All Christians are equal. Some are just more equal than others.

28 05 2008

(Some reflections on the hierarchical nature of Christianity)

Even the perfect soul is imperfect when compared with divine action.

-Iamblichus, De Mysteriis

Sometimes I just get an intellectual itch that I have to scratch. Since I read the Pope’s catechesis on St. Dionysius the Areopagite a couple of weeks back, I have been chewing over a particular passage over and over again:

Now then, [Proclus] made a distinction between the paths for the simple — those who were not able to elevate themselves to the heights of truth, for whom certain rites could be sufficient — and the paths for the wise, who on the other hand should purify themselves to arrive to pure light.

In other words, late pagan Neoplatonism was a two-tiered system in which the philosophers were sitting at one luxurious table of divine contemplation, while the peons ate of the crumbs of base idolatry and superstition.

Now we cannot put too much weight on the Holy Father’s words here. After all, his main point was not to give an accurate portrayal of the last Greek pagans, but rather expound on the theology of a great and mysterious Christian thinker. Nevertheless, I think I have to clear up some misconceptions that one could draw away from his caraicature of Neoplatonic theurgy.

First of all, Proclus Diadochus was far from a stuffy, buttoned-up elitist too caught up in his sublime contemplations to participate in the rites of the common people. Indeed, according to his biographer Marinus, Proclus always “observed the holy days of all peoples appropriately”, observed the rites of the Great Mother once a month, and even used his theurgic skills to draw down rain on the draught-stricken land. For Proclus, then, piety was not a barrier to the ascent to the Truth, but rather a condition of it.

The nature of the pagan rites themselves can also be a misrepresentation if read in the wrong way. To think that they were pure mumbo-jumbo for the plebs in Neoplatonic discourse is simply not true. For them, they contained a symbolic ascent back to the One by the means of rituals, hymns and pictures. As Pierre Hadot puts it in his book, The Veil of Isis:

The Neoplatonists wanted to protect traditional religion against the invasion of Christian religion, for they sincerely believed that the cult of the gods was linked to the action of the World Soul, which preserved the universe… Nietzsche said that Christianity was Platonism for the people. For the Neoplatonists, pagan myths and rituals were also a Platonism for the people, or, even more precisely, a hidden physics.

For the late Neoplatonists, the issue was not necessarily one of the old religion being an inferior form of knowing, but rather one of interpretation of what its symbols meant. For example, everyone would see and hear the statue and hymns to Aphrodite. The simple and carnal would stay at the letter and plain meaning of those rites and benefit from them that way, while the philosopher would use them to climb up to something higher in the cosmic realm. As Iamblichus so precisely put it in De Mysteriis:

Each man attends to his sacrifice according to what he is, not according to what he is not; therefore the sacrifice should not surpass the proper measure of the one who performs the worship.

All benefit from the rites then, but in different ways. All commune with the Divine, but only according to their ability to do so. The rites themselves, however, are indispensable and hold the key to union with the One, the True and the Good.

Of course, parts of this system passed into the Christian consciousness through St. Dionysius, particularly the idea of the three ages of the interior life as stages on our journey to God. The only difference is that in Christianity, it is not just the learned philosophers who ascend to the highest summit of union with God, but rather anyone who loves God and does His will regardless of learning or wealth. Indeed, the latter things can be hindrances to union with the Divine. This does not preclude the fact, however, that all will wear different crowns in the Kingdom, and even in that inequality, in those various degrees and shades of glory, lies a beauty all its own.


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