Thursday, June 4, 2015

Uzdavinys on Theurgy

We should wonder if the Greek term theourgia is not simply a rendering of some now forgotten Egyptian, Akkadian, or Aramaic term related to the complicated vocabulary of temple rites, festivals, and hermeneutical performances that follow the paradigms of cosmogony and serve as a vehicle of ascent conducted by the divine powers (sekhemu, bau) themselves. Accordingly, it would be incorrect to think that the Chaldean Platonists of Roman Syria, those who allegedly created and promoted this term theourgia, also invented the thing itself, that is, the tradition of hieratic arts and of their secret, theurgical understanding. Assuming the latter case, it would follow that this tradition, somewhat related to the solar metaphysics, royal cult, and reascension of the soul through the seven Babylonian planetary spheres (or through the branches and fruits of the Assyrian Sacred Tree) to the noetic Fire, is a dubious creation of those Chaldean philosophers who ‘forged’ (as modern positivists regard it) the so-called Chaldean Oracles, thereby forcing us to believe that the gods themselves, along with the luminous ghost of Plato, suddenly decided to reveal the final version of the Stoicized Middle Platonist metaphysics in the form of seductive ‘manifestos of irrationalism’.
This is the ideological dogma established by E.R. Dodds and his countless predecessors. All of them feel an incredible pleasure in ridiculing the Ephesian theurgist Maximus and in mocking those who, instead of talking about the distant transcendent gods, allegedly ‘create’ them, following ‘the superstitions of the time’.
This almost scandalous ‘creation of gods’ through the methods provided
by certain telestic science (he telestike episteme) is often deliberately
misunderstood. For E.R. Dodds, it is an ‘animation of magic statues
in order to obtain oracles from them’. That sounds like a reinterpretation (employing ‘magic’ in a derogatory sense) of Proclus, who says that the telestic art, by the use of certain symbols (dia tinon sumbolon), establishes on earth places fitted for oracles and statues of the gods (kai chresteria kai agalmata theon hidrusthai epi ges: In Tim. iii.155.18).
Telestike (the term derived from the verb telein, to consecrate, to initiate, to make perfect) is not a kind of rustic sorcery (goeteia). Rather it is a means to share or participate in the creative energies of the gods by constructing and consecrating their material receptacles, their cultic vehicles, which then function as anagogic tokens, as sumbola and sunthemata.
However, one should be careful not to fall into the trap of an improper one-sidedness when approaching the realm of ancient metaphysical concepts and related terms. The word ‘theurgy’ is not the term most frequently used by the ancient Neoplatonists when they discuss cosmological, soteriological or liturgical issues. As A. Louth openly states:
"In Iamblichus, theourgia refers to the religious rituals—prayers, sacrifices, divinations—performed by the theurgist: it is one of a number of words—theourgia, mustagogia, hiera hagisteia, threskeia, hieratike techne, theosophia, he theia episteme—which have all more or less the same meaning and which are frequently simply translated theurgie by E. des Places. ... "
Damascius often prefers the terms hiera hagisteia, hierourgia (hierurgy, holy work, cultic operation) instead, or speaks of ‘theosophy which comes from the gods’ and of the ancient traditions (ta archaia nomina) which contain the rules of divine worship. The Greek terms hieratike and hieratike techne (hieratic art, sacred method) are also rendered simply as ‘theurgy’ by the modern scholars.
For Damascius, hieratike is ‘the worship of the gods’ (theon therapeia) which ‘ties the ropes of heavenbound salvation’, that is, raises the soul to the noetic cosmos by means of the ropes of worship, as in the Vedic and ancient Egyptian hieratic rites or the anagogic recitations of the Qur’an. This hieratike techne is designated as the ‘Egyptian philosophy’ which deals with certain spiritual alchemy consisting in gnostic paideia as well as in transformation, elevation, and immortalization of the soul (the winged ba of the true philosopher or the initiate).
The return of our souls to God presupposes either a fusion with the divine (theokrasia), or a perfect union (henosis panteles). This hieratic method of spiritual ‘homecoming’ is praised as the higher wisdom, namely, the Orphic and Chaldean lore which transcends philosophical common sense (ten orphiken te kai chaldaiken ten hupseloteran sophian).
For the late Neoplatonists, theurgy (including all traditional liturgies, rites, and sacrifices which are ordained, revealed, and, in fact, performed by the gods themselves) is essential if the initiate priest is to attain the divine through the ineffable acts which transcend all intellection (he ton ergon ton arrheton kai huper pasan noesin: Iamblichus De mysteriis). Thus, a theurgic union with the gods is the accomplishment (telesiourgia) of the gods themselves acting through their sacramental tokens, ta sunthemata. The awakened divine symbols by themselves perform their holy work, thereby elevating the initiate to the gods whose ineffable power (dunamis) recognizes by itself its own images (eikones).
Dionysius the Areopagite borrows the term theourgia from Iamblichus and Proclus, but uses it not in the sense of religious rituals which have the purificatory, elevating, and unifying divine force. Now this term designates certain divine works or actions, such as the divine activity of Jesus Christ (andrikes tou Iesou theourgias). Dionysius the Areopagite also speaks of one’s deification and koinonia (communion, participation) with God or an assimilation to God effected through participation in the sacraments. That means henosis (union) accomplished by partaking the most sacred symbols of the thearchic communion and of ‘divine birth’ achieved through the hermeneutical anagoge (ascent) and epistrophe (return to the Cause of All). However, as P.E. Rorem remarks,
"The uplifting does not occur by virtue of rites and symbols by themselves but rather by their interpretation, in the upward movement through the perceptible to the intelligible. ... "
Source: Algis Uzdavinys, "Philosophy and Theurgy in Late Antiquity" (first published in 2010), Chapter 2.
Photograph of Lithuanian philosopher Algis Uždavinys (1962–2010); he unfortunately died of a heart attack, on 25 July 2010, at the relatively young age of 48:

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