Christian Platonism

Rediscovering Ancient Wisdom

Archive for the ‘Theology’ Category

St. Anselm: A rousing of the mind to the contemplation of God

leave a comment »

Photo: source unknown

ST ANSELM OF CANTERBURY is for many best known as the originator of the ontological argument for God’s existence, and on that basis is sometimes dismissed as sort of a precursor to scholasticism.  But this is quite unfair to the legacy of the venerable archbishop, who shines as an example of inspired integration of Faith and Reason.  The ontological ‘argument’ is found in Chapters 2 and 3 of Anselm’s Prosologion.  However Chapter 1 (below) reveals Anselm’s true intentions:  not to supply a logical proof, but rather to draw up the mind into a mystical contemplation of God’s being and nature.  Anselm, like Augustine and Plato before him, is a rational mystic.  He demonstrates for us the religious mental power of inspired dialectic, a form of meditation.  Dialectic is an exercise which seeks to focus the mind, opening the ‘eye of the intellect’ for divine contemplation (theoria), and not a dry excursion into rationalism.

In reading this chapter it struck me that it worked better as poetry than prose, and I’ve so parsed it here. (It turns out that in her translation Benedicta Ward had the same notion, based partly on punctuation in old manuscripts.)  The strong influence of St. Augustine (e.g., his Confessions and Soliloquies) may be seen.

COME now, thou poor child of man,
turn awhile from thy business,
hide thyself for a little time from restless thoughts,
cast away thy troublesome cares,
put aside thy wearisome distractions.

Give thyself a little leisure to converse with God,
and take thy rest awhile in Him.
Enter into the secret chamber of thy heart:
leave everything without but God
and what may help thee to seek after Him,
and when thou hast shut the door,
then do thou seek Him.
Say now, O my whole heart, say now to God,
I seek Thy face; Thy face, Lord, do I seek.

*

COME now then, O Lord my God,
teach Thou my heart when and how I may seek Thee,
where and how I may find Thee?

O Lord, if Thou art not here, where else shall I seek Thee?
but if Thou art everywhere, why do I not behold Thee,
since Thou art here present?

Surely indeed Thou dwellest in the light which no man can approach unto.
But where is that light unapproachable?
or how may I approach unto it since it is unapproachable?
or who shall lead me and bring me into it
that I may see Thee therein?

Again, by what tokens shall I know Thee,
in what form shall I look for Thee?
I have never seen Thee, O Lord my God; I know not Thy form.
What shall I do then, O Lord most high,
what shall I do, banished as I am so far from Thee?
What shall Thy servant do that is sick for love of Thee,
and yet is cast away from Thy presence?
He panteth to behold Thee, and yet Thy presence is very far from him.
He longeth to approach unto Thee, and yet Thy dwelling-place is unapproachable.
He desireth to find Thee, yet he knoweth not Thy habitation.
He would fain seek Thee, yet he knoweth not Thy face.

O Lord, Thou art my God, Thou art my Lord; and I have never beheld Thee.
Thou hast created me and created me anew,
and all good things that I have, hast Thou bestowed upon me,
and yet I have never known Thee.
Nay, I was created to behold Thee, and yet have I never unto this day
done that for the sake whereof I was created.

*

O MISERABLE lot of man, to have lost that whereunto he was created!
O hard and terrible condition!
Alas, what hath he lost? what hath he found?
what hath departed from him? what hath continued with him?
He hath lost the blessedness whereunto he was created,
and he hath found the misery whereunto he was not created;
that without which nothing is happy, hath departed from him,
and that hath continued with him which by itself cannot but be miserable.

Once man did eat angels’ food, after which he now hungereth;
now he eateth the bread of affliction, which then he knew not.
Alas for the common woe of man, the universal sorrow of the children of Adam!
Our first father was filled with abundance, we sigh with hunger;
he was rich, we are beggars.
He miserably threw away that in the possession whereof he was happy, and in the lack whereof we are miserable;
after which we lamentably long and alas! abide unsatisfied.
Why did he not keep for us, when he might easily have kept it, that the loss whereof so grievously afflicts us?
Wherefore did he so overcloud our day, and plunge us into darkness?
Why did he take from us our life, and bring upon us the pains of death?
Wretches that we are, whence have we been driven out and whither?
From our native country into banishment,
from the vision of God into blindness,
from the joy of immortality into the bitterness and horror of death.
How sad the change from so great good to so great evil!
Grievous is the loss, grievous the pain, grievous every thing.

*

BUT alas for me, one of the miserable children of Eve, cast far away from God!
What did I begin? and what have I accomplished?
At what did I aim? and unto what have I attained?
To what did I aspire? and where am I now sighing?
I sought good, and behold, trouble.
I aimed at God, and have stumbled upon myself.
I sought rest in my secret chamber, and I have found tribulation and grief in the inmost parts.
I desired to laugh for gladness of spirit and am constrained to roar for the disquietness of my heart.
I hoped for joy and behold increase of sorrow.

*

HOW long, O Lord, how long? How long, O Lord, wilt Thou forget us,
how long wilt Thou hide Thy face from us?
When wilt Thou turn and hearken unto us?
When wilt thou enlighten our eyes and show us Thy face?
When wilt Thou restore Thy presence to us?

Turn and took upon us, O Lord:
hearken unto us, enlighten us, show us Thyself.
Restore to us Thy presence that it may be well with us;
for without Thee it goeth very ill with us.
Have pity upon our labours and strivings after Thee, for without Thee we can do nothing.
Thou callest us; help us to obey the call.
I beseech Thee, O Lord, that 1 may not despair in my sighing,
but may draw full breath again in hope.
My heart is embittered by its desolation;
with Thy consolation, I beseech Thee, O Lord, make it sweet again.
I beseech Thee, O Lord, for in my hunger I have begun to seek Thee,
suffer me not to depart from Thee fasting.
I have come to Thee fainting for lack of food;
let me not go empty away.
I have come to Thee, as the poor man to the rich, as the miserable to the merciful,
let me not return unsatisfied and despised:
and if before I be fed, I sigh,
grant me that, though after I have sighed, I may be fed.

O Lord, I am bent downwards, I cannot look up:
raise me up, that I may lift mine eyes to heaven.
My iniquities are gone over my head, they overwhelm me;
they are like a sore burden too heavy for me to bear.
Deliver me, take away my burden,
lest the pit of my wickedness shut its mouth upon me:
grant unto me that I may look upon Thy light,
though from afar off, though out of the deep.

Let me seek Thee in desiring Thee;
let me desire Thee in seeking Thee;
let me find Thee in loving Thee;
let me love Thee in finding Thee.

I confess to Thee, O Lord, and I give thanks unto Thee,
because Thou hast created in me this Thine image,
that I may remember Thee, think upon Thee, love Thee:
but so darkened is Thine image in me by the smoke of my sins
that it cannot do that whereunto it was created,
unless Thou renew it and create it again.
I seek not, O Lord, to search out Thy depth,
but I desire in some measure to understand Thy truth,
which my heart believeth and loveth.
Nor do I seek to understand that I may believe,
but I believe that I may understand.
For this too I believe, that unless I first believe, I shall not understand.

Source: St. Anselm of Canterbury, Proslogin 1 (tr. Webb, pp. 5−11; slightly edited)

Bibliography

St. Anselm, Opera Omnia. Patrologia Latina 158, 223–248 (ch. 1: 225−228). Paris: Migne, 1854. [Online Latin text]

Barth, Karl. Anselm: Fides Quaerens Intellectum. Trans. Ian Robertson. John Knox Press, 1960.

Davies, Brian; Evans, G. R. Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works. Oxford University Press, 1998.

Sansom, Dennis. The virtue of contemplation and St. Anselm’s Proslogion II and III. Saint Anselm Journal 9.2, 2014.

Schmitt, Franciscus Salesius. S. Anselmi Cantuariensis Archiepiscopi Opera Omnia. Friedrich Fromann Verlag, 1968.

Southern, R.W. Saint Anselm: A Portrait In Landscape. Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Stolz, Anselm. Anselm’s Theology in the Proslogion. In: John Hick & Arthur C. McGill (eds.), The Many Faced Argument, New York: Macmillan, 1967 (repr. Wipf and Stock, 2009); pp. 183−206.

Ward, Benedicta (tr.). The Prayers and Meditations of Saint Anselm. Penguin, 1973.

Webb, Clement Charles Julian (tr.). The Devotions of Saint Anselm. Methuen, 1903.

Williams, Thomas. Anselm: Basic Writings. Hackett, 2007.

1st draft: 4 May 2020

Contemplative Christianity in the 13th and 14th Centuries: Latin West

leave a comment »

(click image to view in high resolution)

HERE we extend the previous timeline forward to the 13th and 14th centuries.
Legend: Olive = Benedictine; Light green: Cistercian; Purple: Dominican; Orange = Carthusian; Dark blue = Augustinian; Light blue = Other.

Recommended Reading

Egan, Harvey D. An Anthology of Christian Mysticism. Liturgical Press, 1991.

McGinn, Bernard. The Flowering of Mysticism: Men and Women in the New Mysticism (1200−1350). (Vol. 3 of B. McGinn, The Presence of God: A History of Western Christian Mysticism.) New York: Crossroad, 1998.

Contemplative Christianity from the 9th Through 12th Centuries: Latin West

leave a comment »


THIS simple timeline highlights the gap in Christian theology between Eriugena (9th century) and the flourishing in the 11th and 12th centuries. The intervening period was the late Dark Age – when Europe was beset by invading Huns, Vikings and Moors. Contemplation was a topic of major concern for virtually all of these figures.

Legend:  Green = Benedictine; Orange = Carthusian; Dark blue = Augustinian; Light blue = Other.  (Bernard of Clairvaux and William of St. Thierry later became Cistercians.)

Another gap occurred between Boethius (477–524 AD) and Eriugena in the early Dark Ages. Eriugena was part of the brief oasis of civilization called the Carolingian Renaissance (named after Charlemagne).

In response to a request, here is the timeline extended back to Boethius:

(click image to view in high resolution)

Recommended Readings

Egan, Harvey D. An Anthology of Christian Mysticism. Liturgical Press, 1991.

McGinn, Bernard. The Growth of Mysticism: Gregory the Great Through the 12th Century. (Vol. 2 of B. McGinn, The Presence of God: A History of Western Christian Mysticism.) New York: Crossroad, 1994.

A Beautiful Mind: Joseph Addison’s Religious Essays

leave a comment »

fancy_dropcase_r

EADERS of this blog may download a free copy of my new book, a collection of religious and metaphysical essays by Joseph Addison which appeared in the The Spectator in 1711 and 1712. These are certain to delight and edify.  Addison is well known as one of the most skilled prose stylists in the English language; but few today are aware of the sublime quality of his religious essays.

Addison’s influence on both the English and American minds is considerable, yet largely unacknowledged today.

Download the ebook in pdf format here.

addison-book-cover

mr-01

Plato’s Proof of God’s Existence

leave a comment »

St Anselm-CanterburyVit
MOST anyone who’s taken a course in the history of Western philosophy has run across the famous ontological argument proof for God’s existence associated with St. Anselm of Canterbury.  Actually several versions of the ontological argument have appeared over the centuries, the simplest one being:

  1. By definition, God is a with every perfection.
  2. Existence is a perfection.
  3. Hence God exists.

One of the most interesting things about these arguments is that they have attracted so much attention despite the fact that they are basically unconvincing.

Please don’t mistake my intentions.  Of course I believe in God; I only mean that these arguments, analyzed at the logical level, aren’t very good, and everyone knows that.  The strange thing is that, despite this, the ontological argument has been ceremoniously taught to philosophy students for at least a millenium.  It’s as if to say, “We don’t really have a good logical proof for God’s existence, but rather than abandon the project let’s practice with a second-rate one.”

Curiously, all this overlooks the fact that we do potentially have at our disposal a much better philosophical proof of God’s existence.  To call it a proof in the sense of a logical proof might be technically incorrect — it’s really more of a demonstration. [Note 1] Nevertheless, regardless of how we classify it,  its evidential value for supporting a belief in God is, I believe, substantially stronger than that of the ontological argument.  This experiential argument comes from Plato’s dialogues, most notably, the central books of the Republic and Diotima’s speeches in the Symposium.  It is illustrated as follows:

  1. Consider some beautiful thing — say an incredibly beautiful sunset, the kind that totally absorbs you in a profound sense of beauty, awe, and wonder..
  2. Now, instead of pausing in that experience alone — which is our usual tendency — elevate your thoughts still higher and consider that this is not the only beautiful thing.  There are many other experiences equally or more beautiful as this one.
  3. Then consider that there must be something in common amongst all these experiences — in exactly the same way that there is something in common for all triangles, all horses, or all trees.  That is, each of these things has some defining principle or principles, some essence.
  4. Consider further that a defining essence has, at least in theory, some existence outside of its instantiation in actual examples.  Hence we may conceive of the abstract “Form” of a triangle, which would exist even if somehow we were able to remove all physical triangles from the world.  If so, we may also suppose that there is some Form of Beauty, which is the principle that all beautiful things have in common; and that this may potentially exist independently of all beautiful things.
  5. Moreover, Beauty is not the only good.  There are also such noble things as Truth,  Virtue, Excellence, and Justice — which we also unhesitatingly consider good, which delight or assure us, and which can bring us very deep levels of satisfaction.
  6. And, just as with Beauty, we may suppose that there is some essence or Form for each of these other things: a Form of Truth, a Form of Virtue, of Excellence, of Justice, and so on.
  7. And finally, we may contemplate the possibility of some principle or essence which all these different Forms of good things have in common.  This, too, would be a Form — the Form of Goodness.
  8. God is defined as that being than which nothing can be more Good.  Therefore God is the Form of Goodness.

For me, this comes very close to being a fully logically persuasive argument for God’s existence.  But — perhaps more importantly — it can also be approached as a contemplative or spiritual exercise.  That is, as Plato himself presents this line of thought, one is not so much trying to logically convince oneself, as to elicit, by performing this exercise, an elevation of the mind to an awakening or remembrance (anamnesis) of an innate, intuitive understanding of God.  We might call this an experiential proof, or an anagogical proof.

It is, of course, up to each one individually to investigate this method and to determine how well it works; but I will add another thing. Not only does this demonstration supply evidence of God’s existence, it may also promote the development of a sincere gratitude for and love of God.  As one contemplates the nature of Goodness, that is, as one begins to become more conscious of the principle that, if there are good things, there must be a Form of Goodness, one also becomes amazed at the very idea that there is such a thing as Goodness.  And also that we, as human beings, seem particularly attuned to crave, seek, and experience Goodness.  It is quite remarkable that we have this word and this concept, ‘good’, such that we may apply it a huge variety of things and experiences.

The counter-argument of the reductionist will not do here:  he or she might say, “What we consider good merely derives from sensory, practical, and survival considerations; it’s all explained by Darwinism:  we desire and prefer certain things because they are advantageous.”  But that does not explain, among other things, why some of the things we consider most good – say a heroic sacrifice of some noble person – is not materially advantageous.

If, then, we accept that there is something deep and fundamental in our nature such that we seek goodness (which is to say, in effect, that we are moral beings) and also that there is some Author and Source of Goodness, and, further, that it is our destiny as immortal souls to enjoy an eternity of ever greater Beauty and Goodness, then naturally our gratitude to this Supreme Being is spontaneously aroused.

Therefore Plato’s ‘proof’ of God’s existence as the Form of the Good is not only logically appealing, but effective at the level of emotion and devotion as well.

Finally, there are definite connections between Plato’s wish to prove the existence of God, and the many proofs he supplies throughout the dialogues for the immortality of the human soul.  A new article (with some of the leading ideas raised here developed more clearly) considers that topic.[Note 2]

Notes

1. The word ‘proof’ means to try or verify something.  Not all proofs are logical.  Ones proves a gold coin by biting it.  Making evident to ones senses, whether physical or intellectual, that something is real is a valid form of proof.  The point of this article is to suggest that in theology one should not automatically equate proof with deductive syllogisms.

2. Since originally making this post I’ve discovered a few related references.  Most relevant is: Daniel A. Dombrowski, A Platonic Philosophy of Religion: A Process Perspective, SUNY Press, 2005.  Chapter 5 (‘Arguments for the Existence of God’) suggests that a precursor to St. Anselm’s ontological argument can be found in Books 6 and 7 of Plato’s Republic.  There are some similarities between Dombrowski’s discussion and the present one, such as an emphasis on the Form of the Good, but also major differences.  The main difference is that whereas Dombrowski  uses the Form of the Good and the principle of directly intuited knowledge (noesis) to construct a deductive logical proof for God’s existence, I believe Plato employs these principles to present an experiential proof.

The Theory of Human Collective Memory and the Atonement of Jesus Christ

leave a comment »

crucifixion-dali_christofstjohnofthecross1951

On this Good Friday, the points below try to tie together in a new way two different concepts:  the theory of the sacrificial atonement of Jesus Christ, and the theory of a human collective mind or collective memory.

1. Many psychologists (Jung and Freud included) have believed in the possibility of a collective mind or memory pool for the entire human race, such that, by some as-yet unspecified non-physical means, a mental experience of one person, once had, may become available for all other human beings to experience.  Some (limited) experimental evidence supports this theory.

2. The principle of a collective memory or collective mind is also found in many esoteric traditions (e.g., the Akashic Records of theosophy, the Adam Kadmon in the Kabbala, etc.)

3. Such a principle of a metaphysical collective mind would supply a possible mechanism for understanding in a new way the meaning of the theological principle of the ‘substitutive atonement of Jesus Christ’.

4. The theological doctrine of Jesus’ substitutive atonement holds that, by his life, passion, and death on the cross, Jesus Christ accomplished the actual or potential reconciliation (at-one-ment) of all human beings to God.

5. The atonement doctrine has several variants.  One especially problematic, but common, version is that Jesus literally, by his death, paid a ‘blood guilt’ or penal debt or which mankind incurred through disobedience to God. The difficulty with this is that it relies heavily on the terrible Calvinist doctrine of the innate depravity of human beings.  It also makes God out to be rather ungenerous, if not outright malicious, in requiring that a ‘blood guilt’ price be paid.

6. The collective mind theory supplies a potentially new perspective on the atonement of Christ:  by willingly accepting death, and completely subordinating his own personal will, Jesus of Nazareth achieved a level of humility, unselfishness, and union with God’s will entirely new for the human race. It set a new precedent of egolessness.

7. Jesus Christ having done this, then the thoughts, judgments, and insights by which he reached this peak of moral attainment, being those of a human being, would be deposited in the collective mind of humanity.  Thenceforth, all other human beings could potentially tap into this new mindset, and imitate it.

8. If so, this would potentially explain *why* God would want to incarnate as a human being, Jesus Christ.  In order to deposit those insights, judgments, etc. of Jesus Christ that enabled him to completely overcome his human ego into the collective mind of humanity, God would need to become a man himself.

9. Further, this model would help explain how individual Christians may follow in Christ’s steps.  Each person, by engaging in some new moral precedent or new sacrifice for the sake of humanity, would deposit new material in the collective mind, and thereby enable other human beings to do likewise.

10.  This mechanism would operate in addition to that of the historical and social example set by Jesus Christ, as transmitted by oral and written tradition, which is also a means by which the life, passion, and death of Jesus may be imitated and contributes to the atonement of humanity with God.

Origen of Alexandria: Purgatory or Paradisiacal School of Souls?

with 3 comments

The usual Roman Catholic and Anglican belief is that, after death, souls go to Purgatory. This is traditionally envisioned as a purifying fire, though many suggest that ‘fire’ is to be understood in a metaphorical sense, representing a potentially painful purification.

While it is believed that souls of the good will eventually join God in heaven, this would actually happen after the end of the world, the General Resurrection and the Last Judgment.  So, even one who lived the most saintly life on earth would not go to heaven immediately, but would need to wait until after end times before receiving his or her final reward.

So what do souls of the good do in the meantime?  If they sinned little, why would they  remain in Purgatory for a protracted period?

Some theologians suggest that in the intermediate state, that is, the period between death and the General Resurrection, redeemed and sufficiently purified souls may go to not to heaven, but to different place, which is itself pleasant enough to merit the name Paradise.

Scriptural evidence comes from Jesus’ words on the cross to the penitent thief: Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise. (Luke 23:43)   Jesus said not “some day” but today the thief would be in Paradise.

Origen (184 – 254 AD), the enigmatic and mystical Church Father from Alexandria, Egypt, conjectured on the intermediate state in his speculative work, On First Principles (De Principiis).  He suggested that perhaps the just, after death, go to a place, Paradise, which is a school for souls.  He also mentioned an ascent through various spheres of heaven, using some of the same imagery as Gnostics (who were active in Alexandria at the same time, and whose work Origen knew well).  There are also associations to Jewish Merkabah mysticism, something which Origen also was exposed to by virtue of his tenure as a teacher in Caesarea, Palestine.

An extract of his work follows.  (As Origen’s sentences tend to be long, I’ve parsed them into something like blank verse poetry to aid understanding.)

Origen on the School of Souls

On First Principles, Book 2, Chapter 11, Sections 6-7 (2.11.6-7)

6… I think, therefore, that all the saints who depart from this life

will [first] remain in some place situated on the earth,

which holy Scripture calls paradise,

as in some place of instruction, and,

so to speak, class-room or school of souls,

in which they are to be instructed regarding all the things

which they had seen on earth,

and are to receive also some information respecting

things that are to follow in the future,

as even when in this life they had obtained

in some degree indications of future events,

although through a glass darkly,

all of which are revealed more clearly and distinctly

to the saints in their proper time and place.

If any one indeed be pure in heart, and holy in mind,

and more practised in perception, he will,

by making more rapid progress, [then]

quickly ascend to a place in the air,

and reach the kingdom of heaven,

through those mansions, so to speak,

in the various places which the Greeks

have termed spheres, i.e., globes,

but which holy Scripture has called heavens;

in each of which he will first see clearly what is done there,

and in the second place, will discover the reason

why things are so done:

and thus he will in order pass through all gradations,

 following Him who has passed into the heavens,

Jesus the Son of God, who said,

I will that where I am, these may be also.

And of this diversity of places He speaks, when

He says, In My Father’s house are many mansions….

7. When, then, the saints shall have

reached the celestial abodes,

they will clearly see the nature of the stars

one by one,

and will understand

whether they are endued with life,

or their condition, whatever it is.

And they will comprehend also the

other reasons for the works of God,

which He Himself will reveal to them.

For He will show to them, as to children,

the causes of things and the power of His creation,

and will explain why that star was placed

in that particular quarter of the sky,

and why it was separated from another

by so great an intervening space;

what, e.g., would have been the consequence

if it had been nearer or more remote;

or if that star had been larger than this,

how the totality of things would not have remained the same,

but all would have been transformed

into a different condition of being.

And so, when they have finished all those matters

which are connected with the stars,

and with the heavenly revolutions,

they will come to those which are not seen,

or to those whose names only we have heard,

and to things which are invisible,

which the Apostle Paul has informed us are numerous,

although what they are, or what difference may exist among them,

we cannot even conjecture by our feeble intellect.

 

And thus the rational nature,

growing by each individual step,

not as it grew in this life in flesh, and body, and soul,

but enlarged in understanding and in power of perception,

is raised as a mind already perfect to perfect knowledge,

no longer at all impeded by those carnal senses,

but increased in intellectual growth; and ever gazing purely,

and, so to speak, face to face, on the causes of things, it attains perfection,

firstly, viz., that by which it ascends to (the truth),

and secondly, that by which it abides in it,

having problems and the understanding of things,

and the causes of events, as the food on which it may feast.

For as in this life our bodies grow physically to what they are,

through a sufficiency of food in early life supplying the means of increase,

but after the due height has been attained we use food no longer to grow,

but to live, and to be preserved in life by it;

so also I think that the mind, when it has attained perfection,

eats and avails itself of suitable and appropriate food in such a degree,

that nothing ought to be either deficient or superfluous.

And in all things this food is to be understood

as the contemplation and understanding of God,

which is of a measure appropriate and suitable to this nature,

which was made and created;

and this measure it is proper should be observed by

every one of those who are beginning to see God,

i.e., to understand Him through purity of heart.

Source

Origen. De Principiis. Tr. Frederick Crombie. Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. IV (ANF4). Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, Eds. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1866-1872.

Written by John Uebersax

February 23, 2012 at 11:37 pm