Archive for March, 2010

Elias and Eckhart

Sunday, March 14th, 2010

You ask whether the following, admittedly mysterious, passage “implies a doctrine of reincarnation”:

“And as they departed, Jesus began to say unto the multitudes concerning John…. This is he, of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he…. And if ye will receive it, this is Elias, which was for to come” (Matt. 11:7-14).

It’s certainly common enough for theosophists and other “new age” interpreters to see some sort of equation here—John = Elias—and to account for it in terms of palingenesis. I would be most cautious, however, in adopting this all-too-horizontal interpretation, not least because the Baptist himself rejects it (John 1:21). And for good reason: if he and Elias are one and the same, how are we supposed to explain the appearance of Elias—qua Elias, not John—on Mount Tabor (Matt. 17:1-9) after John’s own gruesome death (Matt. 14:1-12)? Would we then be obliged to posit a case not of re- but of retro- incarnation?!

A much wiser approach to the subject is outlined by the perennialist author Leo Schaya, in an article whose title is itself the key: “The Eliatic Function“. I recommend the whole piece but would call your attention here to the following decisive passage:

“One aspect peculiar to the universal function of Elias resides in the fact that this function can be exercised by others than Elias…. Elias … means not only a prophet sent to Israel, but also a universal function which may be exercised by several people, both within Judaism and within other traditions, and whatever be the names given by these traditions to the unique celestial source of this descent of the “Spirit which bloweth where it listeth”. The possibility of his multiple personification is made evident in the Gospel, which identifies John the Baptist with him who “crieth in the wilderness and prepareth the way of the Lord” (Matt. 3:3; Luke 3: 4-6; John 1:23). He who is thus denoted first by Isaiah (40:3) is—according to Jewish tradition—the precursor of the Messiah, the immortal prophet Elias. John the Baptist refused to be confused with him; however, he affirmed that he was the one of whom Isaiah spoke, and by this apparent contradiction he made it quite evident that, without being Elias in person, he exercised in his own time and orbit the Eliatic function.”

Something tells me you’re not going to be satisfied with this explanation, however. It’s hard to hear the “tone” in an email, but I have the impression this is for you a more than academic question. On the contrary, you seem to be on something of a mission to find a Biblical basis, however tenuous, for a doctrine that you, as a Christian, are already predisposed to believe in. I won’t try to argue you out of this stance—predispositions seldom yield to argument anyway—though I would like to warn you against invoking perennialism as a justification for your mission. One can’t say it often enough, it seems: The unity of the great traditions is transcendent and “stratospheric”, not immanent or “atmospheric”, which means in this case that we must steer clear of all mixing and matching of eschatologies. Is there any truth to the doctrine of reincarnation? Of course. But it’s not a truth, or form of the Truth, that a Christian qua Christian needs, and attempts to graft it onto a Christian branch will not produce the fruit you suppose.

And even supposing they could, so what? Eschatology—like cosmology—is a derivative, second-order science. Its particulars are indications and pointers, not one-for-one mappings, and what they point us toward is a State in which considerations of post-mortem states are no longer of consequence. The following from Wolfgang Smith’s Christian Gnosis: From Saint Paul to Meister Eckhart may help you to grasp what I’m saying. I recommend meditating with particular care on what Smith calls “the standpoint Eckhart has made his own”:

“The question now obtrudes whether indeed every Christian is called to gnosis, or better said: whether salvation and supreme gnosis are, after all, one and the same. Might there not be ‘lesser’ stations in the Kingdom of God, in accordance with the words ‘in my Father’s house there are many mansions’? Or are we to think, perhaps, that the ‘way’ normally continues after death: that to attain its true end, the soul is generally obliged to pass through a series of post-mortem states culminating at last in the realization of gnosis (in keeping with the Vedantic notion of krama mukti or ‘gradual liberation’)? Is this, perhaps, the explicated sense of what the Church terms Purgatory?

It appears that these are matters Eckhart does not discuss, does not consider at all. They are questions, moreover, posed from a ‘creaturely’ point of view, which disappear from the standpoint Eckhart has made his own: where ‘all creatures are one pure nothing’, what is there to be said concerning ‘heavens’ and ‘hells’? One is reminded of a Vedantic text which speaks to this issue in what might be characterized as ‘initiatic’ terms, evidently designed to arouse the disciple from his ‘theological slumbers’: ‘There is neither dissolution nor genesis, none in bondage and none practicing [yogic] disciplines. There is no one seeking liberation and no one liberated. This is the final truth.'”

Corruptio Optimi Pessima

Monday, March 8th, 2010

You’re right of course that there’s no Byzantine Empire. But as to whether it should, or shouldn’t, serve as a model for “a truly Christian society”—a pointer to the pattern “laid up in the heavens” (Republic, 592b)—that’s a larger issue. Surely Byzantium and the Carolingian Empire were in many important (I don’t say “all”) ways a much closer approximation to the Kingdom of God than the modern secular state. It wasn’t for nothing that Plato found democracy to be the second worst polis.

You’re also right when you say that “it’s impossible to find anything even close to the same justification for violence in the New Testament that one finds in the Koran”, though let’s be sure to add at once that “Muslims” who endeavor to rationalize terrorism on the basis of Koranic texts are able to do so only by taking those texts out of historical context and only by disregarding the all but unanimous consensus of the ‘ulam?’ concerning the principles of jihad and just war.

Be that as it may, I want to caution you to be very careful that you don’t end up comparing apples and oranges. Two points in particular come to mind:

1. If one is looking for scriptural justifications for violence, the Old Testament is surely at least as good a choice as the Holy Koran. To suppose that Allah is a “different” God, or a “false picture” of God—I’m referring here to your letter—is therefore to agree implicitly with the early heretic Marcion. It’s to say in effect that the God of the Old Testament is not really the Father of Jesus and hence that all New Testament allusions to the Old need expurgation. If I recall correctly, Marcion’s canon was limited to a highly edited Gospel of Luke and a few of Paul’s Epistles, likewise redacted with a view to eliminating even the most passing of references to the Bad God. This of course is not the Orthodox Christian position. On the contrary we see the Hebrew Bible as a preparatio evangelii, and we read it—when necessary—allegorically and anagogically, turning those Babylonian babies (Psalm 137:9) into demons, etc.

2. Here’s a more important point, though. You say that the New Testament is “significantly more pacific” than the Koran and that it thus lends itself far less readily to a “culture of violence”. Fair enough. But here again it’s apples and oranges. The worm in the Christian apple isn’t a tendency toward excessive rigor or force; it’s a tendency toward excessive tolerance—a tolerance no longer understood as simply patient forbearance in the face of undoubted error or sin, but now misidentified with mere mushy-mindedness and a perverse refusal to admit that sin even exists. There are many factors at work here, of course, but clearly one important cause of this refusal is the fact that an increasing number of Christians are content to focus on the command to “judge not” (Matthew 7:1) while forgetting that “I came not to bring peace but a sword” (Matthew 10:34).

Sitting in my university office surrounded by many of the mushy-minded persuasion, I must confess there are days when I rather long for a return of the Byzantine army! And when the occasional brawl breaks out on the Holy Mountain and the monks at Esphigmenou start taking their semantra to the heads of the modernists, I can’t help but think that on some level they’re more “authentically Christian” than all the smiling ecumenists.

Needless to say, I’m not recommending violence, and I’m certainly not applauding the Muslim terrorists; they’ve clearly turned their scriptures to their own egos’ ends. My point is simply to remind you that it’s possible to misuse the Christian scriptures, too. What one gets as a consequence is that much-vaunted modern virtue called “being nice”, which practically speaking has become indistinguishable from the most cancerous forms of relativism. Corruptio optimi pessima. The Christian “equivalent” of the Wahhabist madrasahs or terrorist cells isn’t to be found in the basement of the isolated anti-abortionist bomber. It’s in the Episcopal Church U.S.A. and other liberal Protestant bodies. In Islam you get terrorists; in Christianity, Laodiceans, whom we are told God will “spew out of his mouth” (Revelation 3:16).

A closing question to ponder: Which would you say is the more lamentable? The thousands of bodies that have been killed by the terrorists, or the thousands—more likely millions—of souls that are being killed by the relativists?