St. Elias School of Orthodox Theology
Deification of the soul is a concept shared by the Hellenic pagan philosophical tradition and Orthodox Christianity. In the ancient Greek language, the concept is denoted by two separate terms. For the pagan Neoplatonists, such as Iamblichus, the deification of the human being was described as henôsis, or unity with God. For Christian theologians of the Greek tradition, the term was theôsis, meaning a divine mode of existence. The difference resides in the ontological and metaphysical presuppositions informing these two philosophical and theological approaches.
Iamblichus considered deification (henôsis) as involving a creative partnership with God, realized through theurgic rituals that raise the soul up to the level of divine demiurgic power. In other words, the deified soul, for Iamblichus, is the soul that has come to experience the glorious satisfaction of maintaining the cosmic order - in other words, in sharing in the activity of the One. For the Orthodox Christian tradition, on the other hand, deification (theôsis) implies a state of being that was described, by the most gifted Church Fathers, as an endless, mystical yearning for divine fulfillment. Both Origen of Alexandria and Gregory of Nyssa argued that God is beyond the experience of humanity, who are destined to eternally strive - albeit unsuccessfully - for a complete experience of divinity. The most one can hope to attain is a fleeting sense of His infinite vastness. Later in the Christian tradition, however, Maximus the Confessor described theôsis as the replacement of the human ego by the divine presence. In both cases, the attribution of theôsis to these states is paradoxical. If I am eternally incapable of attaining Godhood, how can I ever claim to be deified? Conversely, if God overwhelms my existential center of being with His absolute presence, then do I not effectively cease to exist as a person?
In this paper, I will examine the manner in which the Christian tradition fluctuated between the two extremes of eternal separation from God, and the absolute, person-negating presence of God in the soul. It is in the pagan Neoplatonic tradition, as exemplified by Iamblichus, I will argue, that a personalistic, existentially viable theory of the eskhaton is to be found. By this I mean a theory in which the person, the soul, is intimately bound up with the inner working - or eternally realized history - of the cosmos, in so far as the soul co-operates with God in the maintenance of the cosmic order. This is precisely the goal of Iamblichean theurgy: to raise the soul to the level of perfect demiurgic co-operation with the highest divinity. Yet even Iamblichus' theory requires qualification - if it is to remain existentially viable - as I hope to make clear in the conclusion of this paper.
In the Neoplatonic tradition - both pagan and Christian - the concept of deification was generally traced back to, and lent support by, the following passage from Plato's Theaetetus: "a man should make all haste to escape from earth to heaven; and escape means becoming as like God as possible [homoiôsis theô kata to dunaton]" (176b.1-2). Until the time of Eudorus of Alexandria (fl. ca. 50-25 B.C.) the qualification "as far as possible" was understood as referring to the corruptibility of the body, which was thought to prevent a complete assimilation to the divine. Eudorus, however, interpreted this statement as referring to the perfection of a human being's intellectual capacity. Indeed, as Plato himself states, in the very next line, the man who desires assimilation to the divine must possess "understanding [phronêsis]" (176b.2-3, tr. Levett, Burnyeat).
This led to an increasingly sharp distinction between soul and body, which again found support in the writings of Plato, who had posited a tripartite soul. The body came to be understood as a prison for the rational part of the soul, the intellect (nous), and salvation, consequently, was conceived in terms of the intellect's breaking away from its somatic fetters. This notion was given sophisticated mytho-poetical expression in Gnosticism. "Salvation belongs only to the soul," writes Basilides, "the body is by nature corruptible." However, this idea found its strongest philosophical proponent in Plotinus, who argued that the descent of the soul into the body is required for the maintenance of the cosmic order, but the highest part of the soul - the rational part - remains always above the realm of matter and change, at home with universal Mind.
In both Christianity and the post-Plotinian Neoplatonism of Iamblichus and his successors, the idea that the highest part of the tripartite soul remains ever above the material realm was largely discarded in favor of the view that the soul is, in toto, completely a part of the cosmos, and that salvation must involve a 'holistic' approach to transcendence. The methods employed by Christians and Iamblichean theurgists were quite similar. Both involved the use of material substances - for the Christians it was wine, bread, water, ointments, incense; for the theurgists it was stones, gems, herbs, etc. And both involved the belief that God's power somehow imbues these material substances with salvific power, when utilized in the proper ritual context.
Yet here is where the similarities end. For Iamblichus believed in an all-pervasive deity whose power extended to the nether reaches of the cosmos, eternally and unalterably. Christians, on the other hand, believe that God descended to the depths of Hades only once, at a specific point in history, i.e., the Christ Event (the Incarnation, death, and Resurrection of the Lord). This difference is due to a profound dissimilarity between their respective views regarding cosmology and, most of all, temporality.
As a pagan, Iamblichus believed in the eternity of the cosmos. However, he did not, like the Stoics, believe that the cosmos repeats itself identically over the course of vast aeonic cycles. Rather, he believed that the cosmos is the eternal revelation of the divinity in a graded system of emanations, in which the various entities occupying the different levels of reality come to grasp divinity in a manner suitable to their nature. Indeed, as he explains, even the lowest forms of inanimate life, like stones, are 'pierced' by the divine power. Recognizing a hierarchy of causal principles in the cosmos, Iamblichus remarks that, regardless of the point at which a principle takes effect, "it does not cease its operation before extending to the lowest level; for even if is stronger, nevertheless the fact of its greater separation can create a balancing factor, rendering it weaker ... the influence of the higher principles is more piercing [drimuteran], more keenly felt."
What Iamblichus is saying here is that God must expend more energy in order to maintain the lower part of His creation than is necessary to maintain the higher part. This is in stark contrast to Plotinus, who maintained that the emanation of reality from the One gradually dissipates in ever cruder forms of 'contemplation' (theôria), not all of which have a destiny of integration with a higher principle. The notion that the power of God is more concentrated at lower levels of reality gave support to Iamblichus' doctrine, which called for the use of stones and herbs in theurgical ritual, the purpose of which was to raise the human power closer to the divine. As Iamblichus is careful to explain: "[theurgy] does not draw down the impassive and pure Gods to that which is passive and impure; but, on the contrary, it renders us, who have become passive through generation, pure and immutable."
This is precisely the opposite of Christian doctrine, which maintains that God became human in response to human sinfulness. In the Orthodox Christian Liturgy, the priest asks the congregation to forgive him his sins. This acknowledges the fact that even the Liturgy (leitourgia) is presided over by one who is immersed in sin. Such an admission is not part of Iamblichus' ritual program, for he was very conscious of the intellectually curative power of not only the stones and herbs, but of the ritual itself, which did involve prayer and an authentically intellectual communion with the deity. He writes as follows:
Extended practice of prayer nurtures our intellect, enlarges very greatly our soul's receptivity to the gods, reveals to men the life of the gods and accustoms their eyes to the brightness of divine light, and gradually brings to perfection the capacity of our faculties for contact with the gods, until it leads us up to the highest level of consciousness of which we are capable; also, it elevates gently the dispositions of our minds [ta tês dianoias êthê] and communicates to us those of the gods, stimulates persuasion and communion and indissoluble friendship [peithô de kai koinônian kai philian adialuton egeirei], augments divine love, kindles the divine element in the soul and scours away all contrary tendencies within it, casts out from the etherial and luminous vehicle surrounding the soul everything that tends to generation, brings to perfection good hope and faith concerning the light; and, in a word, it renders those who employ prayers, if we may so express it, the familiar consorts of the gods.
The purpose of Iamblichean theurgy, then, is not to supplicate the gods and ask them to pardon one's sinfulness, but rather to purify the soul so that it may consort with the gods, on an equal footing. The theurgist, unlike the Christian priest, does not debase himself before his God; instead, he raises himself up to communion with the divinity. As G. Shaw explains:
By means of appropriate rites the theurgist directed the powers of his particular soul (mikros kosmos) into alignment with the powers of the World Soul ... which gave him direct participation in the 'whole.' He became a theios aner, universal and divine yet particular and mortal...
The deification of the human soul is realized by the mortal human being, according to Iamblichus. In the absence of an eschatological schema, we find a theory of deification that does not involve history, but only the independent, willful activity of the free human intellect.
For Iamblichus does not, like the Christian Fathers, posit universal history as the soteriological locus of human self-fulfillment; rather, he sees the timelessness of theurgic ritual as the locus of human self-expression leading to a union (henôsis) with the gods.
... the theurgic soul becomes perfectly established in the energies and demiurgic intellections of [divine] powers. Then, also, it inserts the soul in the whole demiurgic God.
The final result is "a union with the Gods, who are the givers of every good [tôn agathôn dotêras theous henôsin]." This is accomplished both temporally and atemporally, and introduces no distinction between present and future, but simply offers the soul a way of participating in the creative (demiurgic) activity of the godhead while still inhabiting the fleshly body. Existentially speaking, this overcoming of temporality by the temporal soul should be regarded as a great boon to the authentic life. However, Iamblichus' thought is not free from the determinism so characteristic of late pagan thinking, for he sees the cosmos as bound by itself to itself, with no possibility of transcendence. This includes the eternal inclusion of souls in the ever-repeating cosmic process. The final soteric reward of souls is described by Iamblichus as follows: "this reward includes a return to this realm and an authority over things in it. ... According to the ancients (palaioi), souls 'are freed from generation and together with the gods administer (sundioikousi) the universe.'"
This 'administration,' for Iamblichus, is understood as the re-entrance of the soul into the cosmic cycle. This means that the soul somehow remembers its previous incarnations, and seeks to overcome the negative influences of those now-defunct self-expressions. Since the soul is "freed from generation," it now becomes as eternal and unchangeable as the cosmos itself. The attractiveness of Iamblichus' theory resides in its sense of intimate partnership of God and the soul, as both participate in the demiurgic maintenance of the cosmos. However, from an Existential-Personalist viewpoint, the maintenance of an unchanging order offers no room for personal creativity and growth, only an endless 'perfect' state of harmony of self with cosmos. Yet what commends Iamblichus' thought to us from an Existentialist-Personalist perspective, is the fact that even though the theurgical soul becomes locked into a permanent state of participation with the demiurge, with a view to the eternal maintenance of the cosmos, this soul experiences a very direct transference of natures within an already realized history - i.e., within the closed perfection of the cosmos, as conceived by Iamblichus and his pagan Neoplatonist colleagues. For Iamblichus, the soul of the theurgist becomes a true "partner" (koinônos) with God, not merely passive partakers of the divine nature.
Whereas Origen and Gregory were only able to conceive of an eskhaton in which human striving must remain forever unfulfilled, and Maximus was only able to conceive of an eskhaton in which the human person loses its existential center, Iamblichus found a place for human creative striving in history - albeit a history already ordered by the divine mind, of which the soteriological soul now participates on equal terms, through theurgic ritual. This is why, I believe, the system of Iamblichus should be given careful consideration in relation to later developments in Christian eschatology, notably in the works of Berdyaev. While Iamblichus' idea of salvation is rather more dynamic than that of later Christian theologians like Maximus the Confessor, it nevertheless ends in the same general state - that of the replacement of human initiative by an eternally positive, divine, order. "The most perfect ... has as its mark ineffable unification, which establishes all authority in the gods and provides that our souls rest completely in them" (De Mysteriis 5.26).
However, when one looks more closely at the respective soul-centered eschatologies of Iamblichus and the three Christian Fathers discussed here, I believe one will find that, in spite of a shared historical determinism, a very subtle but profound difference appears - between determinism in history (Iamblichus) and determinism by history (the Christian Fathers). We will now proceed to a discussion of this distinction.