Monday, March 15, 2010

Likeness to God as Far as Possible, Pt. 2

"Likeness to God as Far as Possible": Deification Doctrine in Iamblichus and Three Eastern Christian Fathers

Edward Moore, S.T.L., Ph.D.
St. Elias School of Orthodox Theology


Iamblichus' notion of the soul's salvation is not, at first glance, all that different from the conceptions of later Christian thought, particularly Maximus the Confessor. Iamblichus conceived of the eskhaton as the perfect unification of soul and cosmos, in which the soul finds rest, and the authority of the divinity is maintained in and for eternity. Maximus, similarly, understood the eskhaton as the replacement of the human ego - the existential center of the soul, the self - with the absolute and absolutizing presence of God. So why should Iamblichus' conception be given primacy from an Existentialist-Personalistic philosophical perspective?

The answer resides in the relationship of the soul to history, i.e., to the manner in which the human being responds to the inevitable and inescapable historical circumstances in which it finds itself. History is at once the locus of my self-realization as a person, and the limiting factor in my creative expression of my personhood. As the Russian philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev has explained:
History treats me very roughly, and it shows not the slightest concern for my well-being. That is one aspect of it. But history is also my history. I have indeed had a share in its happening. If man holds the cosmos within him, there is all the more reason for saying that he includes history within him. In the spiritual depth of me - in transcendental man - the contradiction is removed. The history of Israel, Egypt, Persia, Babylon, Greece, and Rome, of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance occurred with my participation, it is my history and for that reason only can it be intelligible to me. It is my path, my quest and my lure. Its falls and its uplifting are mine. If for me this were mere objectification in which everything is received from without only, then I should be able to understand nothing of it.[29]

The understanding of history is paramount, for it is also the understanding of our universal personhood. In the philosophical theology of Origen of Alexandria, the historical becoming of the soul is said to continue even after salvation, as the intellect gradually becomes more accustomed to the perception of divine things. In Origen we find a dynamism in the eskhaton. Deification occurs, but it is not perfect assimilation of the soul to the Godhead; rather, it is a continual motion toward divinity. We find a similar idea in Gregory of Nyssa's concept of diastêma, in which the soul is said to strive eternally for God, who remains forever aloof.

However, when considered in this way, how can history ever be, as Berdyaev declares, my history? My striving for God, for deification, becomes merely a function of a cosmos that must always exceed me - or, in the case of Maximus, of a deity of which my existence is a mere function. What distinguishes Iamblichus' view from that of these three Church Fathers is the presence of an atemporal ontology, which tempers his brand of historical determinism (determination in history as opposed to determination by history).

Historical determinism for Origen and Gregory means that history is an inescapable, ongoing process of motion toward god. Both Origen and Gregory adhered to a peculiarly Christian brand of apokatastasis doctrine (first developed by Origen), which implied innumerable incarnations of the soul in the cosmos, until that soul at last was purged of its sinfulness and re-united with God. Maximus, while adhering to such a doctrine early in his career, abandoned it in favor of a belief in ascetic purging of the soul leading to an emptying of the self, in preparation for the complete replacement of the ego by the divine presence. For Origen and Gregory, the soul's salvation was assured; it may take countless ages to perfect, but it will occur ... eventually. Maximus was not so optimistic, but he nevertheless believed that the goal of history was the perfection - deification - of the entire cosmos, including all of nature (not just human souls). Both of these Christian positions are attractive enough, to be sure; but what they are lacking is the sense of intimate, human-divine participation that one finds in the theory of Iamblichus. According to Origen and Gregory, endless striving - never satiated - for the divine presence is the definition of salvation; for Maximus, the ego relinquishes its unique position in history in favor of a dissolution into the Godhead. Iamblichus, however, understands salvation rather differently.

Iamblichus sees the theurgical act as universal, as 'holding sway' for all eternity, within the divine order of the cosmos. The autonomous act of the soul participating in theurgical ritual is in no way determined or guided by historical circumstance - it is a supreme act of self-expression. However, it is an act that results, paradoxically, in the loss of the ability to express oneself; - for ultimately, it is the divinity that maintains the cosmos, not the human soul, for all that the soul may do to participate in the cosmic maintenance. However, once the soul achieves such participation, the disconnect between self-expression and divine existence is overcome, and the soul realizes itself as a divine being (theios anêr) - a product equally of history and personal striving. Here we arrive at the most important aspect of Iamblichean theurgy: the soul, although determined by the already appointed course of cosmic history, becomes what it is through a ritual activity that unites the soul with the gods; and, in so doing, the soul changes its ontological status from that of mere mortal to immortal, to divinity. History is not overcome, but fulfilled ... eternally.


In order to understand the main difference between Iamblichus and the above-mentioned Church Fathers, the following distinction will likely be helpful. For Iamblichus, the final goal of theurgy is the overcoming of the particular mode of existence of a soul immersed in the lowest sphere of divine emanation: the material cosmos. Once the soul ascends upward through the planetary spheres, and sheds the various accretions acquired through physical birth and immersion in the sub-lunar realm, the lure of its old life is abolished, and a new cosmic life is made possible - the soul becomes a divine being (theios anêr). History - i.e., the unique temporal life of the person - is overcome in favor of a unification of the particular (the human soul) with the universal (God). For Origen and Gregory, on the other hand, history involves the gradual revelation of God to His creation - it does not involve any sort of instantaneous union through theurgical ritual. In this case, the activity of the human soul is relegated to that of student, with God as pedagogue. According to Origen, God teaches the soul about its proper mode of existence over the course of numerous ages, a concept necessarily involving a doctrine of transmigration of souls. According to Gregory, God is revealed through the manifestation of his activities (energeiai) in the cosmos. The eschatological visions of Origen and his most gifted pupil, Gregory, are quite similar.

For Origen, the eskhaton involves an eternal education of the finite soul in divine things. For Gregory, the eskhaton involves an eternal striving of the finite soul for the infinite divine essence. History, in both cases, is not fulfilled (at the personal level), as it is in Iamblichus, but rather infinitely extended beyond the purview of the finite human being. But when history is extended in this manner, it ceases to belong to the human beings who both respond to it and craft it in unique ways, creating the life of the world that fosters all intellectual and religious pursuits. The eskhaton must be located outside of history, and for this, an atemporal ontology is necessary. It is just such an onotlogy, I believe, that we may find in Iamblichus, if we look closely enough. As Berdyaev writes:
History is in truth the path to another world. It is in this sense that its content is religious. But the perfect state is impossible within history itself; it can only be realized outside its framework.[30]

Iamblichus shows us a way of moving beyond the framework of history, understood as the locus of limitation of the encosmic human soul. Yet he ends up establishing the locus of the atemporal human soul precisely within the very context from which it supposedly eradicated itself through the theurgic ritual of divine ascent. There is no realization of the perfected human soul outside of history, only the enshrinement of human striving in the unchangeable, eternal, and divine cosmos - but this itself is an overcoming of history, and therefore of the determinism that is always connected in some form or other with history.

This mild criticism of Iamblichus does not, however, detract from the supreme importance he places on the soul's participation in the Godhead - a participation more direct, more mutual, and more individually creative than what is found in Christian liturgical and mystical writings.[31]

All of theurgy has a two-fold character. One is that it is a rite conducted by men which preserves our natural order in the universe; the other is that it is empowered by divine symbols [theia sunthêmata], is raised up through them to be joined on high with the Gods, and is led harmoniously round to their order. This latter aspect can rightly be called 'taking the shape of the Gods' [theôn katamathômen].[32]

Unlike Christian eschatology, the telos of Iamblichean theurgy is not the establishment of a new mode of existence outside this cosmos, but a perfection of human-divine existence within the cosmos. While this eliminates the historical dimension of human existence - i.e., striving for an indeterminate future - it does preserve the creative aspect of our intellectual union with a higher, divine principle.


We must ask whether the preservation of human creativity in Iamblichus' conception of an encosmic partnership with the Demiurge, resulting in a complete conformation of human beings with divinity, is preferable to the Origenist-inspired Christian conception of an eternal striving (beyond the cosmos) for an intellectual grasp of the divine mysteries - one in which the unique character of the human soul remains intact, while never truly becoming united with divinity. The implication of Iamblichean henôsis and Christian theôsis were brought together in the thought of Maximus the Confessor, who simply enshrined human striving in a 'deified' state in which the human nature ceased to function, giving way wholly to the divine. It is the task of an Existential-Personalist eschatology to unite these two differing theoretical approaches to the soul and its final destiny in relation to God.

For Iamblichus, the final result of the soul's quest for deification was quite clear, as he explains in a fragment of his Letter to Macedonius (On Fate), where he writes:
It is the life that is lived in accordance with intellect and that cleaves to the gods that we must train ourselves to live; for this is the only life which admits of the untrammeled authority of the soul, frees us from the bonds of necessity, and allows us to live a life no longer mortal, but one that is divine and filled by the will of the gods with divine benefits.[33]

It is difficult to conceive of an eschatological state more favorable to the life of the intellect than what is described here by Iamblichus. The final question, however, is whether the lack of striving and the loss of an existential, situationist freedom (such as that described by Sartre, for example)[34] is a fair price to pay for such a state of noetic bliss. Is "likeness to God as far as possible" a pre-determined outcome of a life properly lived? Or is it the effervescent self-expression of a creative being demanding not the assurance of divine staticity, but rather the glorious affirmation of a will that is neither human nor divine - but supremely transcendent?

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