The Necessity of Platonism for Christian Theology

Fr. Andrew Louth with “The Necessity of Platonism for Christian Theology.”
Delivered remotely to the King’s College Chapel, January 17, 2021.
Link to full video of this 2021 Robert Crouse Memorial Lecture.

Summary of the opening comments before my transcription picks up: Christianity is not an intellectual pursuit, and being a Platonist certainly is not required to be a Christian. Louth clarifies that he is not promoting Christian Platonism or interested in any such intellectual camps, as if we needed to opt between alternatives such as “Christian Platonism” or “Christian Aristoteliansim” or “Christian Existentialism.” Finally, Louth makes it clear that he does not consider Aristotle to be fundamentally at odds with Plato but instead to be within the Platonic tradition. What Louth does claim is that, in pursuing the intellectual work of Christian theology, we find that Platonism provided a necessary backdrop or framework—one that uniquely enables Christian thinkers to articulate the centrality of Christ in a way that preserves the mystery of Christ from being sucked up into transcendence or drawn down into imminence.

Transcription of select portions:

18:37
There is not doubt that among the fathers Plato could be held in very high regard. Saint Athanasius [d. 373] …refers to Plato as “great among the Greeks” (though in the context of attributing to him a false doctrine of creation from pre-existent matter). In Saint Anastasios of Sinai’s Questions and Answers [7th century], we find this story. There is handed down an ancient tradition that a certain learned man used often to curse Plato the philosopher. Plato appeared to him in his sleep and said to him, “Man stop cursing me, for you only harm yourself. For that I’ve been a sinful man, I do not deny. When Christ came down into Hades, truely, no one believed in him before I did.”

Plato then had a certain respect among all the fathers, at least in late antiquity. By the end of the first millennium, regard for Plato was more conflicted. Among the anathemas added to the Synodikon of Orthodoxy after the condemnation of John Italus in 1082, an anathema was pronounced on those who “pursued Hellenic learning”—which certainly included Plato—”and are formed by it not simply as an educational discipline but who follow their empty opinions and believe them to be true.”

Aristotle himself had less appeal to the fathers. In a famous phrase, often cited by others, Saint Gregory the Theologian recommended that Christians should present their theology …in the manner of fisherman (apostles) not in the manner of Aristotle. [This] quip that was capped by Saint John Damascene. When writing against John Philoponus, he commented that Philoponus’ problems, both trinitarian and christological, would not have arisen had he not introduced Saint Aristotle as the thirteenth apostle. In both these cases, it seems, that Aristotle meant his logical works which had, in fact, already been incorporated into a fundamentally Platonic context.

…Christian Platonism seems to me a category mistake. …The idea of Christian Platonism …sees these positions—Christianity, Platonism, Aristotelianism, Stoicism and so on—as collections of doctrines. But recent scholarship has retrieved a much more adequate understanding of what was meant by philosophy in late antiquity by insisting that such philosophies were not just a matter of doctrines, though they involved doctrines and the philosophers argued over them among themselves, but are primarily to be seen (to use part of a title of a book containing English translations of the most prominent scholar espousing this view, namely Pierre Hadot) as a “way of life.” In this sense, certainly, Christianity could be regarded, and sometimes presented itself, as a philosophical school. But to speak of Christian Platonism muddies the waters. This has been evident especially since Mark Edwards published his book with the provocative title Origen Against Plato in which Origen is presented not as a Christian Platonist (as he has often been) but as an explicit critic of Plato. The different philosophical schools in late antiquity could and did overlap in the doctrines they espoused, but what distinguished them was also quite clear. It was where they found their authority for the doctrines they maintained: the dialogs of Plato, the writings of Aristotle, the Christian scriptures. In late antiquity, in reaction against the Christian and Jewish appeal to their ancient scriptures, we find philosophical schools of a general Platonic color, appealing to the authority of supposed ancient oracles such as the Chaldean Oracles or the treatises ascribed to the thrice greatest Hermes (Hermes Trismegistus), oracles that were claimed as the ultimate source of the doctrines Plato, something that Plato had not exactly discourage in his own appeal in the Symposium to the teachings of Diotima the priestess of Manitea.

The notion of Christian Platonism confuses the issue, suggesting that Christianity is, as it were, adjectival to Platonism, whereas the reverse was the case for all of those claimed as Christian Platonists. They supported their doctrines by appeal to the scriptures, so at best they could be regarded as Platonic Christians. The only thinker of late antiquity I can think of who might reasonably be regarded as a Christian Platonist was Synesius of Cyrene, the Platonist and neoplatonist who became a Christian, indeed a Christina bishop, but made it clear in a letter to his brother that truth was something he had learned from Plato while what he was to preach as a Christian bishop were no more to him than popular myths. But Synesius is pretty well a unique case.

…So I am not making a case for Christian Platonism. What might seem a more fruitful line could be to note the overlap in doctrines between Christianity and Platonism. There is genuine and important overlap in the doctrines Platonists and Christians embraced. Both believed in the existence of the divine (God or gods), in divine providence (God’s care for the universe), that humans are responsible for their deeds and will be rewarded or punished in an afterlife. In other words, both Platonists and Christians maintained a belief in a moral universe which required that divine providence held sway but did not override human free will. Now to talk of free will is already to use later Christian terminology. Earlier philosophers, both pagan and Chistian, spoke rather of human responsibility. Other philosophical schools had different doctrines, believing that the cosmos was either the result of chance (as Aristotelians were held to belief) at least in the sublunary regions. In the celestial realm, the movement of the stars and planets was indeed predictable or governed by an ineluctable fate (as the Stoics were held to maintain). Christian thinkers drew on an established body of their arguments that had been developed by earlier thinkers (mostly Platonists), but there were Platonic doctrines that Christians rejected. For example, Platonists believed that the soul was immortal—that is, it had existed from eternity and that it would continue to exist to eternity. For Christians, the soul had only an immortal future. Christians believed in the resurrection of the body, a doctrine incomprehensible to most non-Chrsitian philosophers in late antiquity as the Apostle Paul discovered at Athens. Nevertheless, Chistians responded warmly to the idea that, in virtue of possessing a soul, there was a certain affinity between the human and the divine, something expressed in a distinctively Chrsitian way by their doctrine of the human created in the image of God, a doctrine based on the Bible.

28:49
…Nevertheless, this overlap or assimilation of Platonic and Christian theology in the patristic period is not what I have in mind in speaking of the necessity of Platonism for Christian theology.

34:15
…[Walter] Pater’s expositions begins: “Platonism is not a formal theory or body of theories but a tendency or a group of tendencies, a tendency to think or feel and to speak about certain things in a particular way, discernible in Plato’s dialogs as reflecting the particularities of himself and his own mental complexion.” And he goes on to show how an appeal to the general is not intended to detract from our attention to the particular but rather enables us to notice what is particular about the particular. For it is only when we compare one particular with another of the same kind that we notice the particularity of the particular. Later on in this chapter, Pater puts it like this: “By its juxtaposition and coordination with what is ever more and more not it—the contrast of its very imperfection at this point or that with its own proper and perfect type—this concrete and particular thing has in fact been enriched by the whole color and expression of the whole circomplacent world concentrated upon or, as it were, at focus in it by a kind of shorthand now and, as if in a single moment of vision, all that which only a long experience, moving patiently from part to part could exhaust, its manifold alliance with the entire world of nature is legible upon it as it lies there in one’s hand.”

What seems to me important about this procedure of understanding is that it is not a procedure in which, as it where, by applying a certain method we pass from ignorance to knowledge. It is rather a process by which the knowledge we already have, knowledge both of the world around us as well as knowledge of forms of human excellence is clarified and deepened. The process is one of clarification in the light of experience rather that appeal to some empirical observation that adds in some way to our knowledge understood as a collection of information. This growing understanding is, however, a matter of long experience, an experience that is itself central to a way of life.

40:00
…This means that any meaning we find in the world in which we live is, in some sense, received from, even given by something (not yet someone to Plato) beyond understanding. This transcendent reality, bestoying meaning, is glimpsed beyond the good and the beautiful. For Plato himself, this was something untheorizeable. It remains an intuition thought it almost imperceptibly tips over into religious, even theological, intuition.

I remind you at this point about a quotation from C.C.J. Webb that my revered mentor, Professor Donald MacKinnon, used to growl forth in his lectures in Cambridge half a century ago, “We could not allow the name of God to a being on whose privacy an Actaeon could intrude or whose secrets a Prometheus could snatch form him without his assent.”

Plotinus, as we shall see, takes a step beyond Plato but does not take away the sense of transcendence as beyond meaning yet the source of meaning. In this, Plotinus finds a sense of something that would make possible the continuing fruitfulness of meditation on Plato in the Christian tradition that indeed lent the Christian vision the intellectual coherence it needed to articulate its own vision of reality, a vision opened up by revelation, though because it is the revelation of God—ineffable, incomprehensible—it is a revelation that remains a mystery unknown and unknowable.

What I just expressed is something that I only found the means to articulate through having to reread, recently, Hans Urs von Balthasar in order to write a chapter commissioned for the forthcoming Oxford handbook on Hans Urs von Balthasar on the influence on the great Swiss theologian of Plato and the Platonic tradition. In the long section on Plato, in The Realm of Metaphysics in Antiquity, Balthasar presents Plato as the supreme witness to philosophy in antiquity while at the same time recognizing inherent limitations. Sternly shaking himself free from poetry and myth, as from an old passion, Plato devotes himself to the quest for truth discovered by reason. But this quest is for him a religious quest, seeking true divinity that transcends the gods—the spurious divinity of the myths. And he does this by occupying himself with becoming like God so far as is possible, by becoming righteous and holy with wisdom. This is, however, a quest, that though pursued by reason cannot be represented solely by transparently rational procedures. The slave in the Meno is shown already to be aware of truths that he had not been taught and of which he is unaware, and this because learning is for Plato a matter of recalling what the soul has already experienced. The myth of the rebirth of the immortal soul in this life in this body is evoked to explain something that reason can reveal but cannot explain.

Other attempts to explore what is involved in the rational pursuit of truth, for instance in the Symposium or the Phaedrus, invoke themes of inspiration, the longing for eros (understood as a dymo, neither god nor human, immortal nor mortal)—themes that seem to transcend or undermine reason. Myth for Plato is to be found and belongs where the lines drawn by philosophical reflection stretch beyond its grasp, and in telling these myths, Plato demonstrates a literary power to evoke and persuade in a way very different than the demonstration of truth by rational argument.

45:30
…Heraclitus’ system of pure being is rejected, and Plato seems to be following Parmenides in the pursuit of pure being in the sense that “…only becomes more demanding since now it must take becoming with it up into being, the half up into the whole. This whole is the soundest, the most honorable. Inspiration, eros, myth can point to nothing higher.

48:09
…Now is born that philosophic aesthetic of the grand style to which even Plotinus will be able to make no significant alteration and which will lay down the pattern for all Western forms of humanism, of antiquity, the middle ages, and right into modern times—an aesthetic which seeks to draw out the glory of God which breaks in upon the human scene in the direction of the human of what for the moment is the same cosmic sublime.

…Though for Balthasar it is Plotinus who sees what the final implications of Plato’s intuition really amount to. He starts a paragraph like this: “Plotinus stands in awe and wonder before the glory of the cosmos.” Here I suggest, Balthasar reaches for his touch stone for understanding of Platonism, in this case that of Plotinus. The cosmos—manifestly a vast ensouled organism in which individual souls, rational and irrational, have their share—throughout this glorious world radiates the presence of an eternal and intelligent spirit in which noesis and noema, the action of thought and the object of thought are one. …And in the ultimate ground of this spirit, there is an unutterable generative mystery at work which in all the splendor of the cosmos simultaneously reveals and hides itself, present everywhere and yet unapproachable. All intellectual activity in heaven and earth circles round this unattainable generative mystery—all longings, love, struggles upwards towards it. All the beauty of the world is only a sign coming from it and pointing to it, so that as he contemplates and seeks to understand the things of the world, the philosopher is compelled at a deeper level to run away, to let go, to turn again to the uniqueness of absolute unity.

On the one hand, the irreferable wonder of the world around us and on the other, stemming from this, a sense of being touched by knowledge in which wonder seems to dissolve any sense of distance between the known and the knower. Wonder before the cosmos does not, at first step, highlight a contrast with our everyday experience (as with the gnostic to whom he was radically opposed and with whom he may indeed include Christians) but reveals a hidden sense of oneness. To Plotinus, in contrast, the vision of the starry heavens directly reveals the certainty of the world’s divinity and an awed reticence fills the soul. It is the manifest and glorious image of an unimaginable wisdom, a wondrous intellectual power reveals itself in this vision. How can the stars be anything other than the divinity manifest? Why should we rob this world, springing forth from God’s spirit, of it Maker and seek to confine him to a meager beyond?

…The stress on individuality [is] wholly positive, divined from above where it is found in the realm of the ideas not from below by material difference. …Poltinas speaks of procession [from the One] as risk but also daring, temerity. An entailment of this is that the One is not separated from anything. Because God is absolutely transcendent, therefore He can be absolutely imminent in all things. Thus does Plotinus reject the utter beyondness of Aristotle’s God (reposing in Himself) but also the Platonic karismas(sp?), separation. Intellection itself reflects the inexpressible unity of the One as the realm of one-many.

This, Balthasar continues, leaves nothing except the One in its moment of eternal self-identity to define what the intellect stretches out towards. God is nothing other than the inner depth of things, the center of that circle whose periphery or circumference they constitute. …The real Plotinus could never rest content with speculation in the modern sense. Throughout his life, he was to stand speechless before the miracle of being that transcends all reason.

56:37
…Balthasar concludes his chapter by making the following comment: “Plotinus draws together the various strands of the Greek heritage in his vision of being as beauty because it is the revelation of the divine. Beauty is thus characterized by an inner differentiation between radiance and form, light and harmony. It is in the fact that his formal ontology and aesthetics leaves the way open to pure philosophy and self-conscious theology that Plotinus represents a moment of kairos. It is in this that both the risks and the fruitfulness of his thought for future ages lie.

For Balthasar, Plotinus is clearly the apogee of Platonism, surpassing even the one that he regards as his master. Transcendence, which for both is only fully sensed in the beautiful, is less as with Plato the subject of meditations then a sense of wonder before the transcendent, a raw wonder not to be themetized or theorized, but speechlessness before the miracle of being and its source. This transcendent is absolute and therefore absolutely imminent, experienced as presence, as immediate, palpable but intangible, felt but never understood.

It is this intuition of Plato’s, an intuition that determined the very being of Plotinus, that I want to claim is necessary for Christian theology—necessary in the sense that without it the Christian thinker will find it impossible to articulate the centrality of Christ, the centrality of the cross for Christian theology. It is this sense of speechlessness before the miracle of being and its source that ensures both the acknowledgement of the reality of God (transcendent and immanent—transcendent because immanent and immanent because transcendent) and a sense of the wonder of creation. Now both of these are necessary if the mystery of Christ is not to be sucked up into the transcendent God or drawn down into the mystery of created being.

Plato’s and Plotinus’ intuition remained for them unfulfilled and unfulfilling. The sense behind this intuition that meaning is always received, always being given cannot be ultimately sustained if there is no giver, no God who bestows meaning. For the sovereign reality that must be recognized in the supreme giver, the giver of being itself, cannot rest on the acknowledgement of the creature. This is the mystery of grace which cannot itself demand or require what can only be freely given.

So I leave you with a paradox that Christian theology stands in need of an intuition of the radical givenness of meaning, an intuition that forms the heart of Plato’s metaphysics, an intuition that might even be said to have rendered speechless before the mystery of being its greatest interpreter Plotinus, but which for both Plato and Plotinus could not but remain beyond fulfillment.

Thank you for your attention.

From the Q & A:

1:03:16
…It is this intuition that the meaning of things is not something that we read into them, is not …simply our way of negotiating them, but in fact is something that ultimately is found, not even in the things themselves, but beyond the things themselves and requires from us attention, a contemplative gaze if you like—this is the fundamental issue as I see it.

1:05:52
…What is essential about Platonism for Christianity is that …the truth of things is not something that we confect. It is something that is in some way disclosed and disclosed as a process of refining vision, refining love. It is not something that can be read off from events or even read off from texts.

1:11:09
…Even when they don’t come to a conclusion, the process of the dialog leaves Plato and his interlocutors with a sense that, well, “We know that this is because that isn’t it.” And it’s that sort of intuition that it seems to me is fundamental if our response to the world is a response to the miracle of being rather than just an attempt to make some sense of it.

1:13:33
…In the liturgy, we open ourselves to an experience of being that can be gestured at, that can be reflected in various ways of praising God. …The unwritten traditions are all liturgical acts. …These liturgical acts reach out towards meaning even if we don’t understand why we are doing them because what we are doing is we are standing within a community and drawing on the resources of that community …in order to deepen our sense of openness to the mystery of being which is also the mystery of recreation, …the mystery of everything that is involved in the divine economy.

1:20:14
…There is something in Platonism that we have to take on board if we are going to be able to become Chrisitan theologians. But I don’t believe for a minute that this is done by becoming Platonists, not in the sense of adopting various Platonic doctrines. …There is one thing in which there is no parallel between Christianity and Platonism. …It is only in the Jewish and Christian tradition, in Philo particularly, that God is understood as one who speaks, and what he speaks is the Logos. This is very different from an understanding of the logos that is a meaning that we find in things, a meaning that we think runs through everything. A lot of discussion of what we think is going on in the second century gets completely off the rails because it doesn’t realize how Philo’s idea of talking of God as one who speaks …is something that Platonists could take on but they didn’t really understand what it is about. They didn’t see the idea of God as one who speaks is a way of summing up Genesis one. He is the one who speaks, and his speech comes into effect and is created. …Mark Edwards in his book Origen against Plato …says that all of these people were interpreting text. It was not a free standing discussion of various doctrines which we might or might not share with one another.

1:41:49
…In my experience, most people who are non-philosophers get this point quite easily. They don’t expect to be able to read off from scripture some sort of human wisdom that they are in control of. They are very often very deeply conscious of the fact that listening to the scriptures, trying to understand the scripture, is an encounter, an encounter with God, and that in that encounter what takes place is not, as it were, scripted. …This way of understanding scripture, not as a collection of doctrines or arguments or whatever, …became inevitable at the time of the Reformation and thereafter where people read scripture and understood very different doctrines in it and then saw scripture not as a source of wisdom but rather as a source of argument and knowledge, an arsenal instead of as a treasury. …Trying to understand scripture as a way of mediating an encounter with God is going to make much more sense …rather than trying to see scripture as some sort of textbook. The use of scripture in a kind of frightened way, from the 18th century on, as a way of rejecting what we don’t want to understand about the world in which we live …that is not even thought of by people who argue like that. They think that what they are doing is going back to a way in which the scriptures were understood before all these scientists came along. …That, just as a matter of history, is just wrong. The Genesis account wasn’t read before the eighteenth century as if it was a descriptive account of the way that the world was made. It was understood as a story which was told which helped us to see in what way it was God’s and in what way it was a world in which God was active. …We’ve lost a lot of being able to stand before sacred text and allowing them to help us to understand ourselves and our relationship to God and to other people and have treated them as textbooks, as primitive textbooks of primitive science.

1:52:08
…You know Otto’s idea of the mysterium tremendum et fascinosum. The tremendum is alright, but what is more important is the idea of mystery that draws one into itself, that wants us to go further, to understand more deeply, not to lose this sense of wonder. Attentiveness is absolutely crucial. Certainly in the Eastern tradition it’s a point often made, particularly with the ascetic fathers, that the Greek words for prayer and attention are very similar. There is a sense that they involve one another.

Head in white marble. Ostia Antica, Museo, inv. 436. One of four replicas which were all discovered in Ostia. The identification as Plotinus is plausible but not proven.

Gnosticism in the Words of David Bentley Hart (2013 to 2020)

I became interested in the portrayal of Gnosticism by David Bentley Hart over his career because it is complex and it sounds like it will feature prominently his forthcoming book You Are Gods (due out in 2021). In pulling together this summary of key passages below from four sources, I find the portrait consistent over time despite its complexity (and some possible shifts in focus). Despite the many points of similarity, what distinguishes Gnosticism from Christianity is the fact that Christianity (like Platonism) maintains a participatory metaphysics with no complete ontological schism between earthly or fleshly creation and the life of God.

Four Sources (identified below by the publication year in bold here):

  1. “Jung’s Therapeutic Gnosticism: the Red Book Reflects a Lat-Modern Desire for Transcendence without Transcendence” posted to First Things by David Bentley Hart, January 2013.
  2. The Story of Christianity published in 2015.
  3. “The Devil’s March: Creatio ex nihilo, the Problem of Evil, and a few Dostoyevskian Meditations” is an essay contributed to Creation ex nihilo: Origins, Developments, Contemporary Challenges (eds. Gary A. Anderson and Markus Bockmuehl) in 2017 as well as reprinted in Theological Territories: A David Bentley Hart Digest in 2020.
  4. Transcription of David Bentley Hart on the “Actually, It’s Good” podcast from an episode titled “Gnosticism… It’s Good” published Nov 17, 2020.

Gnosticism Overview:

  • To the Gnostics of old …this world is an immense prison guarded by malevolent powers on high, a place of exile where the fallen and forgetful divine spark dwelling deep within the pneumatikos (the “spiritual man”) languishes in ignorance and bondage, passing from life to life in drugged sleep, wrapped in the ethereal garments of the “souls” it acquired in descending through the planetary spheres, and sealed fast within the coarse involucrum of an earthly body. The spiritual experience at the heart of the Gnostic story of salvation was, as Hans Jonas puts it, the “call of the stranger God”: a call heard inwardly that awakens the spirit from its obliviousness to its own nature, and that summons it home again from this hostile universe and back again to the divine pleroma—the “fullness”—from which it departed in a time before time. (2013)
  • The earliest Gnostic or proto-Gnostic teacher of whom we know was Simon Magus (or Simon the Magician) who makes a brief appearance in the Book of Acts, where he attempts to purchase supernatural powers from the Apostles Peter and John. …Simon’s story contains a number of elements common to later, more developed schools of Gnostic speculation: the idea of a primordial fall within the divine realm itself; the claim that this world is the creation not of God but of inferior beings; an understanding of salvation as spiritual recollection followed by escape from the powers who rule this world. The great second-century systems devised by Valentinus, Basilides and other Gnostic sages all taught that the true God has no connection to this world, and that the material cosmos is the evil or defective creation of the ‘archons’ or ‘rulers’ who reign in the planetary spheres above, or of a chief archon, the ‘demiurge’ or ‘world- maker’ (often identified with the God of the Old Testament). Many spoke of a divine Pleroma or ‘Plenitude’ of light, a sort of pre-cosmic community of divine beings called the ‘aeons,’ generated in eternity by the divine Father, who himself remained eternally inaccessible, even to his own offspring. According to some Gnostic systems, the lowest of the aeons Sophia or Wisdom, conceived an unlawful longing to know the hidden Father, and in this way fell from the fullness of the godhead; then she, in one way or another, generated the demiurge and the lower powers; and then, either by accident or through divine cunning, sparks of divine spirit became enmeshed within the machinery of the demiurge’s cosmos. (2015)
  • Thus the spiritual temper of Gnosticism is, first, a state of profound suspicion—a persistent paranoia with regard to the whole of apparent reality, a growing conviction that one is the victim of unseen but vigilant adversaries who have trapped one in an illusory existence—and then one of cosmic despair, and finally a serenity achieved through final detachment from the world and unshakable certitude in the reality of a spiritual home beyond its darkness. The deepest impulse of the gnostic mind is a desire to discover that which has been intentionally hidden, to find out the secret that explains and overcomes all the disaffections and disappointments of the self, and thereby to obtain release. (2013)
  • For the Gnostic, the world is a prison from which the spirit must flee altogether in order to find the true light of truth. In each case, though, what remains constant is the real hope for an encounter with a divine reality greater than either the self or the world. (2013)
  • For Gnostics, the inner ‘call of the stranger God’ remained an expression—however tragically muted and distorted—of a perennial and universal spiritual longing: the wonder at the mystery of existence that is the beginning of all philosophy and all worship, the restlessness of the heart that seeks its rest in God, that luminous elation clouded by sorrow that is the source of all admirable cultural achievements and all spiritual and moral heroism. Even at its most despairing, the Gnostic religious sensibility still retained some vital trace of a faith that, in more propitious circumstances, could be turned back towards love of the world and towards a vision of creation as a vessel of transcendent glory. (2013)

What Distinguished Gnosticism from Christianity:

  • Gnosticism (even Christian Gnosticism) was clearly not an organic outgrowth of the Apostolic Church, but rather a kind of syncretistic, trans religious theosophy that drew from Christian, Jewish, Greek, Syrian, Mesopotamian, Egyptian and Persian sources, often simultaneously. As such, it may be likened to modern ‘New Age’ spirituality. (2015)
  • Even pagan observers were apparently able to tell the difference. The great Neoplatonist philosopher Plotinus (205—70) attacked Gnosticism vigorously, but never treated it as a species of Christianity. (2015)
  • Gnosticism spoke to a particular sort of spiritual discontent among persons of a certain type of temperament. It was not, however, a message of hope for a suffering humanity. (2015)
  • So what is the great distinction? Well, God created this world. There aren’t two gods. Well, even then, there are certain ambiguities there. As the lawgiver, God the Father is not even the author of the law. …What we vaguely call gnostic sects, …if they can be classified as in any way as heterodox, …[is] this willingness to amplify that provisional dualism into a complete ontological schism. (2020)
  • If I had to say that there is one thing that these schools had in common so that you could classify them as gnostic, is that …there is none that has an explicit metaphysics of participation. (2020)
  • [Compare the last two points to Clark in Ancient Mediterranean Philosophy: “Both pagan and Abrahamic Platonists have found corporeal nature sacramental. Plotinus …denounced those ‘gnostics’ who despised the earth. Porphyry, his pupil, was until recently the only ‘professional philosopher’ to write at length in favour of ‘the rights of beasts’ (Porphyry 2000). Nor was this at odds with Plato.” (110)]
  • One has to tread delicately here because I’m more than willing to say that, in one sense, all of creation is a real theophany, a real incarnation, even, of the divine story, of the divine nature, but am I willing to allow that the fallenness of that history is constituent of the goodness, is constituent of the nature of God such that violence, death, betrayal, cruelty become, even if negative, nonetheless probative aspects of the divine story? That is actually not a gnostic impulse. To say that is just the opposite. The so-called gnostics …[had] absolute horror of that suggestion. The God most high is not, in any of these systems, …is in no way involved in the fall of nature. The Father remains absolutely inaccessible, unknown, incomprehensible and removed from any taint of evil, from any finitude. It is something of a point of …a neurosis in the gnostic texts that might alone explain why they go in the direction they go in—the anxiety to make sure that in no way can the evil of this world, the darkness of this world, the pain of this world in any way be attributed to the true divine nature. (2020)

How Gnosticism Can Help us to Read the NT:

  • My interest in recovering the real form of gnosticism, trying to understand what it really was (if we are going to keep trying to use that word) is mostly to try to detach our understanding of the New Testament and the early church from the pictures that we formed of it based on later theological developments, later theological habits of thought, and later cultural alienations and estrangements from the original texts that allow us to imagine that we understand the world of the New Testament much better than we actually do. (2020)
  • There is a kind of “provisional” cosmic dualism within the New Testament that simply cannot be evaded: not an ultimate dualism, of course, between two equal principles, but certainly a conflict between, on the one hand, a sphere of created autonomy that strives against God and, on the other, the saving love of God in time. (2017)
  • The explicit claim of Christian scripture is that God’s will can be resisted by a real and (by his grace) autonomous force of defiance, and that his purposes can be hidden from us by the history of cosmic corruption, and that the final realization of the good he intends in all things has the form—not simply as a dramatic fiction, for our edification or his glory, nor simply as a pedagogical device on his part, but in truth—of a divine victory. (2017)
  • We tend to characterize Chrsistianity’s understanding of creation as, in an unqualified way, one of affirmation. Now it is in the sense that there is no notion in Paul or John that this world is literally ontologically estranged from God to the point that it is actually handiwork of a lesser celestial demon or the demiurge. And yet if you actually look at the New Testament, the Gospel of John is about as stark and dualistic in some of its formulations as it’s possible to be. Christ descends from above, and that above is not—and this is one of the things that I hope we talk about, the cosmology of the first century and other things like angelology that are often misunderstood, not just by modern Christians but Christians from the medieval period onward—but that descent is quite real. He is the man who is above, and he alone knows the secrets of the Father and descends into the darkness and the darkness does not comprehend him. Throughout John’s gospel, it is a war of darkness and light, and it’s also a light that divides rather starkly. Christ passes through the Gospel of John not like the frail man of sorrows or the political revolutionary of the synoptics but as already, not only risen but as one who comes from the mysterious realm that is already in some sense if not alien to but so transcendent of this realm that there can only be enmity until the end between the children of this world and of the devil who is called the ruler of this age, the ruler of this world, the archon of this world or the prince of this world in the King James and the one who comes from the Father who alone reveal the words of eternal life that gnosis that saves and heals. (2020)
  • In Paul, 1 Corinthians 15 is where it is most evident, but it is there throughout Paul. The current age, the olam ha-zeh in Hebrew, is not just a somewhat diminished reality. It is one that has been under the rule of mutinous angelic celestial powers literally in the heavens above separating us physically and spiritually from the highest heaven of God the Father as well as beings under the earth and on the earth that are very much the sort of malign spiritual agencies that were part of the intertestamental and second temple literature of the Noahic fall. For Paul, if you read 1 Cornithians 15, the age to come is one in which these powers are subdued by force, placed under the governance of the Son that may be handed over to the Father, and only then will the cosmos be under the rule of God and the way clear, physically and spiritually, to communion between us and God so that there is no longer any height or depth, no angel or archon or power between us and God. That imagery should be taken very literally because Paul meant it quite literally. The fallen heavens are guarded by these sentinel beings and the nations governed by them. The age to come is one in which we will put aside flesh, and he means flesh. …[Flesh] is actually an element incapable of inheriting the Kingdom of God. “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God.” So our body in the olam ha-ba, the age to come, will be a spiritual body that is literally a body composed of the element called spirit which is a semi-physical reality in its own right in the metaphysics that Paul’s language presumes. (2020)
  • So there is a very dark view of the condition of the cosmos under the reigning archon, the god [or archon] of this present evil age [or cosmos]. …It’s easier for twentieth and twenty-first century Chrsitians with antibiotics that work and when strep throat doesn’t kill your child and infant mortality rates aren’t fifty-two percent. It’s easy for us, somehow, to delude ourselves that the dissatisfactions and sorrows of life that we haven’t encountered aren’t as bad as they’ll prove to be, and we certainly can’t look at the world from the perspective of ancient persons who understood suffering and reconciled themselves to it far more easily than we do. Nonetheless, throughout Christian history, this provisional dualism [rather quickly] receded. It is there up to the early Alexandrians. You find it even in Origen when he talks about the nature of the cosmos. They still inhabited the same cosmology. It’s almost literal, physical estrangement, and I should say estrangement of nature between creation and the most High God. (2020)
  • Interviewer: “Even as late as Maximus, they are still claiming that Chrisitianity is this true gnosticism. …And one of the key claims is that—especially in the Alexandrian tradition starting with Origen—not everything that appears to us is a work of God, a creation of God. …That infuses the New Testament themes that you are talking about with the most substantial sense in which that provisional dualism is a true dualism, that one side has to be overcome, obliterated. This is inherent in the gospel, in the Kingdom of God.” Hart: “Right. …It is actually Paul who speaks of the ‘god of this age.’ John and Ephisians both speak of the archon, the prince of this cosmos. First John, all things lie in the power of the evil one. The heavenly spheres are throned by archons and powers and principalities in Romans, in First Corinthians, in Ephesians. They are cursed by a law that was in fact ordained by lesser, merely angelic powers. Galatians quite clearly says the law was written by angels delivered through human mediators. So even the law comes to us in a defective form because the angels that govern the nations, even the angel that governs Israel apparently—the Angel of the Lord, is defective in his rule. So the world is a prison of spirits, and this is a darkness and in John it doesn’t know the true light. A divine savior descends from the aeon above into this world. In John, aionios doesn’t mean everlasting in the durative sense. It doesn’t necessarily even mean the age to come, in the sense of the future but actually refers to things heavenly or divine that exist in the aevum or aeon above rather than in the realm of chronos time. He brings with him a wisdom that has been hidden from before the ages we’re told in Romans and Galatians and Ephesians and Collasians. It’s a secret wisdom unknown even to the archons of this cosmos in First Corithians. He has the power to liberate fallen spirits we’re told in John 8. And now there are certain blessed persons who possess gnosis, First Corinthians, and they constitute an exceptional group called the pneumatikoi, the spiritual ones. …In Jude, when it speaks of psychical men who do not possess spirit, and that is always translated as ‘who don’t possess the Holy Spirit’, but there is no ‘the’ and no ‘holy.’ It means …who are without spirit. In that context, it is as much a quality of one who has been sanctified as it is an actual element or constitution of their nature. And so the savior opens a pathway through the planetary spheres, the heavens and the armies of the air and the powers on high. That is when Paul will tell us that neither death nor life, nor angels nor archons nor things present nor things imminent nor powers nor height nor depth nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God.” (2020)
  • This is the way that Paul is thinking constantly. Creation is that which is yet to be revealed. In part, creation is something that is constructed by spiritual natures. He doesn’t talk in terms of a demiurge. He does talk in terms of a god of this world, but …the world we inhabit is the one that has been corrupted by spiritual natures. I think he probably has a book of Enoch notion of the degree to which angels participated in this, the degree to which we participated in it. I don’t know if what he talks about the impress, the image of the celestial man, if we fully understood, but that seems very much inline with the first and second and third century mysticism of the true human who dwells in the heavenly places as the true image of God and of the Son of God. Until then, the world that we inhabit, that we create together as spiritual beings, that we perceive, that is the work of our wills in our ignorance is maya. …You’ve already got it there in the neoplatonic tradition, I just think that there are all these wonderful Indian thinkers who had all sorts of categories and reflections that can enrich the Christian treasury of terms. But actually, it’s a good term. …What does maya mean? …Appearance, illusion. …To a degree, that’s the meaning it has. …But really, it’s the same Indo-European root as maguš, magic. It’s the power of creation but it’s also illusion. It has that dual sense. There’s that kind of demiurgic distance between us and the world that is a work of spiritual estrangement from God that’s both, in one sense, natural, even physical if you want to use the Pauline language and also moral. Berdyaev instinctively understood that this is something that is actually there in the essence of the New Testament language even though he wouldn’t be encouraged to think that from later Christian thought—although in the East, obviously, many of these tropes were retained a bit more fully. (2020)

How Gnosticism Shows up Today (all points below from the 2013 source):

  • Current gnostic tendencies due to:
    • The constant erosion of Christendom over the past few centuries, and with the final collapse of the old social order of the West in the twentieth century’s political and ideological storms, and with all those seas of human blood that overwhelmed the ruins.
    • Seemingly irreversible alienation from the natural world that defines modernity. …The realm of the senses has become ever more remote from us, and ever less meaningful for us.
    • We have learned to see nature as only a machine, composed of material forces that are inherently mindless, intrinsically devoid of purpose, and therefore only adventitiously and accidentally directed towards any end, either by chance or by the hand of some demiurgic “Intelligent Designer.” And, with the rise of Darwinism, in the context of the mechanistic narrative, the story of evolution appears to concern only a mindless process of violent attrition and fortuitous survival, random force and creative ruin, in which order is the accidental residue of chaos and life the accidental residue of death.
  • It all is the suspicion of the apparent world, the turn inward towards hidden foundations and secret depths, the fantasy of escape to an altogether different reality.
  • With enough therapy and sufficient material comforts, even gnostic despair can become a form of disenchantment without regret, sweetened by a new enchantment with the self in its particularity. Gnosticism reduced to bare narcissism …might be an apt definition of late modernity as a whole.
  • Ours is one of those epochs that is hospitable to a gnostic sensibility:
    • The newer religious movements that have flourished most abundantly in the developed world over the last century and a half (including a great deal of American Evangelicalism).
    • The smaller sects that keep springing up at the margins (Scientology, for instance) are even more acute manifestations of the same spiritual impulses.
    • Gnostic themes, moreover, have been a persistent and recurrent element in Western literature since the Romantic age.
    • Most of us now are susceptible to the psychologistic assumption that spiritual disaffection is something to be cured by discovering and decoding some forgotten, half-effaced text inscribed somewhere within the self.
  • For Jung, Gnostic myth was really just a poignantly confused way of talking about the universal human tragedy of the ego’s alienation from the unconscious, which each of us enacts in growing out of childhood. The infant dwells in the super-personal unity of the unconscious, so the story goes, wholly unaware of any duality of self and other; but with age comes progressive individuation, which involves the ego’s traumatic emergence from that original state of blissful plenitude into the winnowing drama of personality.
    • And the same story, says Jung, unfolds itself in the development of human society; cultural phylogeny, so to speak, recapitulates psychological ontogeny. Primitive cultures remain just at the boundary of the infantine state, half dreaming in the tender dawn-light of the nascent ego, effortlessly projecting the contents of the unconscious onto the world in the forms of gods, spirits, ghosts, and demons. The somewhat more mature civilized peoples of the ancient world then transformed those projections into rigid religious systems, thus abandoning the flowing immediacy of dreams for the static day-lit objectivity of doctrines. Modern persons abandon myth and creed alike in favor of the subtler projections of ideological and social prejudice. In each case, though, a tragic internal division persists, and is even hardened over time. All of us have lost touch with that inner world in which our souls were born, and remember it only in the alienated forms of imaginary external forces and principles.
    • According to Jung, it was the special distinction of the ancient Gnostics in some sense to have understood this: to have recognized that the stories we usually tell about the world are in fact just projections—just fabrications—behind which lies the true tale we have forgotten, the perennial story of that primordial catastrophe that has shattered each of us within. Unfortunately, not having the benefit of Jung’s “scientific” psychology to explain their spiritual distress to them, the Gnostics inevitably fell back upon projections of their own. They imagined the unconscious as a divine pleroma from which the spirit had literally suffered a prehistoric fall. They interpreted the latent but restless presence of the unconscious behind the ego’s elaborate plaster façade as the imprisonment of a divine scintilla in the vast dungeon of the cosmos. They dramatically transcribed their inchoate awareness of inner inhibitions and confusions into a figural language of hostile cosmic archons. They transformed the ego’s denial of its dependency upon the unconscious into the story of the “god” of this world, who proudly denies that there is any God above himself whose creature he is. And they mistook the dreamlike deliverances rising from their own inner depths for the voice of a savior descending from beyond the sphere of the fixed stars.
    • All understandable errors, Jung thought, but with some singularly unfortunate consequences. In Gnostic thought, the primal human longing to overcome the ego’s alienation from the unconscious was distorted into a yearning for a final escape from spiritual exile and a return to a divine unity transcending world and ego alike. But that, thought Jung, stripped of its mythic garb, is nothing more than a pathetic longing for the ego’s disappearance into its impersonal ground. That would be to trade one tragedy for another. The only true rescue from the human predicament lies not in a retreat from the ego back into the abyss of the unconscious, but in one’s reconciliation with one’s own primordial depths, achieved by raising the unconscious up into consciousness without sacrificing one’s individuality or autonomy. In the end, he concluded, psychic alienation can be conquered only through Jungian psychotherapy. The only true pneumatikos, it turns out, is a psychiatric patient (one whose psychiatrist likes to talk a great deal about archetypes).

so that snow itself seems to be warm

Myths are not allegories. Natural powers are not in this case abstractions. It is not as if there were a God of Gravitation. There may be a genius of the waterfall; but not of mere falling, even less than of mere water. The impersonation is not of something impersonal. The point is that the personality perfects the water with significance. Father Christmas is not an allegory of snow and holly; he is not merely the stuff called snow afterwards artificially given a human form, like a snow man. He is something that gives a new meaning to the white world and the evergreens; so that snow itself seems to be warm rather than cold. The test therefore is purely imaginative. But imaginative does not mean imaginary. It does not follow that it is all what the moderns call subjective, when they mean false. Every true artist does feel, consciously or unconsciously, that he is touching transcendental truths; that his images are shadows of things seen through the veil.

…Sometimes it would seem that the Greeks believed above all things in reverence, only they had nobody to revere.

…He who has no sympathy with myths has no sympathy with men. But he who has most sympathy with myths will most fully realise that they are not and never were a religion, in the sense that Christianity or even Islam is a religion. They satisfy some of the needs satisfied by a religion; and notably the need for doing certain things at certain dates; the need of the twin ideas of festivity and formality. But though they provide a man with a calendar they do not provide him with a creed. A man did not stand up and say ‘I believe in Jupiter and Juno and Neptune,’ etc., as he stands up and says ‘I believe in God the Father Almighty,’ and the rest of the Apostles Creed. Many believed in some and not in others, or more in some and less in others, or only in a very vague poetical sense in any. There was no moment when they were all collected into an orthodox order which men would fight and be tortured to keep intact. Still less did anybody ever say in that fashion: ‘I believe in Odin and Thor and Freya,’ for outside Olympus even the Olympian order grows cloudy and chaotic.

…It seems clear to me that Thor was not a god at all but a hero. Nothing resembling a religion would picture anybody resembling a god as groping like a pigmy in a great cavern, that turned out to be the glove of a giant. That is the glorious ignorance called adventure. Thor may have been a great adventurer; but to call him a god is like trying to compare Jehovah with Jack and the Beanstalk. Odin seems to have been a real barbarian chief, possibly of the Dark Ages after Christianity. Polytheism fades away at its fringes into fairy-tales or barbaric memories; it is not a thing like monotheism as held by serious monotheists. Again it does satisfy the need to cry out on some uplifted name or some noble memory in moments that are themselves noble and uplifted; such as the birth of a child or the saving of a city. But the name was so used by many to whom it was only a name. Finally it did satisfy, or rather it partially satisfied, a thing very deep in humanity indeed; the idea of surrendering something as the portion of the unknown powers; of pouring out wine upon the ground, of throwing a ring into the sea; in a word, of sacrifice. It is the wise and worthy idea of not taking our advantage to the full; of putting something in the other balance to ballast our dubious pride, of paying tithes to nature for our land. This deep truth of the danger of insolence, or being too big for our boots, runs through all the great Greek tragedies and makes them great. But it runs side by side with an almost cryptic agnosticism about the real nature of the gods to be propitiated. Where that gesture of surrender is most magnificent, as among the great Greeks, there is really much more idea that the man will be the better for losing the ox than that the god will be the better for getting it.

From The Everlasting Man by G. K. Chesterton.

far enough away not to hate it

From The Everlasting Man by G. K. Chesterton:

Now the best relation to our spiritual home is to be near enough to love it. But the next best is to be far enough away not to hate it. It is the contention of these pages that while the best judge of Christianity is a Christian, the next best judge would be something more like a Confucian. The worst judge of all is the man now most ready with his judgements; the ill-educated Christian turning gradually into the ill-tempered agnostic, entangled in the end of a feud of which he never understood the beginning, blighted with a sort of hereditary boredom with he knows not what, and already weary of hearing what he has never heard.

…I recommend these critics to try to do as much justice to Christian saints as if they were Pagan sages.

…I mean that just as the Church seems to grow more remarkable when it is fairly compared with the common religious life of mankind, so mankind itself seems to grow more remarkable when we compare it with the common life of nature. And I have noticed that most modern history is driven to something like sophistry, first to soften the sharp transition from animals to men, and then to soften the sharp transition from heathens to Christians.

…The first of these is the creature called man and the second is the man called Christ. I have therefore divided this book into two parts: the former being a sketch of the main adventure of the human race in so far as it remained heathen; and the second a summary of the real difference that was made by it becoming Christian.