Church finds itself in. The traditional Catholic principles that I so longed for and that were present as a remnant in my religious consciousness were the almost extinct attitudes of a rural, agrarian past tied to nature and the cycles of the seasons. A postmodern, egalitarian and urban culture could not sustain these for very long on a massive scale. Maybe the liturgical reformers of the past fifty years have a point.

The crisis, however, is not just religious strictly speaking. It is a crisis of being human. I remember being fascinated by one aspect of Byzantine Orthodox spirituality in which man, when he returns to his original state through the grace of God and asceticism, can also return to the harmonic existence with nature which he had in primeval Paradise. This was seen in that many Russian hermits, such as St. Seraphim of Sarov, were able to converse and be friends with all kinds of wild animals, including bears and other ferocious beasts. In this sense, there is a language of creation that man through sinfulness has forgotten, the language of "groaning and travail" that some very special souls, by a charism of God, have recovered partially. We moderns, however, in our ever growing pride and sinfulness, are moving further and further away from it.

This brings us to liturgy itself, as the most basic alphabet of our communion with God. The Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemman commented that it is the Eucharistic bread, the Body of Christ, that reveals to us the true meaning of common table bread. That is, it is the higher "symbol" (mysterion, sacramentum, sunthema) that reveals the lower one. In the end, it is liturgy that reveals to us the true meaning of creation, its origin, order and destiny. In this sense, the historical events of salvation history (birth, death, and resurrection of Christ) are primary, but they too reveal the birth, death, resurrection and final destiny of our fallen world. By changing the liturgy to suit our egalitarian, rationalistic principals, we are imposing our corrupted subjectivist views of the cosmos on the mysteria of Christ's Church..... Of these things we almost cannot write; if I am right, they are deeply embedded in the "subconscious" of who we are before we begin to "theologize" (I speak purely rational terms, of course). And it is this break with material creation that is causing the widespread functional atheism present in all Christian confessions, even amongst the most conservative.

What I am proposing is that maybe the ladder has been kicked out from under us in terms of traditional Christianity. Maybe our beliefs and practices no longer have a foundation in the ontological ground of postmodernity. God is almighty, and the Spirit will blow where He wills, but our cell-phones, Internet, and blogs (yikes!) may be making us less and less human, and in that sense, less and less Christian. We cannot even climb the first rung of the ladder in the cosmic ascent envisioned by Iamblichus. We are stuck in the mud, looking up, but blindly.....

(to be continued.....)


At 8:10 PM, Blogger axegrinder said...


You've made some timely observations in light of the Trinity 4 epistle (Rom 8:18-23).

In chapter 2 of Wendell Berry's "What Are People For" he advocates time in solitude as a way to become coherent to oneself and to be able to more clearly respond to others. He locates solitude in the wild order of nature. He says that solitude is a restful refuge from both the order and disorder of humanity. (p10)


Jason Kranzusch

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