Ascent to God (I): Introduction

The “ascent of the soul” has had a colorful and venerable history in the Christian tradition, reaching back as far as the apostle Paul, who was “caught up to the third heaven.” Although the terminology can be traced as far back as Pythagoras (sixth century B C E) and then Plato (fourth century B C E), it was thoroughly appropriated by Jewish apocalypticism around the time of Christ, having been wedded to the traditional “ascended” figures of Enoch and Daniel. – Julie Canlis, Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company), pg. 2

As part of an ongoing research project, I will occasionally be posting on the subject of spiritual ascent / descent.  This is a major theme in historical Christian theology, and to better understand a given tradition’s doctrines and practices, it seems to me necessary to be able to see something of how the theme gets”inflected” in different ways by each.  But this presupposes some general knowledge of the theme itself; hence, this occasional series of posts.

I first encountered the Christian theme of ascent to God many years ago when in a primer on Reformation theology, Michael Horton’s Putting the Amazing Back Into Grace, I read of how Evangelical piety tended to cast the story of Jacob’s ladder (Gen. 28:10-19) as us climbing up to God, but as it turns out the ladder is actually coming down from God – and the ladder is Christ.  That made a lot of sense to me at the time, but I never tried to follow up on it.

Much later, in grad school work I did in Medieval theology and literature, I encountered the theme again and had to engage with it in some detail.  For instance, for one assignment I wrote on the theme as it is found in Augustine’s Confessions, and for another, on how it is found in Canto XVI of Dante’s Purgatory.   While this was very interesting at the time, again I found that after those papers were done, for a long time thereafter I did not revisit the theme.

For a third time I encountered the theme of ascent to God when about three years ago I read a large portion of Pseudo-Dionysius, a 5th century Neoplatonist Christian whom the Middle Ages confounded with the Dionysius who was one of Paul’s converts on the Areopagus.  I was at that time struck by how closely a lot of Roman Catholicism’s doctrine and practice parallels Neoplatonism’s idea of “lesser” creatures traveling up a metaphysical ladder to achieve mystical union with the Perfect One by becoming entirely different sorts of things than they started out as.

Since that time, I’ve begun to deal with ancillary issues such as what precisely “the image of God” is, and in that context, the Catholic concept of the donum superadditum (a special, supernatural addition on top of an inherently imperfect juman creation that enables him to rise up to God) and most recently, the Beatific Vision (the end state of man apparently looking directly at the very being of God in and of itself by reason of having been transformed in some mysterious way out of “mere” finitude so as to be able to meaningfully contemplate infinitude).

Needless to say, the issues are complex enough taken individually, and even more so when they interact with each other in multiple different ways in various Christian traditions.  Catholicism thinks of ascent (and descent) in one way, and winds up construing the Beatific Vision in a certain way that flows from that.  But the Reformed tradition, of which I am a happy part, also has a thoroughgoing doctrine of ascent (and descent), and also winds up construing the Beatific Vision in a certain very different way that flows from that.   As with many theological divides, Augustine is, of course, at the heart of most of it, on all sides.

I don’t pretend at the outset that this series is going to proceed systematically.  I haven’t yet got a systematic grasp on its many angles, and so can’t give what I don’t have.  What I’m going to be doing is more modest: just posting relevant quotes and analysis as I find them, and aiming over time to arrive at a better, fuller understanding of this very important theme and how it works itself out in the different traditions.

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