What is passionlessness (apatheia), Clement?

This Thursday, my students are reading some excerpts from Clement of Alexandria (saint of the week here) and Origen in Stevenson’s A New Eusebius as we discuss the rise of intellectual Christianity. These are very interesting documents that give us a bit of a view into the intellectual climate of third-century Christianity.

While the rise of Christian asceticism and mysticism are often popularly portrayed as having their roots solely in the so-called ‘Desert Tradition’ (ie. Antony and the Desert Fathers and Mothers), it is clear to me as I read Clement of Alexandria that his thoughtworld is the same, and he no doubts has precedents himself.*

The word that hit me in this regard as I was reading the assigned selections from his Stromateis was passionlessness — a rendering of apatheia, also sometimes rendered dispassion. Clement writes:

Such an one is no longer continent, but has reached a state of passionlessness, waiting to put on the divine image. (IV.22.138.1; Stevenson p. 185)

What is apatheia, though? It is a word with an unhappy future after Clement, getting caught up in the First Origenist Controversy of the late 300s and early 400s, and no doubt in the sixth-century Second Origenist Controversy. It figures large in the work of Evagrius Ponticus, the learned spiritual master of the Egyptian desert who has left a mark on Eastern Christian spirituality directly, on Western through our old friend John Cassian. Cassian renders apatheia into Latin as puritas cordis — purity of heart.

Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God (Mt 5:8), after all.

Here is one of Clement’s descriptions of his gnostic as he progresses:

He, then, who has first moderated his passions and trained himself for impassibility, and developed to the beneficence of gnostic perfection, is here equal to the angels. Luminous already, and like the sun shining in the exercise of beneficence, he speeds by righteous knowledge through the love of God to the sacred abode, like as the apostles. (VI.13.105.1; Stevenson p. 185)

Apatheia is the moderation of the passions, then. And what are the passions? The selections I see before me do not tell, but I’ve blogged about my own perspective thereon before. They are the unreasoning movements within and without that assail us and can lead us down different paths, at times bad ones. Evagrius and Cassian give us eight deadly thoughts, or logismoi, to watch out for as we go about our lives. Avoiding these thoughts and exerting our intellect in a good way will help us navigate the world of the passions.

… the perpetual exertion of the intellect is the essence of an intelligent being, which results from an uninterrupted process of admixture, and remains eternal contemplation, a living substance. (IV.22.135.4)

The goal of passionlessness is contemplation, is, as in Cassian, is the vision of Heaven:

At any rate, after he has reached the final ascent in the flesh, he still continues to advance, as it fit, and presses on through the holy Hebdomad into the Father’s house, to that which is indeed the Lord’s abode, being destined there to be, as it were, a light standing and abiding for ever, absolutely secure from all vicissitude. (VII.10.57.5; Stevenson p. 187)

I have not read the entirety of Clement’s Stromateis, but I do know the Sayings of the Desert Fathers (and Mothers) provide a good place to start for thinking on these things, as does Evagrius’ Praktikos and the Chapters on Prayer.

*If we believe Andrew Louth, The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition, these are Platonic. Given Clement’s use of the terms gnosis and gnostic, I wouldn’t be surprised if he is not appropriating Gnostic ideas for (proto-)orthodox ends.

 

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Justin Martyr and the Philosophers

Justin Martyr

As interesting and rich as Justin Martyr’s First Apology is, my reference point today is primarily the so-called Second Apology — which may actually be a detached bit of the First Apology or may be a different genre from apology altogether, written in 154.

In this text, Justin espouses the monarchy of God over the entire universe, the rule of humanity over the rest of creation, and the unjust enslavement of humans to the demons. One goal of Christ’s coming is to free humans from the demons.

Part of Justin’s demonic slavery is paganism — especially the poets but also pagan cultus, mythology, and, to some degree, philosophy.

Not being the most plugged-in reader of ancient philosophy, I cannot engage with everything Justin says in the Second Apology about ancient philosophy, and certainly not every time he engages with it, since some of those times will be oblique references and allusions.

Justin views philosophy, I think, as partly tied into the truth but also partly false, depending on the sect. Epicureanism, for example, he condemns at 12.5, whereas his views on Stoicism are mixed, and his appreciation of Socrates borders on that old idea that Socrates was a Christian before Christ.*

The cynical (not necessarily the Cynics) reader of Justin will assume that he speaks well of Stoics because he lives under a Stoic Augustus with two Stoic Caesares — Antoninus Pius and his two adoptive sons Lucius Verus and Marcus Aurelius; M. Aurelius being one of the most famous Stoic philosophers of all time.

Nevertheless, I think he sees real good in the Stoics, even if imperfect. He disagrees with the Stoic concepts of the whole universe — the god included — resolving into the same essence at the end and fate. The creation is always distinguishable from the Creator for Justin, and human beings have free will:

And this is the nature of everything generate — to be receptive of vice and of virtue. For none of them would be praiseworthy if he did not also have the power to turn either way. (6.6)

Justin approves of Stoicism largely in its ethical terms. He is not alone; the approval of Stoic ethics led some Christians in the fourth century to forge correspondence between Seneca and St Paul; that pagan persecutor of Christians, M. Aurelius, made his way into a calendar of Christian quotations possessed by my parents:

Let thy thoughts run not so much on what thou lackest as on what thou already hast.

This is wisdom, the sophia of philosophia. In other areas, Stoic recommendations for lifestyle remind me of early Christian ascetics, calling for moderation in food and dress, or of Clement of Alexandria (saint of the week here), as when Seneca defends his wealth by arguing that it is not wealth itself but slavery to it (see my post Who Is the Rich Man Who Will Be Saved?).

How is it that Socrates and the Stoics grasp some of the truth?

This is part of Justin’s famous Logos theology, the spermatikon logikon, the seed of rationality that is in everyone. The Logos is Christ, as John 1 has made clear to Justin. But Logos is not simply some hypostasised word or utterance. Logos is the order and rationality and logic underpinning everything in the universe, holding it all together as part of God (God Himself?) and at God’s behest.

As the rational part of the universe, human beings have the strongest, most conscious vision of the Logos. We have an inborn rationality, given us by God, to be able to arrive at certain conclusions. We all have some grasp of the higher Truth that orders all things. Therefore, pagans — whether Socrates or the Stoics — have access to God and can discover the truly moral and ethical life.

And, for Justin, the moral life is what being a Christian is all about. We put our faith in Christ through our own free will, and then we are able to live holy, moral lives, following his teaching, which, as his First Apology makes clear, is the highest morality of all.

Through this, Christ becomes the hope of the nations and the fulfillment of all religions and philosophies. All truth is His. Through this, we are able to read the pagans — Greek, Roman, Hindu, Zoroastrian — without fear and without surprise when the Truth jumps out at us. Through this, we can find common ground with our friends of other faiths or none, common ground that can hopefully lead to the abundant life promised to all who follow Jesus, both here and hereafter.

*Although, given that Justin denounces ‘sodomy’, his reading of Plato’s Symposium was either very creative or non-existent.

Evangelicals read the Fathers because they are relevant

‎My friend Scott, inspiration for this post, also noted that evangelical Christians read the Fathers because the Fathers are relevant to today. His comment was the following:

“… to disbelieve all, because that which says that all are untrustworthy is included in the number of those that are so” Clement of Alexandria Stromata 8.7. He could have been speaking to any number of people in the ‘post-modern’ world.

The quotation above points to the deconstructionists of the world, the people who take apart language and ideas to the point where they have no real meaning but are entirely unreliable, the products merely of language itself or of upbringing or education or genetics. It points to the reductionists who take a thought and reduce it to a single aspect, ‘Nothing but’-ism (as Brian J Walsh once said). It points to those who look at a Church on a Sunday morning and proclaim it a distasteful place — full of hypocrites.

The Fathers know of such people, and although they get fiery at times, they are not modernists, and they do not simply quip, ‘There’s always room for one more hypocrite.’ They speak words and pray prayers and lead lives that penetrate to the situation of this world as it loses the anchor and the tower of modernism — built on a flawed foundation — tumbles down around them.

The elegant universe calls forth to the glory of a God Who has designed it and set in motion with care. A God Who sustains it, even? So say the Fathers.

A universe with chaos at its root calls our attention to the reality of a world not entirely right. Fallen, maybe? So say the Fathers.

Texts have a multiplicity of meanings. The ancients knew this — we can rediscover this reality with them, as in the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture.

There is a loss of trust in the manifold structures of the institutions of this world, structures of church and state, of philosophy and family, of social norms and corporations. The Fathers can provide rootedness that goes deep, whether through the mysticism of Origen and Evagrius or the preaching of Chrysostom and Ambrose or the prayers of Basil and Hippolytus or the ethics of the Didache or the philosophy of Augustine and Gregory of Nazianzus. It is a grounding that is not monolithic, that must be tested carefully, but it can draw us to the living God, Who Himself is the surest foundation of all.

Not that God himself is fully knowable. Not that He is always what we want or expect. We must expect to have our expectations changed and shattered as we approach the Cloud of Unknowing.

And in unknowing what we thought we know, we enter into relationship. As helpful as Leo’s and Augustine’s and Cyril’s propositions are, the Living God is a real Person, living and active and abroad in the world.

The Fathers help draw us to Him. We are able to move beyond an intellectual assent to the propositions of Christianity into fellowship and communion with the One Who Is Himselfs Communion. And Communion lies at the heart and root and core of this Elegant, Chaotic Universe.

In a world torn asunder by war, by religion, by politics, by crumbling families, by disintegrating jobs, by falling marketplaces, by faceless governments, by rude neighbours, by fallen, failing humans, isn’t what we crave a deep relationship with someone who will be true, trustworthy?

I offer to you Big Brother Christ, explored in manifold ways and manifold paths by the Fathers. He is relevant to the sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, and dying of this world and our brief, flickering lives. Do not miss out on Him, for He loves you and would know you intimately.

A Reading from Clement of Alexandria

Since it’s his feast today, after all, and the Second Sunday of Advent, here’s something seasonally appropriate:

Inasmuch as the Word was from the first, He was and is the divine source of all things; but inasmuch as He has now assumed the name Christ, consecrated of old, and worthy of power, He has been called by me the New Song. This Word, then, the Christ, the cause of both our being at first (for He was in God) and of our well-being, this very Word has now appeared as man, He alone being both, both God and man—the Author of all blessings to us; by whom we, being taught to live well, are sent on our way to life eternal. For, according to that inspired apostle of the Lord, ‘the grace of God which bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, teaching us, that denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world, looking for the blessed hope, and appearing of the glory of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ.’

This is the New Song, the manifestation of the Word that was in the beginning, and before the beginning. The Saviour, who existed before, has in recent days appeared. He, who really is has appeared; for the Word, who ‘was with God,’ and by whom all things were created, has appeared as our Teacher. The Word, who in the beginning bestowed on us life as Creator when He formed us, taught us to live well when He appeared as our Teacher; that as God He might afterwards supply to us the life which never ends. He, the merciful God, ‘emptied Himself’ to save men. And now the Word Himself clearly speaks to thee, shaming thy unbelief; yea, I say, the Word of God became man, that thou mayest learn from man how man may become God. (From Address to the Greeks, chap. i; I neglected to note down the translator — but it’s Victorian and out of copyright ….)

Don’t forget that he was last week’s saint!

Christianity and Eastern Religions

I just read an essay by the late Michael Spencer (the Internet Monk) about Thomas Merton and why Merton appeals to iMonk so much. Thomas Merton is one of the 20th century’s most popular spiritual/religious authors, a fact that probably immediately draws the ire and fire of fundamentalists and other likeminded folks (not to mention his being a Roman Catholic!).

One of the aspects of Merton’s writing that seems to draw a lot of fire, however, is neither his popularity nor his Roman Catholicism, but his interest in Eastern religions, especially Zen Buddhism (see here). Thomas Merton is not the only Christian writer to get in trouble for learning of and drawing from Eastern religions — CS Lewis has been accused of being a Taoist and a heretic here! I have no doubt others have suffered similar fates (Anthony de Mello would have if he were popular enough).

This branding of Christian thinkers who have an interest in Eastern religions and who are able to draw ideas from them as heretics or false Christians troubles me. It troubles me because Christians are bound to the Bible as the full revelation of God as far as we need to know, containing nothing superfluous and lacking nothing necessary (see Rick Dugan’s brief but illuminating post to that effect).

Yet to say that the Bible is all true is not to say that there is no true outside the Bible. What it means is that if we find truth elsewhere, it will not run counter to Scripture, nor will it be necessary for human salvation. It will not complete the picture of God we can find by faithfully searching the Scriptures. But Christians must surely be able to learn from Eastern religions.

We certainly learn from pagan Greeks — we are all fans of pagan logic-chopping. We tend to be pleased with readers of Plato’s Republic. I once saw a quotation from Marcus Aurelius — Stoic philosopher and Christian persecutor — in a calendar full of Christian quotations! It was there because it was wise. We like a certain type of pagan Stoic ethics, or a certain type of seeking happiness put forward by the likes of Aristotle.

It’s true that we spent a good long time after dear Origen delineating how closely we should dance with Neo-Platonism, and that aspects of mediaeval philosophy were hopelessly pagan and Platonic, while aspects of late mediaeval theology are heavily Aristotelian. And we have had to disentangle Christian truth from those pagan elements since then.

But what about the paganism of “Enlightenment” thought? Or the paganism of capitalism? Or the paganism of the Renaissance? Or the paganism of secularism? These are ways of thinking that are so bred into our culture that Christians often operate by their assumptions while claiming to be spiritual beings who are inseparably tied to the immortal God who transcends the rational world!

Let us return, then, to Eastern religions, to Taoism and Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism.

Is it necessarily wrong to read their writings and find wisdom there? I sure hope not! In The Inner Experience, his final work, Merton paints an expressly Christian mysticism, one rooted in the reality of the Incarnation, the Scriptures, and the tradition. He also mentions Zen Buddhism, but under the belief that Zen meditation is a form of psychological action that alone does not guarantee contact with God — yet it can help calm the mind and help the mind focus.

Is this so bad? I mean, this is what Christian mystics, Orthodox and Catholic, call for — the dispassionate focussing and, to a certain extent, emptying of the soul/nous/mind to be able to focus on the tangible Presence of God. If a Buddhist practice that is decidedly psychological can help us without denying the Scriptures or the tradition, is that so wrong?

If we are set free by the Scriptures and enlivened by the Holy Spirit, we can read any pagan — ancient or modern, Greek or Indian — and be able to find the wisdom of God himself dwelling there. And we should expect this, actually. Justin Martyr discusses the fact that the Word (that Person of the Godhead who became incarnate as Christ) is the underlying principle of the cosmos, that he orders all things and is present to some extent in all human beings.

All human beings can catch a glimpse of God, of how to reach Him, of what His way of life is to be.

This practice is called spoiling the Egyptians. We read the unbelievers* and, using the twin lens of Scripture and Tradition, we can safely find the wisdom of God residing there. The practice is an ancient Christian practice certainly consciously practised by Origen and St. Clement of Alexandria; St. Justin Martyr became a Christian from having been a Platonist and considered himself a Christian philosopher. Its more recent pedigree includes Erasmus’  Handbook of the Militant Christian (where I first encountered it, though not under this name, if I remember aright).

The idea is set out in St. Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses (I was going to quote for you, but I left my copy in Canada). Basically, if you’ll recall the Exodus story, when the Israelites go out of Egypt, the Egyptians give them a vast amount of wealth — gold, silver, jewels. The allegorical or spiritual reading of this passage is the teaching that, because of the general grace of God there is wisdom in the writings of pagans. This wisdom is their wealth, and it is open to spoliation by Christians — ie. any wisdom in the pagans may be taken by the Christian reader and applied to his’er own life and beliefs.

Such beliefs are never to be binding unless corroborated by Scripture,** but they can help make our lives fuller and richer. If you have a terrible job, the Stoic idea that freedom resides within you and you can be truly free whilst a slave can be liberating. Or if you have, say, anger problems, breathing practices from Eastern religions can help calm and focus your mind.

So, if you’re halfway through the Bhagavad Gita, keep reading. Just don’t forget to read the Bible while you’re at it!

*The secularists, atheists, agnostics, Greeks, Egyptians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, Shintoists, Confucians, Native North Americans, Maori, Aborigines, African animists, Zoroastrians, Sumerians ……

**When we try to make them binding, we end up with embarrassing things like vociferous religious opposition to Copernicus and Galileo (although Galileo got into trouble because, even though correct, he had insufficient evidence and kept on teaching his ideas after promising not to until he had more evidence).

Who is the rich man who will be saved?

There is abroad today a pernicious pestilence that believes that, while not every rich man is saved, every man who is saved is rich, for Christ came to give us, of all things, material prosperity.

As in, stuff. Good health, nice car, pure-bred dog, big house, ridiculously expensive clothes.

All you need is faith.  If you trust in Jesus, your problems of health and wealth will go away. If you see a big house on a hill, don’t say, “Too bad I’ll never live there.” No, indeed, according to Joel Osteen, that is the thought-life of defeat. You need, instead, to say, “I will live there.” Put your faith in God that He will provide you with the house. And He will.

This is the sort of idea one would expect, say, Charlemagne to comfortable with. I’m pretty sure that King of the Franks attributed his military success to the favour of God (and possibly the turning of the Wheel! of! Fortune!). And I’m certain the William the Bastard (aka Conqueror) directly attributed his conquest of England to God’s favour. The successors of Mohammed were known to say, do, and think similar things.

Of course, this isn’t the Middle Ages, anymore. So the modern prosperity heretic instead says that God will give you a big house and a nice car, not the better portion of Germany or North Africa. Same falsehood, new guise.

I’m being blunter than usual. This is because this teaching, this so-called “Prosperity Gospel” or “Health and Wealth Gospel” is pernicious and terrible and, quite frankly, pisses me off. And that’s righteous pissed-offness, if you’re wondering.

There are two issues we need to address here, my friends. One is: What is the “biblical” (orthodox? true?) view of wealth? What is the “b”(o?t?) view of salvation?

When trying to figure out a proper Christian view of something, the best place to start is not only the Bible, but the words of Jesus therein. What does Jesus say about wealth?

The core text for Jesus and money is Mark 10:17-31. This is the famous story of the Rich Young Ruler, a guy who wants to know how to be saved. Having told Jesus that he was good at fulfilling the law, he’s told that he lacks one thing: selling all his possessions and giving to the poor. If he were to do that, then he could go and follow Jesus.

Wait. According to Joel Osteen and his ilk, following Jesus makes me rich. But according to Jesus, this particular person should, necessarily, be poor. This doesn’t add up. I can understand people who rationalise this commandment, arguing that rich people can be saved, even if it be more difficult than a camel traversing the eye of a needle. The earliest known account of this is St. Clement of Alexandria (150-215), who wrote the beautiful treatise from which I stole this post’s name (at CCEL).

St. Clement demonstrates the uneasiness early Christian had with wealth, but encourages the wealthy to salvation nonetheless:

let not the man that has been invested with worldly wealth proclaim himself excluded at the outset from the Saviour’s lists, provided he is a believer and one who contemplates the greatness of God’s philanthropy.

And also:

a poor and destitute man may be found intoxicated with lusts; and a man rich in worldly goods temperate, poor in indulgences, trustworthy, intelligent, pure, chastened.

St. Clement’s treatise encourages all Christians to live lives of virtue, seeking the wealth and riches of good deeds and pure hearts rather than the temporal wealth of the world. And well he should, for the love of money is the root of all sorts of evil (1 Tim. 6:10).

But wait, if we are only to serve God and not Mammon (Mt. 6:24), should we be desiring a bigger house, a nicer car, a bigger paycheque? Isn’t this just serving two masters (also Mt. 6:24)? And doesn’t it sound a lot like the Law of Attraction (The Secret)? And what about all that stuff about having your treasure in heaven? I’m not so sure Jesus will make us wealthy. In fact, as we’ll see in a later post, Jesus promises us something quite … different.

Rationalisations of Clement’s that allow Christians to have wealth usually work on me. This is no big surprise, since I am, on a global scale, wealthy. So, probably, are you. However, when we see Jesus has lots of things to say about money — and actual money, parables not counting as they are analogical and allegorical — I get a little worried. Maybe you should worry, too:

whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple. (Happy 400th Birthday, KJV!)

I think Mr. Osteen has found a way to pack the pews, but not the path of righteousness.

If the evidence of the Fathers well allowable (I mean, besides St. Clement), the verdict against the Prosperity Gospel would be damning, for many of them were ascetics. St. Antony heard the call from Matthew’s version of the Rich Young Ruler and went and became a hermit. Similar stories for the rest of the Desert Fathers, really. The great theologian of the Trinity, St. Basil, was an ascetic as well. So was St. Augustine of Hippo. And St. Ambrose. Really, do I need to list them all? I know that sometimes the Fathers have wacky ideas, but I don’t think, “Lead a disciplined life and seek Christ through prayer and fasting — and avoid accumulating stuff,” is amongst them …

Saint of the Week: St. Matthias the Apostle

Do you ever wonder about St. Matthias and what he did before and after his one and only appearance in the Bible, when they cast lots and choose him as the replacement for Judas Iscariot in Acts 2?  So does most of the world, as it turns out.

Regarding his life before his apostolate, we can assume he was among the 70 whom Jesus sent out because in Acts Peter says that Judas’ replacement must have been with them from the beginning.  His Wikipedia entry cites Clement of Alexandria as saying that St. Matthias was possibly the same person as Zacchaeus (Lk. 19:1-10).

Some agreement surrounds his preaching enterprise beginning in Judaea (Wikipedia and abbamoses agree).  This makes sense, since all of the apostolic activity began in Judaea before spreading throughout the known world.  According to one tradition, poor St. Matthias was stoned to death in Jerusalem.  Although not entirely unbelievable, there comes to be a certain sameness to the stories told about lesser-known apostolic characters, so this may be pious fiction.  According to Hippolytus he died of old age in Jerusalem.

Another and more exciting tradition places him in Aethiopia following his stint in Judaea.  Aethiopia most likely did not mean Ethiopia, though.  Wikipedia says that Nicephorus thinks “Aethiopia” is actually “Colchis” on the Black Sea, now in Georgia (the famous destination of Jason and the Argonauts).  The basis for this, I reckon, is the presence of his alleged remains there; although, if those are St. Matthias’ remains, then whose remains did St. Helena allegedly pick up?  Regardless, I have no idea why someone would think that Aethiopia would be Colchis of all places.  Aethiopia, speaking Hellenically, is the place of the burnt-faced people and is always south, usually south of Egypt and Libya, thus Nubia/Sudan/Ethiopia, but never north of Greece at Colchis.

Anyway, so St. Matthias brought the Gospel to Aethiopia, wherever that is.  Not only is he in Aethiopia, he’s in the city of man-eaters in Aethiopia, in fact.  The tradition that asserts the cannibals includes the apocryphal Acts of Andrew and Matthias, although the country is merely identified as “the country of the man-eaters” — perhaps Colchis?  Are Georgians cannibalistic? (I don’t think so.)  Said Acts are interesting because they are clearly related to the Old English poem Andreas (in OE here, in Mod English in the Everyman book Anglo-Saxon Poetry) in which St. Andrew the Apostle rescues St. Matthew from a city of cannibals in Mermedonia, not Aethiopia.  In fact, most of the manuscripts say the Acts are of Andrew & Matthew, but the earliest says of Matthias (see CCEL).

St. Matthias (or St. Matthew or no one at all, given that anthropophagy is rare and the story is of dubious origin) was imprisoned by the man-eaters and lined up to be their next feast.  He prayed for deliverance, and Jesus brought him St. Andrew on a ship (so maybe Colchis?).  Andrew gets there, sneaks into the city, and finds Matthias sitting in his prison cell singing (ala Sts. Paul & Silas).  Then the two apostles performed some miracles, culminating in Matthias being transported in a cloud along with Andrew’s disciples and showing up on a hill where Peter is preaching.  Andrew stayed behind to perform a few more miracles, debate with the Devil, and convert the man-eaters.

The Acts do not tell us about what St. Matthias does next.  At some point he died, possibly in Jerusalem, possibly in Georgia, possibly in Africa south of Egypt and Libya.  It’s all rather vague, revealing the paucity of information we have about first-century Christianity outside of the New Testament.