The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition by Andrew Louth (review)

The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to DenysThe Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys by Andrew Louth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is a fine piece of introduction and analysis of what may, rather then ‘mystical’, more precisely be considered the contemplative strand of Christianity as it took on and then adapted (or at times rejected) the Platonic inheritance. The 2006 edition is definitely to be preferred, for in this edition Louth closes with a very challenging Afterword wherein he confronts the very concept of mysticism. We all think we know what the word means, but probably we don’t.

After chapters on Plato, Philo, and Plotinus, Louth discusses Origen; ‘Nicene Orthodoxy’ which includes Athanasius (who raises an anti-‘mystical’ challenge to Platonism) and Gregory of Nyssa; ‘The Monastic Contribution’ which considers Evagrius of Pontus (the rich but problematic Origenist/Platonist), the Macarian Homilies, and Diadochus of Photiki who brings out strands in both of the other two in this chapter; Augustine of Hippo’s contribution; then Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (whom he refers to as ‘Denys’).

Living in a post-Carmelite age whose understanding of Christian ‘mysticism’ is indelibly marked by the late medieval and early modern inheritance, Chapter 9 is an important discussion of St John of the Cross and the patristic inheritance. Louth argues that there is, indeed, some difference, but more often of style and perspective than content. The final chapter is ‘The Mystical Life and the Mystical Body’. This final chapter reminds us of a chief difference between ancient Christian ‘mysticism’ and the philosophers, for the ancient Christians always thought in terms of the Christian community, the liturgy, and the communion of saints, rather than Plotinus flight of the alone to the Alone.

In each of the ancient philosophers or patristic authors analysed, Louth gives us a run-through of what we may consider his ‘mystical’ teaching, looking both at their reception and at their challenge of Platonist ideas. It is a helpful book in many ways, although one is reminded that most of the praktike of the contemplative tradition in Christianity is the pursuit of moral virtue and askesis rather than the delineation of particular psychological practices as taught by the baptised Buddhism of Anthony de Mello, S.J., in Sadhana. I would have liked to have seen more on Diadochus and the Jesus Prayer, since the Jesus Prayer is the heart of so much of what we may consider Eastern Orthodox ‘mysticism’ today.

In the end, I recommend this book. At times it is challenging to read. At times, since it is introductory, it feels not quite deep enough. But overall, it gives you some idea of the landscape of these authors and this strand, as well as questions to take with you on your own journey into the broad literature of Christian spirituality.

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Concupiscence beyond sex – a trip to the Desert

Abba Anthony the Great and Abba Paul of Thebes, desert monks
Abba Anthony the Great and Abba Paul of Thebes, desert monks

In Patristic anthropology, concupiscence is an important aspect of the inner workings of the human soul. Concupiscence is usually mentioned in the context either of the battle over grace & free will or of the early monastic movement. For a number of reasons I don’t have the time or energy or, in fact, will, to go into, concupiscence has a tendency in modern contexts to be framed mostly or only in terms of human sexuality.

I think we need to look first at the Desert.

The astute psychological readings of humanity provided by Evagrius Ponticus and the Desert Fathers, as well as the highly Evagrian author John Cassian, see our interior life dominated by concupiscence, irascibility, and reason. We have desires — concupiscence; we get hot/impassioned/angry/indignant about things — irascibility; we have intellect and rational thought — reason.

As I write this, it passes through my mind that these are the three parts of the human person/human society in Plato. In Plato, the goal is to have reason ruling the other two. St Augustine would certainly agree, and Evagrius might, but not strictly the way we typically imagine someone arguing for it.

What ‘reason’ or the intellective part of the human spirit means to Evagrius is a question for another day, though.

I’m here to discuss concupiscence.

Concupiscence and anger are both tied directly to the passions, on which I’ve blogged before. Concupiscence is swayed by the passions in terms of desire. According to St Augustine, our disordered desires, our desires that act independent of and even contrary to reason, are part of the evidence of the Fall. If the intellective part of a human is the highest part, Augustine cannot see how in the Adamic state something that is clearly concupiscible — the membrum virile and male desire for intercourse — would be so beyond the control of reason.

One cannot grow a beard in a fit of passion, says G K Chesteron. St Augustine would also observe that one cannot simply have an erection because reason dictates that it is time to procreate with one’s wife. That’s not how it works.

Thus, because of this Augustinian tradition that is picked up St Thomas Aquinas, when we hear ‘concupiscence’, we think immediately of sex and the human appetite for sex that is not tied directly to the reasoning part of the human soul.

However, concupiscence goes beyond sex.

We need to remember that in our hyper-sexualised culture. A lot of us would think that our job was done if we achieved apatheia — dispassion — in matters of non-legimitate sexuality. That concupiscence had been tamed in such a case.

However, fornication is not the only temptation, not the only logismos in Evagrius’ terms, not the only passion associated with concupiscence. Most obviously, there is gluttony. And greed/avarice. And vainglory and pride, which involve concupiscence for less tangible things.

Because everything can lead back to St Leo the Great, this wider reality of concupiscence — and its less material manifestations — came to me this week as I was reading Ep. 106 in a manuscript. In this letter, Leo rebukes Anatolius, Bishop of Constantinople for concupiscentia. At the Council of Chalcedon (451), it was approved that Constantinople would have honour second only to Rome and gain rights above those of several local metropolitans. Leo saw this as a breach of the Canons of Nicaea, and believed (if we are to take his letters at face value) that Anatolius was filled with his own pride and was seeking his own gain, to the detriment — most particularly — of the Apostolic See. By which I mean Antioch, which was second city to Rome and, when the terminology developed, was one of the Patriarchates, besides being a church founded by Apostles.

Concupiscentia, to Leo, is not about sex, most obviously. It is about grasping after honours — and, to quote Leo, Ep. 14 to Anastasius, Bishop of Antioch, ‘honor inflat superbium’: honour(s) (in this case, technically high office) inflates pride.

Pride. One of the most deadly of the deadly thoughts/logismoi in Evagrius.

The goal of the disciplined Christian life is to overcome these logismoi in order to know Christ better and live for him better. Therefore, we need to learn to control our desires, to make our concupiscence seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness. As Abba Alonius said:

If only a man desired it for a single day from morning till night, he would be able to come to the measure of God.

Is Augustine neurotic or really just Roman?

Augustine in His Study by Sandro Botticelli (in the Uffizi, Florence where I, of course, saw it)

St Augustine of Hippo very frequently comes under attack for his views on the body and sex. In the class on said Church Father that I’m auditing, the lecturer said on Monday that in the 70s, when everyone got liberated, they needed someone to blame for having formerly been un-liberated, so they chose Augustine for being a. a long time ago and b. very influential on the western tradition.

Not to argue that everything the Blessed Augustine said was true, I still have to ask:

Is that really fair?

I believe that the answer is, ‘Nope.’

Whenever we look at an ancient author, we cannot simply look at specific views of his outwith their context in the writer’s work as a whole, nor within the wider cultural milieu wherein they were formed. To do otherwise is symptomatic of my bugbear, the Hermeneutic of Suspicion. Which I detest.

Augustine believes that the human body is a lesser good than the mind. He believes that humanity’s rational, intellective/intelligible faculty is how we are made in the image of God. The body is not as good as the mind, and is often described as the source of the fleshly appetites and passions. This, as far as it goes, sounds fairly Platonic, doesn’t it?

He also believes that this fleshly, earthly life is mortality and misery. This is also, if you ask me, simply being a Roman. Imagine a world before anaesthetics and modern medicine. A world where a toothache can cause you endless, agonising pain. A world where your wife/sister/daughter is likely to die in childbirth. A world where you could very quickly and easily die from drinking dirty water. A world where you could lose your entire fortune in a shipwreck. A world where barbarians could raid either in a big way (see North Africa, Vandals in) or a small raid (see North Africa, Berbers in).

I am fairly certain that much of life in the ancient and mediaeval worlds was toil, pain, misery. Is Augustine a neurotic semi-Manichaean when he says that human life is misery — or is he just a fifth-century realist?

According to Augustine, lust is a result of the passions, and desiring sex is lust. This is a result of the Fall — in the prelapsarian state, Adam could have an erection whenever he pleased and thus fulfil God’s edict ‘be fruitful and multiply’ without falling into sin. Alas, since sex tends to involve lust today, it is hard to have sex without sinning; thus the preferred state of celibacy.

Augustine takes a lot of flack for this in particular. It has been said that he is just a recovering Manichee who had a past as a sexual deviant and was making up for it by being a neurotic Puritan.

Once, again, I think not. Bits of this train of thought can be seen in his North African predecessor who was anything but Manichaean and who was probably married, Tertullian. Other bits, about control of the appetites, are found in the Desert Fathers and your standard Roman ethics. For example, the story is told of Cato the Younger that he shamefully admitted to having taken refuge in his wife’s arms during a lightning storm. This sort of lack of control of one’s body, etc, was regarded as not up to snuff by ancient Romans.

As well, the appetites include not just sex but also food. Augustine believes, as seen in The Confessions, that eating is only to be done to relieve hunger. If you eat out of pleasure, that is gluttony. This is a common ancient, Roman belief, and one which he held in common with the Desert Fathers (again) and his contemporary, (St) John Cassian — a fellow who, himself, did not agree with Augustinian views of Predestination (as I discuss here).

Furthermore, Augustine cannot, at least in City of God, be accused of being a Manichaean, because he does not believe the dualist principles at the heart of the Manichaean religion, that all matter — not just bodies — is evil, and we need to be liberated from it. In fact, although I believe his overemphasis and exaltation of the mind and reason finds its origins in (Neo)Platonism, Augustine also goes against the Platonic grain.

Augustine believes that we were created to have bodies. And he believes that at the Resurrection of the Dead and in Paradise we will have bodies for eternity. This is not Manichaeism or Platonism, but Christianity.

So, critique Augustine. But please don’t say that he is either a Manichee or neurotic. This simply reveals your inadequate knowledge of the man’s historical context.

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).

Platonism and Christianity

Why am I so wary of Platonism, as expressed in this post?

I am not actually wary of Platonism specifically.  Plato is a very skilled writer.  He writes with style.  In many of the dialogues, if you read with an attentive mind, then Socrates moves beyond asking questions of, say, Euthyphro, to asking questions of me.  What do you, mjjhoskin, think of holiness?  What is the basis for holiness?  What is the basis for this belief of yours? Foundational questions, all of them.  Questions that strike at the root of things.

Plato also has some interesting ideas.  There’s the ever-popular Cave in The Republic, for example.  Timaeus gives us a cosmology not entirely incompatible with reality.  Crito gives us the endlessly-speculated myth of Atlantis.

Plato also teaches transmigration of souls.  He teaches that this world is not the real world.  We have an idea of justice here, an idea of what a table is, an idea of what eros is, but these ideas are not the real things in themselves but shadows of the truth.  The true reality, according to Plato, is in the world of forms, where our souls dwell between transmigrations.  Platonism also teaches a dualism between body and spirit, between physical and metaphysical.  The spirit and the metaphysical are good, the body and the physical are bad.  This stems from the theory of forms.

This last paragraph is there to help show why traditional Christianity, “classic” Christianity, ought to be wary of Platonism.  Many Christians of the Patristic era liked Platonism too much and created bits of speculative theology that were not in line with Scripture, tradition, or the reasoned account of salvation.

Souls are immortal, according to Platonism — this means that they have a pre-existence in the spiritual realm before becoming incarnate in our bodies.  Such is the case in Origenism as well.  In fact, from what I’ve seen of Origen and his anathematised beliefs, a great many of them stem from an outworking of Platonist ideas.

One of the most pernicious and persistent Platonic ideas within Christianity is the dualism between body and spirit, between the physical and metaphysical.  I think this is in Origen, but it is definitely in the Gnostics and sometimes in the ascetics (but their pagan model was more frequently Stoicism).

The body is not bad.

This is part of true Christian doctrine.  In Genesis we are taught that when God created us, He said that His creation was “Very good.”  God Himself took on flesh in the Incarnation.  He became a man.  At the end of time, we shall all be resurrected in a new heaven and a new earth, and we shall have bodies.

The Platonist idea as it manifests itself in Christianty says that our bodies are “fleshly,” and anything that has to do with the body is to be rejected save those things that keep us alive.  Modern Christians who have maintained this dichotomy between flesh and spirit sometimes argue things such as, “Dancing is bad because it is all about your body.”  Ascetics, on the other hand, argue that you should ignore your body and discipline it.  What really matters, however, is mystical experience and seeking God through contemplation.  Neglect the body, therefore.  Some Gnostics, on the other hand, would argue that since flesh doesn’t matter, do as you please!

Classic Christianity argues that flesh does matter, so treat your body with respect, live morally, and enjoy yourself.  Dance.  Eat.  Drink.  Discipline the body, yes, but do so to discipline your whole self, do so to keep it healthy, not to ruin it.

The most pernicious Platonist idea to persist to today is this idea that we are all going to go to heaven when we die, we shall be disembodied and this will be great and this is what we were made for and this world will be destroyed by fire.

FAIL!

Patristic writers (I forget at the moment where I saw this, but it was one of them) lament death because when we die, our bodies and souls are separated, and this is not what we were created for.  We were created to have bodies, to walk on earth, to breathe air.  This is what the hope of Resurrection is.  We will have bodies, but they will be incorruptible.  The souls and bodies of the dead will be re-knit together for Judgement Day, and the saved will spend eternity living with those bodies and enjoying the world.

Thus, while there is much in Platonism to commend it, there is also much to be cautious of.  The same is true of Aristotelianism, Stoicism, Hinduism, Islam, or Buddhism.  Let us not forget that our first commitment is to Christ who was revealed in the Scriptures and has shown Himself through His people throughout history.  All pagan ideas, good or ill, are secondary.

Platonism vs. Evangelicalism?

Christianity is not compatible with Platonism (contra Radical Orthodoxy’s 12th thesis).  Nor, in fact, compatible with Aristotelianism or Stoicism, the other two of the ancient philosophies that sometimes try to overcome biblical Christianity.  There are elements of Platonism, Aristotelianism, and Stoicism, and Christianity should affirm these.

There are also truths in Hinduism, Islam, and Buddhism.  Christianity is not compatible with these, either.  Nor is it, in fact, compatible with Enlightenment modernism.  Post-modernism is an amoebic entity which sometimes contains things compatible with Christianity, sometimes does not.

I think Radical Orthodoxy (as in the 24 Theses) is not something I can embrace, partly because the high concentration of philosophic and academic jargon renders many of the theses incomprehensible.  And I also don’t think evangelicalism is “creepy,” and find that High Anglicanism, especially in its Anglo-Catholic manifestation, to be something that is as creepy as evangelicalism, just in different ways, contrary to this:

14. Radical Orthodoxy is focused on the recovery and non-identical repetition of an authentic pre-Scotist Catholicism. It finds elements of an authentic continuation of the same in High Anglicanism, but also in many other places and countries as well. It detests evangelicalism, because it is creepy, voluntaristic and therefore nihilistic.

What on earth do you suppose they even mean by evangelicalism?  Evangelical is a good, solid Protestant word.  It’s the word Luther used to describe himself.  It means gospelly.  To be evangelical is to be committed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ as it is presented to us in the Holy Bible.  This is not “creepy, voluntaristic and therefore nihilistic.”  This is what one would hope the Radical Orthodox wish to be.

I imagine, of course, that the composers of this manifesto have in mind certain manifestations of denominations called “evangelical” that originate largely in the United States and involve things that the British, due to a difference in culture, find inherently “creepy”, such as altar-calls and a strong emphasis on Public Displays of Religion.  And rock’n’roll worship.  And pastors who are treated like celebrities.

But those bits of the evangelical tradition that are potentially creepy and voluntaristic are not the sum total of evangelicalism.  Much is to be affirmed in evangelicals, regardless if you consider yourself one, such as the strong commitment to the Bible.  You may not agree with how a perceived “evangelical” reads the Bible — but s/he reads it.  A lot.  And seeks to understand in such pro-active living choices as weekly Bible studies and sermons rooted in Scripture.

This commitment to Scripture alone (rather than in any ancient pagan philosophical system) puts many evangelicals farther ahead than a lot of people in High Anglicanism.  God encounters us through the Scriptures, not just the sacrament.  To say evangelicals are creepy is almost a re-statement of the false dichotomy of Word vs. Sacrament.  We need both to nourish our spiritual lives; Christ feeds us through each (and herein, frequently, lies evangelicalism’s weakness).

Evangelicalism detested because it is creepy?  Pretty lame reason.