Christianity As Mystical Fact/Chapter XI
THE NATURE OF CHRISTIANITY
The deepest effect must have been produced upon believers in Christianity by the fact that the Divine, the Word, the eternal Logos, no longer came to them in the dim twilight of the Mysteries, as Spirit only, but that when they spoke of the Logos, they were made to think of the historical, human personality of Jesus. Formerly the Logos had only been seen in different degrees of human perfection. The delicate, subtle differences in the spiritual life of personalities could be observed, and the manner and degree in which the Logos became living within those seeking initiation. A higher degree of maturity was to be interpreted as a higher stage of evolution of spiritual life. The preparatory steps had to be sought in a spiritual life already passed through, and the present life was to be regarded as the preparatory stage for future degrees of spiritual evolution. The conservation of the spiritual power of the soul and the eternity of that force might be stated in the words of the Jewish occult teaching in the book of Sohar, "Nothing in the world is lost, nothing falls into the void, not even the words and voice of man: everything has its place and purport." Personality was but a metamorphosis of the soul, which develops from one personality to another. The single life of the personality was only considered as a link in the chain of development stretching backwards and forwards.
This Logos metamorphosing itself in the many separate human personalities has through Christianity been directed away from these to the one unique personality of Jesus. What had previously been distributed throughout the world was now united in a single personality. Jesus became the unique God-Man. In Jesus something was present once which must appear to man as the greatest of ideals, and with which, in the course of man's repeated earthly lives, he ought to be more and more united. Jesus took upon Himself the divinisation of the whole of humanity. In Him was sought what formerly could only be sought in a man's own particular soul. One did not any more behold the divine and eternal within the personality of a man; all that was now beheld in Jesus. It is not the eternal part of the soul that conquers death and is raised through its own power as divine, but it is that which was in Jesus, the one God that will appear and raise the souls.
It follows from this that an entirely new meaning was given to personality. The eternal, immortal part had been taken from it. Only the personality, as such, was left. If immortality be not denied, it has to be admitted as pertaining to the personality itself. Out of the belief in the soul's eternal metamorphosis came the belief in personal immortality. The personality acquired infinite importance, because it was the only thing which was left to man.
Henceforth there is nothing between the personality and the infinite God. A direct relation with Him must be established. Man was no longer capable of himself becoming divine, in a greater or less degree. He was simply man, standing in a direct but outward relation to God. This brought quite a new note into the conception of the world for those who knew the point of view held in the ancient Mysteries. There were many people in this position during the first centuries of Christianity. They knew the nature of the Mysteries. If they wished to become Christians, they were obliged to come to an understanding with the older conceptions. This brought them most difficult conflicts within their souls. They sought in most various ways to effect a settlement between the two tendencies in the conception of the world. This conflict is reflected in the writings of early Christian times: in those of heathens attracted by the sublimity of Christianity, as well as in the writings of those Christians who found it hard to give up the conceptions of the Mysteries. Slowly did Christianity grow out of these Mysteries. On the one hand Christian convictions were presented in the form of the Mystery truths, and on the other, the Mystery wisdom was clothed in Christian words.
Clement of Alexandria (ob. 217 A.D.), a Christian writer whose education had been pagan, is an instance of this, "God has not forbidden us to rest from good deeds when keeping the sabbath. He permits those who can grasp them to share in the divine mysteries and in the sacred light. He has not revealed to the crowd what is not suitable for them. He judged it fitting to reveal it only to a few, who are able to grasp it and to work out in themselves the unspeakable mystery which God confided to the Logos, not to the written word. And God hath set some in the Church as apostles; and some prophets; and some evangelists; and some pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ." Individual souls in those days sought by very different paths to find the way from the ancient views to the Christian ones. And the one who thought he was on the right path called others heretics. In the meanwhile, the Church grew stronger and stronger as an outward institution. The more power it gained, the more did the path, recognised as the right one by the decisions of councils, take the place of personal investigation. It was for the Church to decide who deviated too far from the divine truth which she guarded. The idea of a "heretic" took firmer and firmer shape. During the first centuries of Christianity, the search for the divine path was a much more personal matter than it afterwards became. A long distance had been travelled before Augustine's conviction became possible: "I should not believe in the truth of the Gospels unless the authority of the Catholic Church forced me to do so" (cf. p. 143).
The conflict between the method of the Mysteries and that of the Christian religion acquired a special stamp through the various Gnostic sects and writers. We may class as Gnostics all the writers of the first Christian centuries who sought for a deep, spiritual meaning in Christian teachings. (A brilliant account of the development of the Gnosis is given in G.R.S. Mead's book mentioned above, Fragments of a Faith Forgotten.) We understand the Gnostics when we look upon them as saturated with the ancient wisdom of the Mysteries, and striving to understand Christianity from that point of view. For them, Christ was the Logos, and as such of a spiritual nature. In His primal essence, He cannot approach man from without. He must be awakened in the soul. But the historical Jesus must bear some relation to the spiritual Logos. This was the crucial point for the Gnostics. Some settled it in one way, some in another. The essential point common to them all was that to arrive at a true understanding of the Christ-idea, mere historical tradition was not enough, but that it must be sought either in the wisdom of the Mysteries, or in the Neo-Platonic philosophy which was derived from the same source. The Gnostics had confidence in human wisdom, and believed it capable of bringing forth a Christ by whom the historical Christ could be measured: in fact, through whom alone the latter could be understood and beheld in the right light.
Of special interest from this point of view is the doctrine given in the books of Dionysius the Areopagite. It is true that there is no mention of these writings till the sixth century; it matters little when and where they were written, the point is that they give an account of Christianity which is clothed in the language of the Neo-Platonic philosophy and presented in the form of a spiritual contemplation of the higher world. At all events this is a form of delineation which belongs to the first Christian centuries. In older times the truth was handed on in the form of oral tradition; the most important things were not entrusted to writing. The Christianity described in the writings of Dionysius is set forth in the mirror of the Neo-Platonic conception of the world. Sense-perception troubles man's spiritual vision. He must reach out beyond the senses. But all human ideas are primarily derived from observation by the senses. What man perceives with his senses, he calls existence; what he does not so perceive, he calls non-existence. Therefore if he wishes to open up an actual view of the Divine, he must rise above existence and non-existence, for these also, as he conceives them, have their origin in the sphere of the senses. In this sense God is neither existent nor non-existent; he is super-existent. Consequently he cannot be attained by means of ordinary cognition, which has to do with existing things. We have to be raised above ourselves, above our sense-observation, above our reasoning logic, if we are to find the way to spiritual vision. Thence we are able to get a glimpse into the perspectives of the Divine.
But this super-existent Divinity has brought forth the Logos, the basis of the universe, filled with wisdom. To him man's lower powers are able to attain. He is present in the cosmos as the spiritual Son of God, he is the Mediator between God and man. He may be present in man in various degrees. He may for instance be realised in an external institution, in which those diversely imbued with his spirit are grouped into a hierarchy. A "church" of this kind is the outer reality of the Logos, and the power which lives in it lived in a personal way in the Christ become flesh, in Jesus. Thus the Church is through Jesus united to God: Jesus is its meaning and crowning-point.
One thing was clear to all Gnosis, that one must come to an understanding about the personality of Jesus. Christ and Jesus must be brought into connection with one another. Divinity was taken away from human personality and must, in one way or another, be recovered. It must be possible to find it again in Jesus. The Mystic had to do with a degree of divinity within himself, and with his earthly personality. The Christian had to do with the latter, and also with a perfect God, far above all that is attainable by humanity. If we hold firmly to this point of view, a fundamental mystic attitude of the soul is only possible when the soul's spiritual eyes are opened; when, through finding higher spiritual possibilities within itself, the soul throws itself open to the light which issues from Christ in Jesus. The union of the soul with its highest powers is at the same time union with the historical Christ. For mysticism is an immediate consciousness and feeling of the divine within the soul. But a God far transcending everything human can never dwell in the soul in the real sense of the word. The Gnosis and all subsequent Christian mysticism represent the effort, in some way or other, to lay hold of that God, and to apprehend Him directly in the soul.
A conflict in this case was inevitable. It was really only possible for a man to find his own divine part, but this is both human and divine,—the divine at a certain stage of development. Yet the Christian God is a definite one, perfect in himself. It was possible for a person to find in himself the power to strive upwards to this God, but he could not say that what he experienced in his own soul, at any stage of development, was one with God. A great gulf was fixed between what it was possible to find in the soul, and what Christianity called divine. It is the gulf between science and faith, between knowledge and religious feeling.
This gulf does not exist for the Mystic in the old sense of the word. For he knows for a certainty that he can only comprehend the divine by degrees, and he also knows why this is so. It is clear to him that this gradual attainment is a real attainment of real divine life, and he finds it difficult to speak of a perfect, isolated divine principle. A Mystic of this kind does not seek a perfect God, but he wishes to experience the divine life. He seeks to be made divine, not to gain an external relation to the Godhead.
It is of the essence of Christianity that its mysticism in this sense starts with an assumption. The Christian Mystic seeks to behold divinity within him, but at the same time he looks up to the historical Christ as his physical eyes do to the sun. Just as the sun is the means by which physical eyes behold physical objects, so does the Christian Mystic intensify his inner nature that it may behold the divine, and the light which makes such vision possible for him is the fact of the appearance of Christ. It is He who enables man to attain his highest possibilities. It is in this way that the Christian Mystics of the Middle Ages differ from the Mystics of the ancient Mysteries (cf. my book, Mystics of the Renaissance).