Ascent to God (III): The Theme of Ascent in Greek Philosophy

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.[mfn]Julie Canlis, Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company), pg. 2[/mfn]

Following these words, Canlis notes that Christian theology has long struggled not with the idea itself of ascent to God, but with trying to articulate how it happens.  As we saw in the last part of this series, ascent to God is clearly writ large in the Old Testament, so there is something natural, something that is just “built-in” about both the aspiration to ascend and human attempts to do so.

The problem for Christians is that the biblical story of human ascent to God does not stand alone, but is always also a story of the descent of God to us.  Indeed, a great deal of the tension in Christian theological attempts to deal with ascent to God – tension that manifests itself in different ways in different traditions – concerns precisely in what relationship ascent and descent exist for biblically-normed religion.[mfn]This is one reason I reject Roman Catholicism’s doctrinal and spiritual claims: Rome’s understanding of the ascent theme, though beginning with Scripture, runs very far astray from Scripture and reads key parts of Scripture as if they were just endorsements of Neoplatonism’s suspicion of matter and over-exaltation of spirit (more on this below).[/mfn]

An excellent way to bring out the tension Christians necessarily feel trying to hold ascent and descent together so as to do justice to the Scriptures is for us to briefly survey what one of the best pagan philosophers did with the theme.[mfn]I will here only talk about Plato; I had planned to say some things about Plotinus, but I’m trying to keep each post in this series relatively short.[/mfn]  In particular, we need to recognize that although they, “groping after God” (Acts 17:27), did stumble across significant truth about the matter, they nevertheless placed the emphasis on ascent as fundamentally good and desirable while construing descent as fundamentally bad and undesirable.  Among other huge problems, that way one finds, with sect-specific inflections, versions of Manichaeanism,  Docetism, Gnosticism, and a colorful variety of “too spiritual for the rest of you carnal folk” Christian heresies.  In this latter category I would put perfectionist Holiness movements, schismatic “lone pilgrim” ecclesiologies, and the invocation of sub-mediators to help one gather the merits needed to climb the long, arduous ladder into the direct, unmediated presence of God.[mfn]One historic take on the Beatific Vision, about which I will post extensively in the future.[/mfn]


Before I say anything about Greek philosophy, let me give two brief disclaimers.  First, I am by no means hostile to Plato, but have rather found (and continue to find) much of his work of great intellectual, academic, and even in a way spiritual benefit.  Second, I am not in the sub-camp of Reformed believers who over-magnify the supposed immense chasm between things “biblical” and things “philosophical.”  Thus, though the limited purpose of this series of posts requires here a more negative sort of tone about some parts of Plato, I do not wish to have myself construed wrongly as some kind of anti-philosophy advocate of “Bible Only”ism – for that I certainly am not.

A commonplace of Plato’s philosophy, and all philosophy, even Christian, that in any significant way follows his lead, is the distinction between appearance and reality.  This was Plato’s way of interacting with the much older theme of becoming “versus” being, or change “versus” stability.  I put “versus” in scarequotes because pre-Plato Greek philosophers did put the two things in stark contrast to each other, and wound up with one more-or-less eliminating the other, but, speaking very generally, Plato tried to take a fuller account of both.  To what extent he succeeded or not is a matter for professional philosophers to argue about; my only purpose here is to offer a layman’s-level sketch that will be useful for later talking about Christian theological takes on ascent to God.

Plato often gets a severe bad rap from “biblicist” Christians, who portray him as simply despising all things substantial and material and changeable in favor of ethereal, disembodied and unchanging abstractions.  I have long suspected, without having the time to show it in the form of a rigorous philosophical treatise, that such is a sophomoric caricature of Plato.  Alas, I also cannot undertake that task of attempted proof here, so for my limited purposes, two dialogues of Plato, the Symposium and the Phaedrus will serve to help give a bare-bones recounting of the theme of man’s ascent to God in pagan philosophy.

In the Phaedrus (246a-248c) Socrates tells the myth of the immortal soul’s revolutions through the heavens, where it sees True Beauty,[mfn]This would be one of the places where pagan philosophy stumbled onto truth, I think, since what Plato describes here is what Christians, reflecting on Scripture, will later describe as the Beatific Vision.  But again, more on this in the future.[/mfn] only to later fall to earth and forget.  On earth, besotted with sensual cares that weigh it down, the soul can nevertheless come to recall its former sight of True Beauty by the images of beauty that exist in earthly things.  Inspired anew to the love of Beauty by these images, the lover seeks, by philosophical contemplation and conversation, to help his beloved, and himself, ascend beyond the images to the reality.

This imagery of the soul climbing steps comes out more explicitly in the Symposium, where, as they talk about the different images of Beauty (210a-d), they ascend as it were up a graded hierarchy of steps of purification – and as each step is taken, the physical thing is left behind in favor of something more spiritual.  But more explicitly still is 211c:  “Beginning from obvious beauties he must for the sake of that highest beauty be ever climbing aloft, as on the rungs of a ladder…so that in the end he comes to know the very essence of beauty.” (emphasis mine).  Again we can see a glimmer of the truth in pagan gropings after God: did not Jacob dream of a ladder (or flight of steps) spanning between heaven and earth, beholding God standing at its top?  And why does there have to be a ladder, anyway?  Because for Scripture Adam fell into sin, while for Plato, the soul fell away from True Being.  The similarities between the Platonic imagery and the biblical are at least as instructive as the differences.

Look again at the phrase of Plato, “so that in the end he comes to know the very essence of beauty.”  Of critical importance for later Christian thought, at least, is the appearance here of the principle “only like can know like,” which means that a human soul, by definition not  what God is, cannot be in communion with God unless it has in some (mysterious) way(s) become different than it started out so that it is now nearly indistinguishable from that with which it is in communion.   A human being must in some real, that is not-merely-apparent, way be like God in order to actually see God and fellowship with Him.

And here is the rub for Christian theologies of ascent: God is fundamentally not the same kind of being we are, yet the thrust of biblical religion is that man, “made in God’s image,” can nevertheless somehow be in communion with God.  Once we were in face-to-face communion with Him, and ascent must have meant something different at that time, but the Fall disrupted and destroyed all of that.  How can we get that face-to-face relationship back?  Having descended through the Fall, we must re-ascend through redemption, yet somehow, perplexingly, we cannot even begin to re-ascend unless God first descends to us, and it is going to be His descent to us that sets out the necessary shape, mode, and scope of our re-ascent to Him.  It stands to reason that nothing that aggrandizes our pride is going to be able to help us re-ascend, for it is by pride that we first descended!

Any genuine Christian answer will, of course, bring in at this point the descent of God to man in the Incarnation of Christ, leading to all those fantastically enjoyable patristic exultations about the paradoxes of the infinite being contained by the finite, the unsuffering somehow suffering death for us, God taking on man to make men “gods,” and so on.  But again, how does this work?  Much of the historic and ongoing controversy between Christian traditions turns on this question, and since I am Reformed (but not, as I noted above, a biblicist!) I will close this post by noting the dangers inherent in too close a juxtaposition of Greek philosophical schemes with biblical ones:[mfn]The following are from Julie Canlis, Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company)[/mfn]

Christian theology leaned heavily on these concepts, and it was not without temptation and crucifixion that it gradually (and not entirely) transformed them…Plato’s sharp disjunction between the realm of appearances and the realm of Ideas threatened to taint a typology of ascent with material suspicion, even for those who believed in a Creator (pg. 29)

In the Christian narrative, the human drama is less a matter of “like returning to like” than an act of salvation, of grace bringing unlike to participate in unlike. (pg. 30)

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