David Armstrong recently recorded a conversation with Michael Martin. It’s all thought provoking, and you can find it here. Here are two highlights (out of many more). At one point, Michael Martin describes a forthcoming book by David Bentley Hart as having “inherited the mantle of the Inklings.”
53:29 David Armstrong: You’ve written quit a bit on the value of paganism. …I really dig this just as a scholar of religion and a fantasy nerd, among other things. It seems like there’s a lot of talk about these sorts of things. In the sciences, there are related paradigm shifts with the growth of panpsychism both in physicalist and idealist forms. Lewis, of course, famously thought that we have to become pagans again before we can become truly Christians. The animist and platonist attitudes toward reality are way closer to a Christian cosmology than secular modernity is. How can Christians reclaim, for lack of a better term, what is our native paganism?
Michael Martin: …I think that a Sophiological insight will bring you to this realization. David [Bentley Hart] gets into it in his Roland book. But wait until you see his next book. …I don’t know how he is pronouncing it: “Kenogia” [not sure the spelling]. It’s based on a kind of a retelling of the gnostic Hymn of the Pearl. It’s wonderful. He has inherited the mantle of the Inklings on this one. One of my kids is almost thirteen, and the other one is almost eleven. I can’t wait till the book gets out so that I can give it to those guys because they will be totally into it.
1:30:40 David Armstrong: If you read the Greek fathers, it’s clear that they are alterist [a term used by Alexander Khramov here], meaning that they believe that the cosmos as it exists now is still God’s creature but space, time and matter as they exist are fallen and so evolution as it exists involves death where it would not have otherwise. And corporeality is very different than it would have been otherwise. Adam and Eve, for the fathers and for most early Jews, start out as angelic beings.
Michael Martin: And after they are kicked out of the garden, it says that God makes for them coats of skin. It doesn’t say animal skins. It’s “coats of skin.” Like you, I think it’s a fall from a somewhat angelic state of being into a deeper fall into matter.
David Armstrong: And flesh requires a history and so the whole evolutionary history of life on the planet. It’s weird. It bends our whole notion of how we tend to think of space and time in purely linear ways. In this sense it’s like—the whole evolutionary history of the universe—it still manifests, on the one hand, God’s creative wisdom (there is still glory that is going on in the emergence of physical laws and life), but it is also the case that this is all almost like a shadow being cast backwards and forwards from a vertically, hierarchically superior kind of thing. …There are consequences for how we talk about flesh versus spirit if we’re thinking from within that more alterist framework where the goodness of life in the body as we experience it is really good, but it is bifurcated at every moment with a simultaneous experience of diminution and fall that is actually best captured imaginatively. I’m a big lover of Jim Henson, and I loved the Dark Crystal growing up, and that movie is actually a really great representation of what the Christian tradition has historically said about human beings.
For several years, I’ve come back regularly to an effort at summarizing the whole story of the Bible within as few words as possible. Here’s a recent attempt. Is it making sense?
God said, “Let there be light.” A few days later, God said, “Let there be heavenly bodies to guide an ageless dance between the great light of day and the many beautiful lights of night over which I delight to sing.”
Finally, God said to humanity, “Here is a place for you in the midst of my growing household so that you who carry my image can learn to show me fully to all that share life with me. Enjoy this home and care for it, my children, but be warned that refusal of this place in my household will lead to your death.”
But humanity said to God, “We are mature already, and we are ready now to be like you.”
God replied, “No, my children. To join with you fully is my purpose, but that step in the dance is not yet reached. Because of your disordered desire, you will need to mature within the realm of death where your own will cannot forever take you away from my life. This restriction of time by the contingency of death will limit your wanderings as you each mature amid the confusion and suffering of your misdirected loves. I will be with you, and you can still mature fully to show your divine image as my human family to all of my creation. Even from the foundation of this realm of death in which you must be entombed, my eternal Son will participate fully in your suffering, and a woman among you will bear fruit. She will be a human who prepares and agrees, even within the realm of death, to carry my perfect image as my eternal Son. Through her acceptance of her own humanity, this woman will fulfill my intent for all humanity as a way for me to join with my creation. With this union of her child’s life and the Life shared by me and my eternal Son as our gift to all creation, everything that we have made will be restored in the life of this woman’s child.”
And humanity slowly reply, “Remember us, O Lord, in your kingdom.”
My own partial transcription from portions of this excellent conversation between David Bentley and Tony Golsby-Smith about Gregory of Nyssa:
[Gregory of Nyssa] is arguably the first metaphysician who in any significant way explored the metaphysics of divine infinity. …Infinity was ascribed to God …very rarely in Platonic tradition. The invite was not taken to be a positive attribute for many schools of thought until fairly late in the development of Hellenistic philosophy. He had is own anthropology. He had is own approach to an understanding of the nature of the human being, the nature of creatures as thoroughly dynamic expressions of being in relation to a God who is infinite. I don’t think that anyone before Gregory was as successful as he at arguing that the very things that for a more standard metaphysics would be seen as separating humanity from the divine—that is the mutably, the changeableness of human nature—Gregory was able to treat as the very terms of union with God. That is he had a very specific theology of the way in which human beings are related to God in union with God that was his rather creative use of a verse from Paul [Ph. 3:13] of eternal dynamic ascent into the divine. That our union with God, our eternal union with God, would be one also of eternal novelty, of epectasis [ἐπεκτεινόμενος], of being stretched out into an ever greater embrace that, by virtue of the divine infinity, is inexhaustible and by virtue of the inexhaustibly changing nature of the creature is nonetheless something in which we can participate. …All of this, in its own way, is quite original.
All sorts of things are called gods. Saints are called gods. John of Damascus and the other church fathers often speak of saints as gods because they don’t mean God in the sense of God most high. They just mean a divinized creature.
What does it mean to say [with the Nicene Creed established by Gregory and his fellow Cappadocians] that in Christ God has entered into immediate communion with humanity? What is humanity? How is it that God, by becoming one man, in another sense is present in all of humanity, pervades the entirety of human experience that is available to all of the spirit? This leads to Gregory of Nyssa coming up with all sorts of fascinating claims about what it is to be human, what it is to be truly human, how God created humanity form the vantage of eternity as apposed to the process of creation in time and how these two relate. Here he far surpassed his brother [Basil] and Gregory of Nazianzus in the range of speculative genius and also theological profundity. The picture of the human that emerges from it is one of a sort of radical coinherence, radical community, such that the human essence itself is one that is community before it is individuated in persons.
What he does with the Life of Moses is he turns this into a mystical treatise about he ascent of the soul into God’s infinity. And the other is his great commentary on the Song of Songs which …has all these odd premonitory hints of a kind of almost romantic vision of the soul as this infinite insatiable energy that is plunged by its error for the divine, striving—not tragically striving—but nonetheless moved by this insatiable hunger for the beauty of God into ever-deeper communion.
[Gregory of Nyssa] recognizes the animality, the physicality, the degree to which, especially for fallen humanity, [it is given] in preparation for the fall. He talks about preparing certain organs (among them, organs of procreation) to be appropriate to the life that we live in this mortal flesh now. …At the same time, he realizes that even in this condition—he’s always …recogniz[ing] this divine light, this divine music even in the human[‘s] most indigent and coarsely physical form.
In a sense, [Gregory of Nyssa] starts [the creation story] at the end. The creation of humanity starts—he does this wonderful thing where he takes the two different creation accounts, Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, and makes them, so to speak, two different creative horizons within God’s working—he beings with the human being as already glorified, already united to Christ, already in its totality, all human being together rejoicing in and divinized by the presence of God. From there—that’s the primordial creative act of God, the eternal already accomplished end—from there then unfolds, even from the conditions of sin, how does God create us in time—this being not just the end of the story, but its foundation, its beginning. Rather than starting from this sort of tragedy of a promising creature created in a limited landscape of possibilities, who makes a mess of things, condemns himself and his descendants, …that’s actually an interval in the story that is surpassed before the story even gets underway.
You are confronted first and foremost with this dizzying claim that humanity created after the image fo God in the beginning was nothing less than the totality of all human beings throughout time united in a single body divinized, joined to Christ and thoroughly plunged into the life of God. That’s where the story begins.
I’m a great champion of the romantic movement—especially the English romantic—the great rebellion against the mechanization, and I have no problem with a full robust, red blooded, seemingly panentheistic [vision]. I think that this is another reason to read Gregory On the Making of Humanity and Basil in the Hexameron. …Now, there is a certain degree of the Platonic melancholy there, a certain distrust of matter. You just can’t get away from that in the fourth century, especially in a fallen world. …But they are not talking about a world in which dead matter is the fictile clay by which God creates a working order of mechanisms related to him only in terms of his power. It really is for [them] a vision of created as pervaded by the Spirit of God. It really is the πνεῦμα, the breath of God really does permeate, fill and enliven all things. Life is literally at once the eternal spirit of God but actually the breath of God in all things. It is perfectly healthy to see the romantic rebellion [as being] against the mechanized picture—either the dualistic or the materialist version—this picture of creation as nothing but a collection of organic machines and matter as something inherently dead which is brought to life simply as a mater of functional arrangement but that in itself [is dead]. For Gregory, everything is just the mirror of the divine nature. …In both Basil and Gregory, they both deny that there is even, in any meaningful, sense a material substrate. Their understanding of matter—I don’t know if you’d say that it’s Berkeleian, that’s a bit of an anachronism—but their understanding of matter or the material creation is that it exists as a coalescence of radiant forms [Greek phrase given here, 41:53], of pure spiritual forms. They don’t believe that there is any sort of inanimate, non-divine, non-illuminated, purely passive level of material existence. And this is something that [Gregory] shared with Basil.
The portion in this conversation above about the two nested horizons of God’s creative work provides some helpful language regarding the nature of the cosmos that we inhabit now (see three previous posts here, here and here for just a few other examples of material in my blog related to this). Gregory considers there to be a foundational work of creation outside of time (both the beginning and the end of this current world) in which there is a “humanity created after the image fo God in the beginning [that] was nothing less than the totality of all human beings throughout time united in a single body divinized, joined to Christ and thoroughly plunged into the life of God.” This fullness of humanity is Adam made in the perfect image of God’s eternal son. This undifferentiated humanity falls at the moment of its creation (as Maximus the confessor puts it in three places) and Jesus Christ is therefore the “Lamb slain from the foundations of the cosmos” (Revelation 13:8) and the second Adam to whom all of humanity must remain united in order for the image of God to be preserved. Within fallen time, this image of God is now being differentiated as a kind of secondary work of creation—God’s joining with us in sin and death to nonetheless participate fully with even the life of fallen creation and to accomplish the end of God’s primary creative work. Later in the conversation, David summarizes Gregory as saying that, from our current perspective, creation has not yet taken place. From God’s eternal perspective, it can be clearly inferred as well, it has already taken place.
This entire interview is well worth listening to, and I hope the entire thing is transcribed. Two more are planned focussing on other writings of Gregory. This first interview touches on many other topics such as: Who were all of the Cappadocian saints and what is the nature of the Christian orthodoxy that they were critical in helping to establish? Why did Gregory advocate for the release of all slaves when no other Christian thinker (or likely any human thinker ever) had done so before in this way? Was Gregory a widower and what did Gregory say about marriage and monastic life? How does Gregory compare to Coleridge?
Roland (David Bentley Hart’s beloved dog) speaking to Hart (in the new book Roland in Moonlight):
“I’ll tell you the whole story of our two peoples one day,” he said. “As for your sin—your original sin—I can’t speak to it. It was already something established in your natures before your kind and mine ﬁrst truly met. I know the myths, of course—the Eden myth and the other tales from around the world of the loss of an original beatitude or innocence. But, even if that’s something that actually happened rather than an allegory about something that’s always happening in your kind, then it happened in some other world, some other kind of time. As for this world—this fallen world, this aftermath of that other world—here, in this world, it may be that your feeling of original sin also consists largely in a kind of oblivious memory of your organic past… an ineffable ache of conscience that’s really a kind of organic recollection of all the phylogenic misery and slaughter and blood-soaked attritions by which your species climbed its way out of the mire of purely biochemical existence. Long before your species had even appeared in the world of chronos, the world of the time of death, you were gestating in the womb of nature as a mere stochastic organic possibility, an only remotely likely ﬁnal issue of incalculable ages of violence. And you bear that lineage and that whole physical history as a kind of ontological guilt, a stain deeply imbrued in every cell in your body—written in every strand of your DNA. Every one of you is Cain, the mark of your immemorial guilt indelibly inscribed on each mitochondrion and every cell-wall… Ah, well, so it goes. A delicate blue ﬂower springs up atop a noisome midden, and its fragile, incandescent beauty dazzles us, and we forget all the purulence and waste and dissolution and ceaseless decay from which its exquisite, transient charm was born. That evanescent flicker of enchantment inveigles and beguiles us. But deep down in the cellars of your cerebral cortices your reptile brain still lurks—a serpent, so to speak, perhaps the Serpent of Eden himself—and all the later concrescences of your modular brain are compounded upon that ineradicable ophidian core. And it knows. It remembers, in its cold, cruel, scaly way. And you, of course, my friend, are no blue flower.”
“…Anyway, I wasn’t trying to be a philosopher, or even to tell a complete story. That organic history is only an echo of the spiritual history that preceded it. Your still more original original sin was your departure from the pleroma in the divine aeon through an act of self-assertion—which is to say, your departure from the Dreaming in the wrong way, at the wrong moment. And that’s a fall that happened to all of you as one and to each of you as individuals.”
To compare to this famous passage from C.S. Lewis, here is a passage from Theological Territories in “Remarks to Bruce McCormack regarding the Relation between Trinitarian Theology and Christology” by David Bentley Hart:
In all of us, and in all things, there sleeps a fallen god called by God to awaken and seek union with him as a natural end—to risk a formulation that will offend just about every Christian, but that merely expresses the inescapable conclusion of thinking the theology of divine incarnation and human glorification through to its logically inevitable terminus.
Two Orthodox priests, Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick and Fr. Stephen De Young, have been podcasting together recently and shared about these five-ish angelic falls. They have also referenced three human falls which Fr. Stephen has blogged about previously here as well. These lists include some notes and clarifications later shared by Fr. Andrew in an outline group connected to the podcast group.
These five-ish angelic falls are wrapped up with the three human falls listed below but are articulated here from the angelic perspective:
Succession myth / serpent (=devil) cast into Hades. Attempt to overthrow the Most High from His throne in heaven that parallels various pagan myths of younger gods destroying the former gods. This is represented in all pagan myths as a success, but it is a failure in Genesis.
Initial fall in the heart or mind of a divine council member. This is not recounted in Genesis directly. Subsequent readings of Genesis tend to fill in the gap and place this succession myth before creation (as in Milton’s Paradis Lost). However, casting it before the creation of the world creates a basic logical problem. You can’t dethrone the Most High God in reality, but you can try to dethrone him in the hearts and minds of his creatures. This requires there to be other creatures. Therefore, the serpent (a member of the divine council) is depicted as having “overthrown God” within his own heart at beholding the creation of humans and then to have invited humans to do the same. This succession myth gets told in Isaiah 14. The dethroning happens in the minds of the fallen angels, which is how this is described by St. Gregory the Great.
Casting out of the devil into the Underworld for tempting mankind: the serpent, a divine council member, overthrows God in the hearts of humanity by tempting them with a shortcut to maturity and is sent by God to preside over the land of dust (i.e. of death or Sheol). This is the first angelic fall directly depicted in Genesis (a failure in contrast to the triumph of pagan succession myths). [Fr. Andrew notes that “fall” from this point on is not a moral fall or betrayal. In that sense, these angels are already fallen before these events happen. Fall here focuses on “being cast down.”]
Apkallu / Watchers / Nephilim-generation (the Watchers (the fathers) falling by generating nephilim). Angels tempt humans with technology for which they are not ready and then involve themselves in human procreation to produce a line of demigods (1/3 fallen angel) who start human royal dynasties. Paralleled in pagan myths such as the Sumeran Kings List and the story of the Apkallu or the story of the Seven Sages.
Nephilim / Unclean Spirits / Mastema+crew (the nephilim (the sons) falling by being defeated by the Flood when most are cast into the Abyss). Many of these demigods are finished off by Joshua and David. Their spirits trouble the earth as unclean spirits.
Accepting worship post-Babel. Fallen angels receive the worship offered to them at the Tower of Babel (gate of the gods) and become the 70 gods of the original divine council placed over the traditional 70 nations.
Satan (=devil?) falling like lightning. When Christ says, “I saw Satan fall like lightning” after his 70 disciples return from their commissions to declare the kingdom of God. This is also connected with Rev. 12:9. Some claim that Christ’s earthly ministry changed something for Satan. Are these two different figures who both fall, or is this one figure, one person, who falls two different times in two different ways? St. Andrew of Caesarea thinks it’s one figure who falls in two different ways.
Three human falls:
Fall of Adam. A trespass but no mention of sin in Genesis (seeking a childish shortcut to maturity despite God’s warning). This trespass of Adam brings death. It is the first fall and the last enemy to be defeated by Christ.
Fall of Cain. Considered by several patristic writers to be the first to sin with his murder of his brother.
Fall of humanity at the tower of Babel. Coming under the dominion of the angelic powers overseeing the nations.
Several people have asked me questions about what this post means, so here is a summary in advance with more direct language. God doesn’t need death to create, but He subverts death to achieve all of His original intentions anyway. The Bible teaches a human fall outside the start of time and of our cosmos as we know it. All death (of any kind) is a result of this atemporal human fall (which is also manifested within history as you can consider in this post).
In other words, God has always had incarnation in the form of the Son as an eternal plan and purpose, and humans are actually created outside of time as we now know it. Our showing up within this current corrupt reduction of time and space is a result of our collective decision outside of time to try a shortcut that resulted in this corrupted first creation that we now know but which is still being made (in Christ) into the new creation that will be fully revealed at Christ’s second coming.
The image in Revelation 13:8 of a Lamb slain from he foundation of the cosmos has come to mean a lot to me, as this captures the idea that Jesus Christ has been suffering with His creation since the start of time.
“One major challenge to any ancient metaphysical conception of the world is the modern doctrine of evolution.” Torstein Theodor Tollefsen raises this critical point at the end of “Saint Maximus the Confessor on Creation and Incarnation” (his contribution to Incarnation: On the Scope and Depth of Christology edited by Niels Henrik Gregersen). While Tollefsen immediately acknowledges that “Maximus probably held the view that the world was made recently and that all species were made by God in the beginning,” Tollefsen goes on to explain how modern evolutionary science can fit seamlessly within the metaphysical system that Maximus provides. As far as I can tell, what Tollefsen proposes lines up to a remarkable degree with the position outlined in “Sergius Bulgakov on Evolution and the Fall: A Sophiological Solution” by Charles Andrew Gottshall (posted to the Eclectic Orthodoxy blog on May 1, 2017).
In summary, Maximus sees the fall of humanity as having two aspects. These can also be expressed as “two senses of hamartia” (the Greek term typically translated sin). They are not two falls of humanity but just our human fall seen from two perspectives: 1) humanity’s relation to God outside of time wherein we collectively made a free and culpable choice to become what God intended for us via the wrong pathway and 2) humanity’s suffering within time under the bondage of corruption alongside of the entire cosmos that we are meant to tend and bless.
In its first aspect, our fall is an atemporal event that takes place within the “eternal now” of God’s presence and in which humankind “reached for its humanity as made in the image of God, situated in the tension between paradise and oikoumené, but failed to achieve it in the proper way.” (Although Tollefsen does not specify this directly, it seems clear that Adam in this sense for Maximus is understood as God’s vision of humanity seen collectively as a whole—as the perfect body of Christ to use Paul’s language.) In Ambiguum 42, Maximus states that our nature fell unnaturally into wickedness “at the instant it was created.” (Note in this blog post that Maximus actually makes this strange claim “on three separate occasions.”) Tollefsen explains that this “first ‘failure’ of Adam …was culpable, since he fell of his own choice from good into evil.” According to Tollefsen: “Maximus does not …commit himself to any definite speculation on the state of innocence. …The first [sense of hamartia] was culpable and indicates a fall from innocence, but the text does not say that this first is to be understood temporally.”
In its second aspect, our human fall “was the innocent transformation of human nature from incorruption into corruption.” This consequence of our fall is “innocent” in that we and the entire cosmos (with no rational will of its own and therefore no choice in the matter) suffer a contingent consequence that we could not have fully foreseen. Tollefsen says that this aspect of “humankind’s fall from perfection …is probably understood in a temporal sense” in that after “a period of existence in paradise” we experienced the fall “with its consequences for the whole of creation, when human beings were transformed from incorruption to corruption.” Summarizing Maximus, Tollefsen further explains: “Corruption, comprising all kinds of physical weakness and death, is not natural. It is not in accordance with the proper nature of a being, which rather is the divine purpose of its logos. Thus while human salvation involves healing from sin and gaining incorruptibility, animals, if they should be conceived as participating in the divine scheme of salvation, only need healing from corruptibility.”
Critical to the full metaphysical framework that Maximus presents is that “the plurality and diversity that characterizes the world is willed by God, and [it] shall not disappear in the consummation of the ages.” In God’s final purposes, “particular beings are meant to be preserved as themselves in their particularity.” In conclusion, Tollefsen claims: “The transformation from incorruption to corruption [of the entire cosmos] may be interpreted within this picture. [It describes] a purpose that is not achieved throughout the natural history of the world, but is reached in the eternal kingdom of God.”
When taken together (and summarized in my own layman’s terms), we get a vision of creation as being initiated within God’s timeless presence with the central and guiding principle of creation from before creation’s start being the incarnation of the Logos as human. Christology, in this case, expresses a unity between God and creation—with humanity being the principal link within the created order. Humanity, however, grasping at a false path toward our ultimate end as the focal point of God’s image within creation, recasts our entire experience of the process of creation itself within a contingent corruption of the entire cosmos (expressed within our current cosmic time). For now, we are no longer fully able to see God’s creative work underway except in so far as we can see it through Jesus Christ, and all that we see is subject to the delusions and blindnesses imposed by ourselves and many others within our current contingent time. This human fall does not prevent God’s creative acts and intentions from taking place, but our falleness introduces the temporary experience of suffering and death into the entire creative process as it unfolds within time. From start to finish (even before humanity arrives within the fallen temporal sequence), creation within cosmic time is marred by corruption (but not prevented or destroyed). Within this context, the incarnation, death, resurrection and glorification of Jesus Christ become the revelation and restoration of our true and eternal condition as well as remaining the telos of creation as it always was. This telos is enacted within history as the incarnation of Jesus Christ but reveals a truth that cannot be fully seen or known until history is finished and transformed.
Biological evolution, in this scheme, is just the creative work of God unfolding as this ongoing work is experienced within the fallen confines of our current cosmic time. The entire natural history of our cosmos combines together the achievement of God’s eternal ends with the contingent experience of corruption, suffering and death. In this, the whole of creation becomes a kind of prolonged and painful labor and delivery. Ultimately, the claim here is that all the eons of biological evolution participate in the crucifixion and death of Christ as well as in Christ’s transfiguration, resurrection and glorification (rendering all the suffering of humanity and the cosmos contingent yet fruitful in the end). In this way, the final telos of all creation is “not achieved throughout the natural history of the world, but is reached in the eternal kingdom of God.”
Passages from Tollefsen relating to what God intends and is creating according to Maximus:
How does God know beings? They are known, Maximus states, as his own acts of will. Maximus says that in the logoi, beings are circumscribed essentially and genetically (that is, as known and as willed) by their own logoi and by the logoi of beings that surround them.
…God knows particulars. He not only knows them; he loves them. …The logoi, as conceived by God, are contemplated by God according to the essential relationships they were intended to found. …Natural relationships are for …the actualization of a movement of love, which is what God has made possible within this system of being. According to Maximus’s interpretation, when beings are conceived within such an order, this is meant to guarantee a certain integrity of being and to make possible a certain providential and soteriological dynamics of movement.
The plurality and diversity that characterizes the world is willed by God, and is as such shall not disappear in the consummation of the ages. Particular beings are meant to be preserved as themselves in their particularity. However, in the present age this particularity has turned into a source of self-enhancement on the part of particular beings. This self-enhancement is sinful, since it involves an encroachment upon the integrity of both one’s own being and the being of others. In this way suffering, pain, corruptibility, and death rule the natural world. The divine remedy, however, is not the reduction of particularity, plurality, and diversity to an essential, ontological unity. Rather, it is the reduction of self-enhancement to the detriment of other beings to a unity in love that is made ontologically possible because God has transcendentally (in his logoi) knit the bonds of being that make it possible.
…The inﬁnite divine Mind who eternally contemplates his own knowledge of beings has contemplated them in their logoi in all the possible ways of development these possible beings might enfold.
…While it will not accord with the methods of science to search for final causes, a metaphysical doctrine of the world as made by God cannot dispense with the concept of final causality.
…Even if the natural development of life is replete with struggle, suffering, and death, the Christian metaphysics of Maximus reckons with a ﬁnal consummation in which all suffering and corruptibility are overcome. A cosmos made by God according to his goodness, will, and purpose must be conceived as directed, in the divine Mind, toward some goal.
Passages from Tollefsen relating to what we experience in this life given our fallen condition according to Maximus:
Maximus expects a universal transformation of the cosmos. Also, salvation does not just concern the remission of sin, since only rational creatures can sin. In Ad Thalassium 42, Maximus interprets the Greek term hamartia, which is usually translated “sin,” in its literal sense as a failure or as missing the mark, like when one shoots with a bow. The first “failure” of Adam, he says, was culpable, since he fell of his own choice from good into evil. This is what we would designate as sin in the usual sense of the term. The second failure, however, following upon the first, was the innocent transformation of human nature from incorruption into corruption. According to Maximus, corruption, comprising all kinds of physical weakness and death, is not natural. It is not in accordance with the proper nature of a being, which rather is the divine purpose of its logos. Thus while human salvation involves healing from sin and gaining incorruptibility, animals, if they should be conceived as participating in the divine scheme of salvation, only need healing from corruptibility.
…Maximus does not, as far as I can see, commit himself to any deﬁnite speculation on the state of innocence. He …distinguished between two senses of hamartia. The ﬁrst one was culpable and indicates a fall from innocence, but the text does not say that this ﬁrst is to be understood temporally. However, in Ad Thalassium 1, he mentions in passing humankind’s fall from perfection. This is probably understood in a temporal sense: there was ﬁrst a period of existence in paradise; then came the fall with its consequences for the whole of creation, when human beings were transformed from incorruption to corruption.
…What Maximus actually says does not have to be interpreted in the sense that one has to reckon with some kind of historical paradise in the past. If we look at the divisions of being in Ambiguum 41, one of the divisions is between paradise and oikoumené, as if these were somehow present in the cosmic building and not as if one came before the other in time. Further, in Ambiguum 42, Maximus states that our nature fell unnaturally into wickedness “at the instant it was created.” These Maximian descriptions need not be anything other than a metaphysical sketch of the structures or powers and possibilities of the world and of culture. When humankind originated within the fabric of nature, it reached for its humanity as made in the image of God, situated in the tension between paradise and oikoumené, but failed to achieve it in the proper way.
Note that, while working to grasp Tollefsen’s summary of Maximus on these points, it can be helpful to have this additional map in hand:
In Ambiguum 41, Maximus presents his system in a nutshell. He draws a perspicuous and, I would say, beautiful picture of the cosmos as it comes forth from God in its procession (that is, creation) and converts to God in the ﬁnal restoration. He describes ﬁve basic divisions in accordance with which the cosmos is arranged: (1) the division between uncreated and created nature, (2) the division of created nature into intelligible and sensible being, (3) the division of sensible being into heaven and earth, (4) the division of earth into paradise and oikoumené, and (5) the division of oikoumené into male and female. By oikoumené he probably means the inhabited world [as Andrew Louth translates it in Maximus the Confessor, Early Church Fathers (London: Routledge, 1996), 157].
Saint Gregory of Nyssa (feasted today, January 10) says that the image of God is only seen when every human person is included both at the outset of creation and at the end of time. Here Gregory describes how God’s image applies to the entire human race gathered from across all of fallen history:
In the Divine foreknowledge and power all humanity is included in the first creation; for it is fitting for God not to regard any of the things made by Him as indeterminate. …The entire plenitude of humanity was included by the God of all, by His power of foreknowledge, as it were in one body, and …this is what the text teaches us which says, God created man, in the image of God created He him. For the image is not in part of our nature, nor is the grace in any one of the things found in that nature, but this power extends equally to all the race. …The Image of God, which we behold in universal humanity, had its consummation then. …He saw, Who knows all things even before they be, comprehending them in His knowledge, how great in number humanity will be in the sum of its individuals. …For when …the full complement of human nature has reached the limit of the pre-determined measure, because there is no longer anything to be made up in the way of increase to the number of souls, [Paul] teaches us that the change in existing things will take place in an instant of time. [And Paul gives to] that limit of time which has no parts or extension the names of a moment and the twinkling of an eye (1 Corinthians 15:51-52).
These excerpts from Gregory’s On the Making of Man (intended to supplement and complete the Hexaëmeron of his older brother Saint Basil) illustrates Gregory’s idea that God created all of humanity at once in the beginning, but that this universal humanity is revealed within fallen time as a multitude of individuals all contributing to the image of God but not manifesting the fullness of that image without each other. Gregory sees all of human history, as we experience it now, to be a result of the human fall which took place with the first creation of all humanity before any individual humans existed. All of humanity is therefore currently participating in both our fall and our creation (both of which were initiated before time itself). Once each person arrives within this fallen history, humanity then be restored to our union with each other and to God, allowing us to once again display the fullness of God’s image as intended from the start (in the first creation, before our fall).
Gregory even says that this movement from the first creation of humanity as a collective whole into a “plenitude” of particular humans could have happened without a fall, in which case we would have become a multitude in whatever way the angels themselves became a great multitude (which process Gregory says is inconceivable to us in our current condition). Once the full number of humans ordained by God has been born within fallen history, the final manifestation of all humanity, transformed with bodies of incorruptibility and united to Jesus Christ as the first fruits of this resurrection life, will mark the fullness and end of history and of time itself as humanity is once again a complete whole as it was initially revealed in the first creation. This way of thinking is far from intuitive for modern people. Here is a more complete sample of the passages expanding these ideas from Gregory (in a slightly convoluted older translation):
In saying that God created man the text indicates, by the indefinite character of the term, all mankind; for was not Adam here named together with the creation, as the history tells us in what follows? Yet the name given to the man created is not the particular, but the general name: thus we are led by the employment of the general name of our nature to some such view as this—that in the Divine foreknowledge and power all humanity is included in the first creation; for it is fitting for God not to regard any of the things made by Him as indeterminate, but that each existing thing should have some limit and measure prescribed by the wisdom of its Maker. [XVI.16]
Now just as any particular man is limited by his bodily dimensions, and the peculiar size which is conjoined with the superficies of his body is the measure of his separate existence, so I think that the entire plenitude of humanity was included by the God of all, by His power of foreknowledge, as it were in one body, and that this is what the text teaches us which says, God created man, in the image of God created He him. For the image is not in part of our nature, nor is the grace in any one of the things found in that nature, but this power extends equally to all the race: and a sign of this is that mind is implanted alike in all: for all have the power of understanding and deliberating, and of all else whereby the Divine nature finds its image in that which was made according to it: the man that was manifested at the first creation of the world, and he that shall be after the consummation of all, are alike: they equally bear in themselves the Divine image. [XVI.17]
…Yet while, as has been said, there is no marriage among them, the armies of the angels are in countless myriads; for so Daniel declared in his visions: so, in the same way, if there had not come upon us as the result of sin a change for the worse, and removal from equality with the angels, neither should we have needed marriage that we might multiply; but whatever the mode of increase in the angelic nature is (unspeakable and inconceivable by human conjectures, except that it assuredly exists), it would have operated also in the case of men, who were “made a little lower than the angels,” to increase mankind to the measure determined by its Maker. [XVII.2]
…God says, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness, and God created man, in the image of God created He him (Genesis 1:26-27). Accordingly, the Image of God, which we behold in universal humanity, had its consummation then. [XXII.3]
…Man, then, was made in the image of God; that is, the universal nature, the thing like God; not part of the whole, but all the fullness of the nature together was so made by omnipotent wisdom. …He saw, Who knows all things even before they be, comprehending them in His knowledge, how great in number humanity will be in the sum of its individuals. [XXII.4]
…For when, as I suppose, the full complement of human nature has reached the limit of the pre-determined measure, because there is no longer anything to be made up in the way of increase to the number of souls, [Paul] teaches us that the change in existing things will take place in an instant of time, giving to that limit of time which has no parts or extension the names of a moment and the twinkling of an eye (1 Corinthians 15:51-52). …So that it will no more be possible for one who reaches the verge of time (which is the last and extreme point, from the fact that nothing is lacking to the attainment of its extremity) to obtain by death this change which takes place at a fixed period, but only when the trumpet of the resurrection sounds, which awakens the dead, and transforms those who are left in life, after the likeness of those who have undergone the resurrection change, at once to incorruptibility (1 Thessalonians 4:17). [XXII.6]
On the Making of Man by Saint Gregory of Nyssa (translated by H.A. Wilson)
The Christian should see two realities at once—one world, as it were, within another. One, the world as we all know it, in all its beauty and terror, gandure and dreariness, delight and anguish, and the other, the world in its first and ultimate truth, not simply nature but creation, an endless sea of glory radiant with the beauty of God in every part, innocent of all violence. To see in this way is to rejoice and mourn at once, to regard the world as a mirror of infinite beauty but as glimpsed through the veil of death. It is to see creation in chains but beautiful as in the beginning of days.
…Whether or not one believes in such glory or has faith in its final advent or can in fact see it even now through the veil of death and our estrangement from God (though I suspect that all of us see it at times whether our internal dispositions permit us to recognize what we see or not), one should be able to grasp that it is not a glory immediately revealed in cosmic or human history but is rather one that appears before, alongside, within and beyond that history, always present yet also for now deferred and so visible to us only through a glass darkly. This glory is not simply the hidden rationality of history but a contrary history that pervades and that will finally overwhelm the world of our fallenness. It is not the sublime or sacred logic of nature but what shines through the promise of nature’s loveliness, a beauty of which nature as we now know it is only a spectral remnant or a delightful foretaste.
The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? by David Bentley Hart. [Transcribed from the audible book version with my own punctuation.]
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):
“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.
The Story of Christianity published in 2015.
“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.
Transcription of David Bentley Hart on the “Actually, It’s Good” podcast from an episode titled “Gnosticism… It’s Good” published Nov 17, 2020.
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).