Christianity as Mystical Fact
11. Christianity and Pagan Wisdom
At the time of the first beginnings of Christianity there appear in ancient pagan culture conceptions of the world which seem to be a continuation of the Platonic way of thinking, and which may be understood as a more inward, spiritual Mystery wisdom. Such conceptions started with Philo of Alexandria (B.C. 25–A.D. 50). (Seeexperienced. One who experiences it knows that he can communicate this experience only if he is able to imbue his words with life. The world is a reflected image of this mystical reality, experienced in the innermost recesses of the soul. The world has come forth from the invisible, inconceivable God. A direct image of this Godhead is the wisdom-filled harmony of the world, out of which material phenomena arise. This wisdom-filled harmony is the spiritual image of the Godhead. It is the divine Spirit diffused in the world; cosmic reason, the Logos, the Offspring or Son of God. The Logos is the mediator between the world of the senses and the inconceivable God. When man steeps himself in cognition, he unites himself with the Logos. The Logos becomes embodied in him. The spiritually developed personality is the bearer of the Logos. Above the Logos is God; beneath is the transitory world. Man is called upon to link the two. What he experiences in his innermost being as spirit, is the cosmic Spirit. These ideas are directly reminiscent of Pythagorean thought. The center of existence is sought in the inner life. But this inner life is conscious of its cosmic significance. Augustine's statement, “We see all created things because they are; and they are because God sees them,” derives from a way of thinking essentially similar to that of Philo. And in describing what and how we see, Augustine adds significantly, “Because they are, we see them outwardly: and because they are perfect, we see them inwardly.” 73aAugustine's Confessions, Book XIII, 38. The Loeb Library translation runs: “We therefore behold these things which thou hast created, because they are; but they are, because thou seest them. And we see without, that they are, and within, that they are good.” Another translation also reads: “... And we see without that they are, and within that they are good.” We find the same fundamental idea in Plato. Philo, like Plato, sees in the destiny of the human soul the closing act of the great cosmic drama, the awakening of the spellbound God. He describes the inner deeds of the soul in the following words: The wisdom within man followed “the ways of his Father, and shaped the different forms, looking to the archetypal patterns.” It is not a personal matter when man shapes such forms within himself. These forms are the eternal wisdom, they are the cosmic life. This is in harmony with the interpretation of the folk myths in the light of the Mysteries. The mystic searches for the deeper truth in the myths. And as the mystic treats the myths of paganism, Philo handles Moses' story of the creation. For him the Old Testament accounts are images of inner soul processes. The Bible relates the creation of the world. Whoever accepts it as a description of outer events, knows only half of it. Certainly it is written, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” But the true inner sense of such words must be experienced in the depths of the soul. God must be found within; then He appears as the “archetypal essence sending forth myriads of rays, none visible to sense, all to the mind.” 74Philo, De cherubim et flammeo gladio, The Cherubim and the Flaming Sword, I, 97. A commentary on Genesis 3:24 and 4:1. This is how Philo expresses himself. In Plato's Timaeus the words are almost identical with those of the Bible: “And when the Father that engendered the universe perceived it in motion and alive, and a thing of joy to the eternal gods, He too rejoiced.” 75Plato, Timaeus, 37 D. In the Bible we read, “and God saw that it was good.” For Plato, for Mystery wisdom, as well as for the Bible, cognition of the divine means to experience the process of creation as one's own destiny. Thus the story of creation and the story of the soul striving toward its apotheosis, flow into one. Philo is convinced that Moses' account of the creation may be used to tell the story of the soul which is seeking God. Everything in the Bible acquires a profoundly symbolic meaning when seen from this point of view. Philo becomes the interpreter of this symbolic meaning. He reads the Bible as the story of the soul.
We may say that Philo's manner of reading the Bible is in harmony with the trend of his time, which originated in the wisdom of the Mysteries; indeed he relates that the Therapeutae interpreted ancient writings in the same way. “They have also works of ancient authors who were the founders of their way of thinking, and left behind them many monuments of the method used in allegorical interpretation ... the interpretation of the sacred scriptures is based upon the underlying meaning in the allegorical narratives.” Thus Philo's goal was to discover the underlying meaning of the “allegorical” narratives in the Old Testament.
Let us imagine where such an interpretation could lead. We read the account of creation, and find in it not only a narrative of outward events, but a representation of the ways which the soul must take to reach the divine. Thus as a microcosm, the soul must repeat in itself the ways of God, and its mystical striving for wisdom can take only this form. The drama of the universe must be enacted in every soul. The soul life of the mystic is the fulfillment of the prototype given in the account of creation. Moses wrote not only to recount historical facts, but to represent pictorially the ways the soul must take if it desires to find God.
All this, in Philo's conception of the world, is contained within the human spirit. Man experiences within himself what God has experienced in the world. The Word of God, the Logos, becomes an experience of the soul. God led the Jews out of Egypt into the Promised Land; He made them undergo trials and privations before bestowing the Promised Land upon them. This is the outward event. Let us experience it inwardly. From the land of Egypt, the transitory world, passing through privations which lead to the suppression of sensuous experience and into the promised land of the soul, we reach the eternal. With Philo all this is an inner process. The God Who was poured out into the world, celebrates His resurrection in the soul, if His creative word is understood and re-created in the soul. Then within himself, man has given spiritual birth to God, to the Spirit of God that became Man, to the Logos, to Christ. In this sense, cognition, for Philo and those who thought like him, was a birth of Christ within the world of spirit. The Neoplatonic conception of the world, which developed contemporaneously with Christianity, was a continuation of Philo's method of thought. Let us see how Plotinus (204–269 A.D.) describes his spiritual experience:
“Many times it has happened: Lifted out of the body into myself; becoming external to all other things and self-centered; beholding a marvelous beauty; then, more than ever, assured of community with the loftiest order; enacting the noblest life, acquiring identity with the divine; rooted within it; attaining the strength to set myself above the higher world: yet, there comes the moment of descent from spiritual vision to reasoning, and after that reposing in God, I ask myself how it happens that I can now be descending, and how did my soul ever enter into my body, the soul which, in its essence, is the high thing it has shown itself to be,” and “What can it be that has brought the souls to forget the Father, God, and, though members of the Divine and entirely of that world, to ignore at once themselves and it? The evil that has overtaken them has its source in self-will, in the entry into the sphere of creation, and in the primal differentiation with the desire for self-ownership. They conceived a pleasure in this freedom and largely indulged in their own self-glorification; thus they were hurried down the wrong path, and in the end, drifting further and further, they came to lose even the thought of their origin in the Divine. Just as children who are immediately torn from their parents, and have for a long time been nurtured at a great distance from them, become ignorant both of themselves and their parents.” 76Plotinus, 4th Ennead, On the Nature of the Soul, 8th Tractate, The Soul's Descent into the Body, 1. In the following words Plotinus describes the path of development the soul should seek: “Let not merely the enveloping body be at peace, the body's turmoil stilled, but all that lies around; earth at peace, and sea at peace, and air and the very heavens be still. Let the soul be observed, externally as it were, diffusing and flowing into the quiescent cosmos, permeating it from all sides, and pouring in its light. As the rays of the sun, throwing their brilliance upon a lowering cloud make it gleam all gold, so the soul entering body of the heaven-opened world, bestows life and immortality.” 77Plotinus, 5th Ennead, The Divine Mind, 1st Tractate, On the Three Hypostases that Rank as the Principle of All Things, 1.
It follows that this conception of the world has a profound similarity to Christianity. Among those who acknowledge the community of Jesus it is said, “That which was 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.” (I John 1: 1–3.) In the same way it might be said in the sense of Neoplatonism, that which was from the beginning, which cannot be heard or seen, must be spiritually experienced as the word of life. — The development of the old world conception thus is split. In Neoplatonism and similar conceptions of the world it leads to a concept of Christ related only to the spiritual realm, and on the other hand it leads to a fusion of this concept of Christ with a historical manifestation, the personality of Jesus. The writer of the Gospel of John may be said to unite these two world conceptions. “In the beginning was the Word.” He shares this conviction with the Neoplatonists. The Neoplatonists conclude that the Word becomes spirit in the innermost soul. The writer of John's Gospel, and with him the community of Christians, conclude that the Word became flesh in Jesus. The more intimate sense, in which alone the Word could become flesh was provided by the whole development of the old world conceptions. Plato says of the Macrocosm: God has stretched the soul of the world on the body of the world in the form of a cross. 77aSee note 43, above. This soul of the world is the Logos. If the Logos is to become flesh He must repeat the cosmic process in physical existence. He must be nailed to the Cross and rise again. This most significant thought of Christianity had long before been outlined as a spiritual representation in the old world conceptions. This became a personal experience of the mystic during “initiation.” The Logos become Man had to experience this deed as a fact, valid for the whole of humanity. Something which was a Mystery process in the development of the old wisdom becomes historical fact through Christianity. Thus Christianity became the fulfillment not only of what the Jewish prophets had predicted, but also of what had been pre-formed in the Mysteries. The Cross of Golgotha is the Mystery cult of antiquity condensed into a fact. We find the Cross first in the ancient world conceptions; at the starting-point of Christianity it meets us within a unique event which is to be valid for the whole of humanity. From this point of view the mystical element in Christianity can be grasped. Christianity as mystical fact is a stage of development in the process of human evolution; and the events in the Mysteries and their effects are the preparations for this mystical fact.