Ascent or Transformation?

In the most recent post in the series exploring esoteric spiritualities, I touched briefly on Kabbalah and the Tree of Life. Today I want to use the Tree of Life as a jumping off point to talk about the language of ascent and descent, its philosophical history, and its impact on Christian spirituality throughout the centuries.

The sefirot of the Tree of Life and the processes they describe move in two ways: Moving from keter to malkuth, they describe a process of creation from idea to manifestation; moving the other way, they describe a process of ascent to God. To most of us, these two ideas seem disconnected, but in the thought world from which the system grew, they are the same process in reverse, the way energy flows in the universe, either away from the One or towards it.

To anyone who has studied ancient Western philosophies, the parallels with Middle and Neo-Platonic thought are inescapable. And indeed, if one believes historians of philosophy, it’s very likely that Kabbalah was originally heavily indebted to these streams of Greek thought.

Neo-Platonism has continued to exert an outsized influence in the world of spirituality, not only through esoteric philosophies, but also because it had a formative influence, for good and bad, on Christian monastic spirituality and mysticism. Incidentally, the series on Knowing God will turn to mysticism in Lent. So, since both of the series on the blog right now have converged at this point, it feels like a helpful time to interrogate the ways Neo-Platonism talks about God, creation, salvation, and the universe.

Neo-Platonism has a basically dualistic worldview. There is Spirit, essentially, God, and there is matter, essentially, not-God. The material world is understood to be the result of a gradual reduction of the presence of God; and so it represents the idea of descent: immortal souls descend from the divine realm into the material realm, gradually losing contact with God as they do. Salvation, in this schema, is understood to be a gradual breaking free of the material in order to return to God. One can think of existence in this framework as living on a spectrum between red and blue; everything is to some extent purple, holding a mixture of both, but the more one element is present, the less room there is for the other. One can be spiritual or material, but not really both at the same time without just being lukewarm. And so the spiritual life is about shedding the material element (‘red’ on the spectrum) to become more divine (‘blue’). This process of becoming more and more ‘blue’ was often described using the language of return, or ascent.

This language is very attractive and has resonated for thousands of years now with people across religious traditions. As I mentioned, it provided one of the heaviest lenses through which Christian monastics and mystics understood their faith. But unfortunately, it is girded by profoundly un-Christian ideas, particularly around the nature of matter and being itself. And so when we approach esoteric or monastic texts, we have to be careful as Christians about how we interpret some of their language.

Matter in Judeo-Christian belief is not the absence of God — something that accidentally happened when things got too far away from a God who could never be so muddied as to mess with a material world. Rather, matter is the intentional and good creation of a loving Creator God. Someone in the Biblical tradition cannot say that ‘red is bad because it is the absence of blue’ because red was created by our blue God and declared by our blue God to be ‘good’. This understanding — the fundamental insistence on the goodness of matter and creation — was perhaps the greatest philosophical contribution of the Hebrew Bible and stood in opposition to Ancient Near Eastern mythologies and Greek philosophy alike.

Christian belief in the Incarnation further challenges the presuppositions of Middle and Neo-Platonism. Because Jesus is believed to be fully material and fully divine, it further gives the lie to the notion that matter is bad: God has filled matter with God, so the two can not be fundamentally opposed to each other. Since Jesus then becomes the paradigm for all human life, the call of Christianity is for us too to become fully material and fully divine. To return to the image of the colour spectrum, the Christ-experience asserts the possibility of being both material and spiritual, not in a a muddled 50/50 of both but a fully hyper-saturated 100/100 of both. The “life to the full” Jesus promises is a bright, fully over-saturated, technicolor life, fully connected to the material world of creation and the uncreated spiritual life of God at the same time. And this is the great philosophical contribution of Christianity: we don’t have to choose between being in the world and being with God.

Considering how pervasive the late platonist philosophies were in the early centuries of Christianity, it is less shocking that they influenced Christian thought and language than it is that Christians were able to hold on so tightly to a strong doctrine of the Incarnation within that context at all.

And so, what can we make of the Neo-Platonic legacy within Christian spirituality and the language of ascent towards God? I don’t think we need to rid ourselves of this language. There’s a reason it’s so attractive; it provides a ready understanding and visceral image of progress in the spiritual life. It opposes any kind of spiritual complacency (of which contemporary Christianity is full!). It rightly insists that we are fellow-workers with God as we work out our salvation, and offers the helpful image of a destination. So there is a lot going for the language of ascent. (The same can be said for the language of purity or any other metaphor that speaks of leaving something behind for the sake of God.)

But if we are going to find meaning in deploying this image well today, we have to be very careful in how we do so, to ensure we are speaking Christianly and that we avoid the traps that language has demonstrated in the past. Once again, in speaking of God, we have no choice but to use language and symbols that can never fully measure up to the mysteries they are trying to express. We can use the language of ascent as long as we can ‘unuse’ it at the same time — for example, by reminding ourselves that for a Christian, the path of ‘ascent’ to God is the ‘descending’ way of Jesus, a life not set apart from others and the harsh realities of the physical world, but in service to others, in the thick of the muck and mire.

The idea of ridding ourselves of the heavy trappings of “this mortal coil” may be an attractive image, but it hides as much as it reveals about the way of Jesus. The Christian path is not about escaping earth for the sake of heaven, but far more about joining heaven and earth, filling earth with heaven. For us who follow Jesus, it is the Transfiguration, not the Ascension, that provides the blueprint for the spiritual life.

Certainly, the way of Jesus marginalizes a lot of earthly bonds — he tells us that we can’t serve both God and money, to give someone who steals our coat the shirt off our back too, and that we have to be willing to hate our parents and children. But this isn’t to say those things are bad, only to say they are not what is of ultimate value.

What I’m advocating — and what I believe the Christian tradition advocates — is not an abstracted or obscurantist spirituality that rejects the world, but an appreciation for matter that is not materialist, a vision that upholds the material as valuable, as beautiful, and as good — but as a theophany and not as a Thing of its own. And, this is the true point of the disciplines around self-denial that come into focus during Lent or when we read monastic literature. Fasting isn’t about saying that food is bad, but about changing our relationship to food so that it becomes an act of communion with God and the whole created world. Celibacy, whether the full kind vowed in monastic life or the limited kind that exists within marriage (the “forsaking all others” part of the marriage vows) isn’t saying that sex is bad, but that we want to change our relationship to sex so that we desire and engage in holy sex, sex that is an act of communion with the beloved. We can even say the same thing about guarding our emotions: Anger isn’t bad — it’s a gift from God — but we want to interrogate our anger to make sure it is, as much as humanly possible, a righteous call for justice and not our bruised ego. And so on with any and every kind of spiritual discipline. It isn’t about denying the world but rather filling the world with God’s light, love, and grace.

If you’re reading this and the language of Christianity doesn’t resonate with you, there is already something of this built into Kabbalah’s Tree of Life. For it is neither the so-divine-it-couldn’t-possibly-manifest-itself-creatively “One” nor the mundane-and-spiritually-empty-material creation (‘ten’ in the numerology) that is at the heart of the diagram, but Tif’eret, ‘Beauty,’ the sixth sefirah. And all paths on the Tree of Life lead to here, to the whole-hearted and balanced, epiphanic and theophanic perfect integration of spirit and matter.

This whole discussion is critically important, and I’m sure we’ll be referring back to it again and again as the series on Knowing God continues. For it will offer us a needful guidepost we can use to catch our bearings if we get caught in the weeds of the monastic, mystical writings to which we will soon turn. These are rich and beautiful texts — truly some of the most beautiful our tradition has to offer, but they can at times fall into the Neo-Platonic rejection of the material world. And so we read them and learn from them with gratitude and joy, even as we recognize that they aren’t always the most discerning in their use of language and concept.

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