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Anatomyzing Divinity

Anatomyzing Divinity

By James L. Kelley

Chapter Two

Anthropos, Cosmos, and Theos According to the Orthodox Catholic Tradition and the Alchemico-Hermetic Tradition: Two Divergent Triadologies.

According to the Orthodox Fathers of the Church, theology’s proper beginning point is not any concept of God, however intellectually satisfying or emotionally compelling such an idea may be. Rather, the Orthodox begin with the reality of the Incarnation of Christ, the Son of God. “God became man that man may become as God.”11 The Son is the perfect image of God the Father. We know that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three divine Hypostases or Persons because those masters of the spiritual life who have become united to the Holy Trinity in this life all report the same thing: They have become united to the Holy Trinity through a sharing in the divine resplendence or glory (Gr. doxa), which, though being from Three, is also One.

However, Orthodox spiritual life has nothing in common with individualism or pietism, for no one can baptize himself, and no one can be perfected apart from the communal life of the Divine Liturgy. One begins as a hearer, as a babe who must begin with milk before he can have solid food. The milk is the opening stages of ascesis in the form of 1) obedience to a spiritual father who is a doer, one who teaches from experience of God, and 2) participation in the Holy Sacraments of the Church, the Sacrament par excellence being the Holy Eucharist, where the communicant receives the Body and Blood of God into his body. The higher stage that constitutes “solid food” is direct experience of the uncreated glory of God, though the friend of God never rises above the need for repentance and the Sacraments, but rather lives out these aspects of Orthodox life more fully. Such a communion, far from being magical, is in actuality the only Way (Heb. Torah) that delivers man from idolatry: “There are two ways, one of life and one of death.” “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”12

So, if man does not come to know God through concepts, then how does man ever know God at all? Man is created in the image of God, which means that his life is meant to be an eternal journey toward the divine. This journey is possible because man’s center is his God-created nous, or inner man (eso anthropon).u The nous is never equated with the brain or the rational mind (dianoia) by the Orthodox Fathers; it is precisely this confusion of the noetic with the merely rational that characterizes the Augustino-Platonic tradition of the Christian West. The nous is also designated as the heart (kardia) by the Orthodox Fathers.14 This spiritual heart is man’s unique organ of communion with the uncreated energies of God. These energein of God are not a part of God, nor are they an intermediary between man and God. Neither are God’s energies anything other than the very Life, Light, and Love of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. These energies are God’s going out of Himself toward creation in an act of love (kenosis, self-emptying) to save creation from corruption through communion with His incorrupt life. The recipient of God’s energies does not receive a part of God, because God is not composite, but rather man receives the body of Christ, which is a mystico-noetic—and for that very reason eminently realistic—communication of the life of the Holy Trinity.15 Nor are the divine energies anhypostatic, but rather are the true resplendence of God, distinguished from the divine essence but not separate from it.

The suffusion of the divine energies throughout all of creation is the overflowing of divine love. This descent of the Hand of God into the heart of man is the new thing under the sun for which St. Solomon, the prophets, and all of the sages of every era have pined. God divides Himself undividedly to enter the heart of each and every man who will co-operate with Him to perfect selfless love therein. Accordingly, the true significance of man being “in the image of God” is that man has been created already conformed to God in such a way that he can—with the aid and sustenance of divine grace, that is, synergistically and ascetically—love in the exact way that God loves His creation, that is, freely and selflessly (the only difference being that man is not uncreated by nature, as is the Holy Trinity, but rather man becomes uncreated by grace or energy).16

Strictly speaking, only Christ is the Image of God; man is the image of the Image. There is a dual aspect of the image of God in man: Man was created in the image and likeness of God. The image of God in man, considered by itself, is a given, for Christ, the Second Adam, through His Incarnation reconstituted the human nature shared by every man. However, the “likeness of God” is not a given, but rather is a task, a Way to be followed, to be lived within. Man transcends himself non-dialectically by emptying himself of all self-concern and eudaemonia [well-being] through a co-working with God’s uncreated grace, a grace that is not opposed to creation. It bears repeating: God’s uncreated glory does not coerce creation into acting as a God-serving automaton, but rather ceaselessly calls man (the little cosmos) and all of creation (the big cosmos) into a deeper and deeper union with Him, “from glory to glory.”17

Because the teachings of the Church Fathers are not conditioned by the dubious logic of the “dialectic of oppositions,” they can, without any inconsistency, proclaim that God’s Hand (his energies) can come down to the heart of man without any resultant development or division in the Godhead. The experience of the Orthodox Fathers of the Church is identical to that of the friends of God of the Old Testament. For example, the Three Holy Children—St. Shadrach, St. Mechach, and St. Abednego—were seen in the fiery furnace with a fourth Person, the Lord of Glory (Christ) who suffered there with them, sustaining them through His grace. Likewise, St. Solomon, standing in the Holy of Holies of the newly-consecrated Temple, marveled that God could at the same time be both beyond and above all of creation, and also come and dwell between the cherubim atop the Ark of the Covenant.18

Unlike the Hellenistic/hermetic tradition, which posits an analogy between the life processes of creation and a supposed principle of dialectical development in the essence of God, the Orthodox tradition holds that salvation is deliverance from the dialectical meanderings of fallen creation. To state things starkly, the Orthodox view of man begins with God and views man as an icon of the Godman without any rationalistic analogy being allowed. Orthodox anthropology is thus Hebraic rather than Hellenistic.19

In keeping with its Hellenistic basis, the Gnostic anthropology of hermeticism takes man as its starting point: An intuitive feeling—”the call”—provides the Gnostic with an unquestionable certitude that he or she is actually a part of God, albeit a lower emanation of Him.20 Starting from his human fear of extinction and his desire for self-fulfillment and immortality, the Gnostic projects his eudaemonistic passions into the divine sphere: Man ceases to be a willing subject distinct from other persons and becomes himself a theo-cosmological process which allows God to know Himself.21 Put succinctly, there are three levels in the Gnoseo-hermetic scheme: 1) Anthropos (Man), 2) Cosmos (World), and 3) Theos (God). All three of these levels are God, though the first two are lower emanations or manifestations of the divine essence.22

The foregoing discussion of the Orthodox and hermetic anthropologies is shown to have a great relevance for alchemy if we refocus our attention on the Orthodox and hermetic attitudes toward matter. For the Orthodox, God created the world “very good,” and He also created the world in such a way that its material sphere—its matter—is conformable to the incor-ruption of the noetic realm, the realm of God’s uncreated glory. Most importantly, matter is made to be imbued with God’s life, not as something foreign to it, but as its own true telos; in this sense, to speak of the alchemical process of changing matter into spirit is inhuman and docetistic,23 involving the obliteration of creation rather than its deification. With the creation of man, matter and nous/spirit were shown for what they truly are: perfective, non-opposed creations of God which, forever entwined, are intended to ascend from non-defective goodness to greater and greater levels of perfection in God’s energies, which energies are His very life.24 To safeguard the path to union with God and to avoid idolatry and blasphemy, the Orthodox Fathers of the Church distinguished three categories that apply both to the uncreated and to the created:

Essence (Gr. ousia), which answers the question, “What is it?”

Person (Gr. hypostasis), which answer the query, “Who is it?”

Operation or energy (Gr. energeia), which answers the question, “What does it do?”25

These categories do not stand as analogies of being between God and creation, but instead serve to set the correct boundary between the divine and the created.

By contrast, the Gnoseo-hermetic view holds that the created world is a pale imitation of a truly real realm of Forms. These “ideas” are incorporeal, unchanging and rational. Since an ideal/real oppositional dialectic is presupposed, two superficially distinct cosmological attitudes result: Some gnoseo-hermetic texts denigrate matter as an evil cesspool ruled by demons, while others hold the world to be good. However, even the seemingly positive Gnostic assessment of the world is just another form of matter-hatred (docetism26), since what is held to be “good” in the world is what is hidden within or behind matter. In other words, matter is a husk, an unreal shadow that contains (or hides) “good” reality.27 The cellophane wrapper is good because one can see through it to the candy it contains. We all know what happens to the wrapper afterwards.

Hopefully the underlying dialectic of oppositions is recognized here, in that motion, matter and unreality is here being opposed to stasis, form and reality. The dualism of this gnoseo-hermetic view of matter complements the “process dualism” (my term) which lies behind the alchemical trinity. The latter is the yin-yang dualism of “two contrary principles” of which Tenney L. Davis writes, and to which we above alluded. In the following section our examination of alchemical trinitarian imagery will attempt to illustrate how these two dualisms interact in medieval textual illustrations.


11. St. Athanasius the Great, De Incamatione 54.

12. “There are two ways”: The Didache, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 10 vols., A. Roberts and J. Donaldson, eds. (New York, 1926 [1885-1887]), 1.148.”Thou shalt have no other gods before me”: Exodus 20.3.

13. For an excellent introduction to the Orthodox teachings on the nous, see John Chryssavgis, Ascent To Heaven: The Theology of the Human Person According to Saint John of the Ladder (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1989), 70-124.

14. For the identification of the nous and the heart in Orthodox spirituality, see John McGuckin, Standing in Cod’s Holy Fire: The Byzantine Tradition (London: Dar-ton, Longman and Todd, 2001), 56ff.

15. See Kelley, Realism of Glory, 40-42.

16. The Orthodox teaching about man being created “in” or “according to” the image of God contrasts with the Western Christian view which followed Blessed Augustine’s formulation that man is the image of God, a created reflection of God’s essence. For a sophisticated discussion of Orthodox and Augustinian “imago Dei” theology see M. Aghiorgoussis (now Met. Maximos of Pittsburgh), “Applications of the Theme ‘EIKON THEOU’ (Image of God) according to Saint Basil the Great,” Greek Orthodox Theological Review 21.3 (Fall 1976): 265-288.

17. “But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Corinthians 3:18). Even though the Orthodox spiritual life is concerned preeminently with experience of God, and even though the Orthodox do not mistake words such as prayers and sacred writings for communion with God in His glory, words are nonetheless central to spiritual life as images or symbols that call the worshipper to communion with God (Gr. symbollon: “bringing unlike things together”). It must be stipulated, however, that though the Orthodox proclaim the realism, or reality of God’s glory in the heart of His holy ones, they never reify the uncreated, ineffable Light. The danger is that terms like “glory” and”energy,”the more they are handled and circumscribed in our reasoning and through our lips, begin to represent God’s love as a concept, as something already “known about.”

18. Daniel 3.25: “He answered and said, Lo, I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire, and they have no hurt; and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God”; I Kings 8.27: “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? behold, the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain thee; how much less this house that I have builded?”

19. For a discussion of the Hebraic/Hellenistic anthropology from an existentialist viewpoint see William Barrett, Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy (1958; rpt, New York: Anchor Books, 1990), 61 -119.

20. On “the call” in Gnosticism see Werner Foerster, Gnosis: A Selection of Gnostic Texts, 2 vols., trans, and ed. R. McL Wilson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972): “The central factor in Gnosis, the’call,’ reaches man neither in rational thought nor in an experience which eliminates thought. Man has a special manner of reception in is ‘I.’ He feels himself’addressed’and answers the call. He feels that he is encountered by something that already lies within him, although admittedly entombed. It is nothing new, but rather the old which only needs to be called to mind it is like a note sounded at a distance, which strikes an echoing chord in his heart” (1.2).

21. John S. Romanides, The Ancestral Sin, trans, with an introduction by George S. Gabriel (Ridgewood: Zephyr, 2002). See especially chapter one, entitled “Creation, the Fall, and Salvation in Greek Philosophy in General” (41-49), where Fr. John analyzes the happiness-centeredness of the Hellenistic mind: “The immutable and inactive One of Greek philosophy is rather a projection of the human thirst for a secure understanding of the meaning of existence itself and for eudaemonia. It is the object of man’s intellectual desire for an entirely natural certainty of salvation but without a real revelation and the gradual saving energy of God in the world. It is also a self-centered principle imaginatively constructed according to the desires of man” (47).

22. For a stimulating discussion of this tripartite gnoseology in the context of the writings of Paracelsus see Elizabeth Ann Ambrose, “Cosmos, Anthropos, and Theos: Dimensions of the Paracelsian Universe,” Cauda Pavonis 11.1 (1992): 1-7. For an engaging (but ultimately unconvincing) discussion of gnoseo-hermetic cosmology which strives to contrast a supposedly positive hermetic attitude toward the world with a negative Gnostic view, see R. van den Broek,”Gnosticism and Hermetism in Antiquity: Two Roads to Salvation,” in Gnosis and Hermeticism from Antiquity to Modern Times, ed. R. van den Broek and Wouter J. Hanegraaff (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1998), 1-20, esp. 9-11.

23. See note 27, pg. 58.

24. Here “nous/spirit” refers not to the uncreated energies of God, but rather to the created “spirit of man” which is not a divine “spark” or “piece of God” as the Gnostics would have it.

25. Farrell, God, History and Dialectic, 28.

26. Joseph P. Farrell, in an unpublished typescript in the author’s possession entitled “Partial Listing of Christologies of Classical Heresies and Gnostics,” notes that docetists”begi[n] with the assertion that matter is crude and evil; and so conclud[e] that Christ was pure spirit; the physical appearance was an optical illusion and mere semblance (dokesis); Christ was merely God masquerading as man”(4; unnumbered pages).

27. Section two will make apparent why, from a certain point of view, alchemico-hermetic texts seem to praise matter. To anticipate my later argument, matter is “honored” by alchemists because it is believed to have been divided, developed, and “scissioned”from the”aither,”the materia prima, which is uncreated and which contains every divine attribute. See the Introduction for background on the slightly different context and meaning of “aither”as it was used in Greco-Egyptian alchemy. Titus Burckhardt gives us a sense of the ambiguous, because literally otherworldly, attitude toward matter found in alchemy specifically and Hermeticism generally: “In this view, matter remains an aspect or function of God. It is not something separated from spirit, but its necessary complement. In itself it is no more than the potentiality of taking on form, and all perceptible objects in it bear the stamp of its active counterpart, the Spirit or Word of God.

“It is only for modern man that matter has become a thing and no longer the completely passive mirror of the Spirit’ (Alchemy: Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul, tr. William Stoddart [Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae, 1997], 58-59, emphasis added). Here”ousia”or nature is spirit; matter is reduced to a different ontologi-cal category, namely, “function/will/energeia,” which lacks a sentient, thelemic existence since everything it does is done by someone above who has a nature, that is, who exists and subsists. This ambiguity toward matter seen as the husk containing divine light is reflected in the later American version of hermeticism—American “nature religion”—which denies the reality of the concrete world in order to serve “the world” (Albanese, Republic of Mind, 25).

James L. Kelley

Posted with the kind permission of the author.