Tag Archives: Neo-Platonism

Nobody’s Theology

In a recent post over at his Arkadian Anvil, friend and esoteric colleague Sam Webster M.Div. has a fascinating article about the difficulties of language in the field of theology from a Pagan perspective. Having many friends myself who, like him, are self-identified Pagans from a myriad of different traditions and backgrounds, I deeply sympathise with his concerns which I would encourage my readers to spend some time thinking about. From a Gnostic perspective I frequently run into similar difficulties of expression on one hand because of the differences between historical Gnosticism of the 2nd and 3rd Centuries and Gnosticism as it has come into being since the Gnostic Revival of the late 19th Century which itself is deserving of its own essay. However, there are some things I think that Sam absolutely correct on and some that he is mistaken on and so I offer my critique here:

In his recent essay Theology Is God-Talk, scholar and modern mage Sam Webster approaches the difficulties of expressing contemporary pagan religious ideas in a field that, since at least the early first millennium has lacked a voice of pluralism under the dominance of monotheistic cultures. In this essay he squarely levels the playing field by citing the misunderstanding of the role of theology in the Hellenic mind by the nascent Christian religion where it became refined by apologists seeking to explain to their contemporaries the importance of Christianity as a religious world-view as well as pointing out the role that theology played in the late Roman Empire as a means of uniting the populus by consolidating state and religion as a monolithic structure of one God, one Emperor, and one State. Although correct in his assertion that the current language of theology is perhaps insufficient for discourse from a pagan perspective, he fails to account for the plurality of theologies that have been developed in response to the early Christian movement when a monotheistic culture once sought out to do what modern pagans must hammer away at for themselves today.

As Webster correctly points out, “[theology] is God talk” however is incorrect in his assertion that it is something particularly new. In his Metaphysics, Aristotle divides theoretical philosophy into what today would be understood as mathematics, physics and theology – the latter corresponding more correctly to what today would be considered abstract metaphysics. By the time of the early Christian era religious philosophy would become divided culturally into Eastern and Western theologies with early Christian theologians in the West following a more Stoic form of dividing philosophy into three forms of discourse consisting of mythic, rational and civil interpretations while those in the East – in particular those early in the early Christian eremitic tradition – following a much more poetic and mythic exegetical form owing to the strong influence of Neoplatonism. On account of this, it is difficult to state there is one Christian theological template that would generalize the opinions of the early Church in the same way it would be difficult to say that Roman or Hellenic pagan philosophers were drawing from the same well.

Webster’s example of the ‘problem’ of the development of Christian theology as a means to appeal to the powers that be is particularly problematic in that it proposes that the symbol set used by the early Christians in explaining the Christian doctrines of the Trinity and incarnation are particularly new or unique. The Doctrine of the Trinity, while arguably having little scriptural basis, is none-the-less a very interesting reinterpretation of Neoplatonic concept of emanation theory through an Hellenized, Jewish lens using apocalyptic narrative as a framework. Similarly, the concept of incarnation is also not particularly new, especially when one considers the vast corpus of material accounting for the wholly human and wholly divine statuses of various deities, demi-gods and heroes. While I personally disagree with the literal interpretation that later doctors of the Church would ascribe to these ideas, they did exist and are not strictly speaking new in theological discourse. The tools of the ancient philosophers in this vein were not so much put to new use as they found new meaning in the language of the early Christians.

In the centuries following the arguable collapse of Paganism, Western Scholastic Theology filled in the void left by classical philosophers and theologians until the Renaissance and has sense captivated the Western mind seeking, as Saint Anselm points out, the intellectual desire to “believe so as to understand.” This cataphatic form of religious philosophy, in spite of its failings, would ultimately be the form that would become dominant in Western Europe with the exception of apophatic or mystical understanding of the Christian concept of Divinity held by some theologians. It is also this form of theology that would give rise to later philosophical schools such as humanism as well as the philosophies of materialism that would gain later prominence in the post-Enlightenment era.

It is out of Enlightenment philosophy that modern systematic theology came into being, in particular among more liberal circles such as the Society of Friends (Quakers), Unitarian and Universalist movements, and contemporary ‘liberal’ and mainline Christian churches in contrast to the strong anti-modernist reactions exemplified by the Roman Catholic Church pre-Vatican II as well as modern evangelical Christianity. It is also in this milieu that modern Pagans must seek to find their voices in the dynamic tensions of philosophical ideas – even more important for modern Pagans, many of whom are refugees from the excessive pressure put on them by conservative socio-religious structures.

Owing to the diverse perspectives within modern Paganism, it will naturally be difficult but not impossible for a new theological plurality to emerge that can draw upon the rich wells and bury the dry sources provided by the different perspectives offered by Christians following the end of the classical world in a manner that is at once old and new and speaks not as a monolithic structure for all, but like a fertile apple tree, exists for individuals to pluck fruit from while still leaving other apples for other members of greater Paganism. Although theology has its origins in a pagan milieu, it has ceased to belong to any one religious or philosophical school, but is now that tree standing in the middle of the field of human experience from which all can draw.