Christianity as Mystical Fact
XII. Christianity and the Pagan Wisdom
At the time of the primal beginnings of Christianity there appear in antique pagan culture conceptions of the universe which present a continuation of the Platonic philosophy, and which may also be taken as a deepening and spiritualization of the wisdom of the Mysteries. They began with Philo of Alexandria (25 B.C.-50 A.D.). From his point of view the processes leading to the Divine take place in the innermost part of the human soul. We might say that the temple in which Philo seeks initiation is solely his inner being and its spiritual experiences; and processes of a purely spiritual nature replace the initiatory cere: monies of the sanctuary.
According to Philo, sense-observation and knowledge gained through the logical intellect do not lead to the Divine. They have merely to do with what is perishable. But there is a way by which the soul may rise above these methods. She must leave what she calls her ordinary self; must be lifted out of it. Then she enters a state of spiritual exaltation and illumination in which she no longer knows, thinks, and learns in the ordinary sense of the words; for she has become merged, identified with the Divine. The Divine is experienced in its essence which cannot be fashioned in thoughts nor communicated in concepts.
It is experienced, and one who goes through this experience knows that he can speak about the Divine only if he is able to imbue his words with life. The visible world is an image of this mystic reality experienced in the inmost recesses of the soul. The world has come forth from the invisible, inconceivable God. The harmony of the cosmos, which is steeped in wisdom and to which sense-phenomena are subject, is a direct reflection of the Godhead, its spiritual image. It is divine spirit poured out into the world — cosmic reason, the Logos, the off-spring or Son of God. The Logos is the mediator between the world of sense and the unimaginable God. By steeping himself in cognition man unites with the Logos. The Logos becomes embodied in him. The person who has developed spirituality is the vehicle of the Logos. Above the Logos is God; beneath is the perishable world. It is man’s vocation to form the link between the two. What he experiences in his inmost being as spirit is the universal Spirit. Such ideas are directly reminiscent of the Pythagorean manner of thinking (cf. p. 48 et seq.).
The center of existence is sought in the inner life, out this life is conscious of its cosmic import. St. Augustine was thinking in virtually the same way as Philo when he said: “We see all created things because they are; but they are, because God sees them.” And he adds, concerning what and how we see: “And because they are, we see them outwardly; because they are perfect, we see them inwardly.”
Plato has the same fundamental idea (cf. p. 53 et seq.) . Like Plato, Philo sees in the destiny of the human soul the consummation of the great cosmic drama, the awakening of the divinity that is under a spell. He thus describes the inner actions of the soul: the wisdom in man’s inner being “emulates the ways of the Father, and shapes the forms by beholding the archetypes.” It is accordingly no personal matter for man to create forms in his inner being: they are eternal wisdom, they are cosmic life.
This is in harmony with the interpretation of th¢ myths of the people in the light of the Mysteries. The mystic searches for the heart of truth in the myths (cf. p. 77 et seq.). And as the mystic treats the myths of paganism, Philo handles the Mosaic story of the creation. The old testament accounts are for him images of inner soul-processes. The Bible relates the creation of the world. One who takes it merely as a description of outer events knows but half of it. It is certainly written: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form and void, and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved on the face of the waters.” But the real inner meaning of such words must be experienced in the depths of the soul. God must be found within, then He appears as the “Primal Splendor, who sends out innumerable rays, not perceptible by the sense, but wholly thought.” This is Philo’s expression. In the Timæus of Plato the words are almost identical with those in the Bible: “Now when the Father, who had created the universe, saw how it had become living and animated, and an image of the eternal gods, he felt pleasure therein.” In the Bible we read, “And God saw that it was good.”
The recognition of the Divine is for Philo, as well as for Plato, and in the wisdom of the Mysteries, to experience the process of creation as the destiny of one’s own soul. The history of creation and the history of the soul who is becoming divine in this way flow into one. Philo is convinced that the Mosaic account of the creation may be used for writing the history of the soul who is seeking God. Everything in the Bible thereby acquires a profoundly symbolical meaning, of which Philo becomes the interpreter. He reads the Bible as history of the soul.
We may say that Philo’s manner of reading the Bible corresponds to a feature of his age that originated in the wisdom of the Mysteries. He even relates that the Therapeuta interpreted ancient writings in the same way. “They also possess works by ancient authors who once directed their school and left behind many explanations about the customary method pursued in allegorical writings... The interpretation of such writings is directed to the deeper meaning of the allegorical narratives” (cf. p. 161). Thus Philo’s aim was to discover the deeper meaning of the “allegorical” narratives in the Old Testament.
Let us try to realize whither such an interpretation could lead. We read the account of creation and find in it not only a narrative of outward events, but an indication of the way the soul must take in order to attain to the Divine. The soul must reproduce in herself the ways of God microcosmically, and in this alone can her striving for wisdom consist. The cosmic drama must be enacted in each individual soul. The inner life of the mystic sage is the realization of the model given in the account of the creation. Moses wrote not only to relate historical facts, but to represent pictorially the paths the soul must travel if it would find God.
All this, in Philo’s world-conception, is enacted within the human soul. Man experiences within himself what God has experienced in the universe. Th¢ Word of God, the Logos, becomes an event in the soul. God brought the Jews from Egypt into Palestine; He caused them to suffer distress and privation before giving them that Land of Promise. That is the outward event. Man must experience it inwardly. He goes from the land of Egypt, the perishable world, through the privations that lead to the suppression of the sense-nature, into the Promised Land of the soul; he attains to the Eternal. In Philo’s philosophy, all that is an inner process. The God who poured Himself forth into the world consummates His resurrection in the soul when that soul understands His creative word and echoes it. Then man has spiritually given birth within himself to Divinity, to the Divine Spirit which became man, to the Logos, Christ. In this sense enlightenment was, for Philo and those who thought like him, the birth of Christ within the world of spirit. The NeoPlatonic philosophy, which developed contemporaneously with Christianity, was an elaboration of Philo’s thought.
Let us see how Plotinus (204-269 A.D.) describes his spiritual experiences: “Often when I come to myself on awaking from the sleep of my bodily nature and, turning from the outer world, enter into myself, I behold wondrous beauty. Then I am sure that I have been conscious of the better part of myself. I live my true life, I am one with the Divine and, rooted in the Divine, gain the power to transport myself beyond even the super—world. After thus resting in God, when 1 descend from spiritual vision and again form thoughts, I ask myself how it has happened that I now descend and that my soul ever entered the body at all, since, in her essence, she is what she has just revealed herself to me... What can the reason be for souls forgetting God the Father since they come from the beyond and belong to Him, and, when they forget Him, know nothing of Him or of themselves? The first false step they take is indulging in presumption, the desire to become, and in forgetfulness of their true self and in the pleasure of only belonging to themselves. They coveted self-glorification, they rushed about in pursuit of their desires and thus went astray and fell completely awayThereupon they lost all knowledge of their origin in the beyond, just as children, early separated from their parents and brought up elsewhere, do not know who they themselves and their parents are.” Plotinus delineates the kind of life the soul should strive to develop: “The life of the body and its longings should be stilled, the soul should find calm in all that surrounds her: in earth, sea, air, and heaven itself 10 movement. She should learn to see how the soul pours herself from without into the serene cosmos, streaming into it from all sides; as the sun’s rays illuminate a dark cloud and make it golden, so does the soul, on entering the body of the world encircled by the heavens, give it life and immortality.”
It is evident that this world conception has a profound similarity to Christianity. Believers of the community of Jesus said: “That which has occurred from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of Life... declare we unto you.” In the same way it might be said in the spirit of Neo-Platonism: That which has occurred from the beginning, which cannot be heard and seen, must be spiritually experienced as the Word of Life.
And so the development of the old world conception suffers a split. It leads in Neo-Platonism and similar systems to an idea of Christ that is purely spiritual; on the other hand, it leads to a fusion of the idea of Christ with a historical manifestation, the personality of Jesus. The writer of the Gospel of St. John may be said to have united these two conceptions. “In the beginning was the Word.” He shares this conviction with the NeoPlatonists. The Word becomes spirit within the soul, thus do the Neo-Platonists conclude. The Word was made flesh in Jesus, thus does St. John conclude, and with him the whole Christian community. The inner meaning of the manner in which the Word alone could be made flesh was made clear through the whole development of the ancient cosmogonies. Plato says of the macrocosm: God has extended the soul of the world on the body of the world in the form of a cross. The soul of the world is the Logos. If the Logos is to be made flesh He must recapitulate the cosmic process in fleshly existence. The Logos must be nailed to the cross and rise again. In spiritual form this most momentous thought of Christianity had long before been prefigured in the old cosmogonies. The mystic went through it as a personal experience at initiation. The Logos become man had to go through it as a fact valid for the whole of humanity. Something which was present in the development of ancient wisdom as an incident in the Mysteries becomes a historical fact through Christianity. Hence Christianity was the fulfilment, not only of what the Jewish prophets had predicted, but also of the truth prefigured in the Mysteries.
The Cross on Golgotha is the Mystery cult of Antiquity epitomized in a fact.
We find the cross first in the ancient cosmogonies. At the starting-point of Christianity it confronts us in a unique event intended for the whole of mankind. It is from this point of view that reason is able to apprehend the mystical element in Christianity. Christianity as mystical fact is a milestone in the process of human evolution; and the incidents in the Mysteries, with their attendant results, are the preparation for that mystical fact.