Knowledge and the Sacred [05]

~Seyyed Hossein Nasr

As far as the Christian tradition is concerned, it is often referred to as a way of love; especially in modern times its sapiential dimension is, for the most part, forsaken as if it were simply an alien intrusion into a purely ethical religious message based on divine and human love and the central element of faith. To be sure, Christianity is more than anything else a way of love; but being a total and integral religion, it could not be completely divorced from the way of knowledge and sapience. That is why the Johannine “In the beginning was the Word” was interpreted for centuries as an affirmation of the primacy of the Logos as source of both revelation and knowledge before the surgical knife of so-called higher criticism, itself the product of a purely secularized reason, anathemized the particular sapiential Gospel of John into a gradual accretion of statements influenced by alien modes of thought somewhat removed from the message and meaning of the “original” historical Christ. Moreover, the Christian tradition, in accepting the Old Testament as part of its sacred scripture, not only inherited the Hebrew wisdom tradition but even emphasized certain books of the Bible as source of wisdom even beyond what is found in the Judaic tradition.

In the Proverbs, chapter 8, Wisdom personified speaks in a famous passage as follows:
I wisdom dwell with prudence, and find out knowledge of witty inventions… I lead in the way of righteousness, in the midst of the paths of judgment: that I may cause those that love me to inherit substance: and I will fill their treasures. The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his way, before his works of old. I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth was. When there were no depths, I was brought forth; where there were no fountains abounding with water… While as yet he had not made the earth, nor the fields, nor the highest part of the dust of the world. When he prepared the heavens, I was there: when he set a compass upon the face of the depth; when he established the clouds above: when he strengthened the fountains of the deep:… Then I was by him, as one brought up with him: and I was daily his delight, rejoicing always before him;… Now therefore harken unto me, O ye children: for blessed are they that keep my ways.

The Christians meditated upon this and similar passages as the revealed sources of a sapiential path leading to the knowledge of God and theosis. As late as the last century even a philosopher such as Schelling was to call this passage “a breeze from a sacred, morning dawn.” In early ante-Nicene Christianity charity itself was considered by a figure such as Saint Maximus the Confessor as “a good disposition of the soul which makes it prefer the knowledge of God above all things,” as well as the bliss inhering in this knowledge and the love of God as the source of the illumination of knowledge. Also the earlier forms of Christology emphasized the role of Christ in illuminating the human mind and bestowing divine knowledge upon the qualified.

The early Christians, moreover, viewed Sophia as an almost “divine being” unto herself, a “complement” to the Trinity. The Orthodox revered her especially and built perhaps the most beautiful sacred structure of early Christianity, the Hagia Sophia, in her honor. Sophia appeared in the vision of saints and illuminated them with knowledge. She often manifested herself as a woman of celestial beauty and was identified by many sages and saints with the Virgin Mary in the same way that among some of the Muslim sages wisdom appeared as a beautiful celestial figure identified with Fāṭimah, the daughter of the Prophet, and a “second Mary” within the more specific context of the Islamic tradition. For Christians wisdom was at once related to the Son, to the Christ figure itself, and to the feminine principle which was inseparable from the inviolable purity and beauty of the Virgin. One should not forget that that supreme poet of Christian spirituality, Dante, who was so profoundly devoted to the Virgin, was guided in Paradiso by a woman, by Beatrice, who symbolizes the feminine figure of Sophia, without this fact detracting in any way from the role of Christ as dispenser and also embodiment of wisdom. In Christianity as in other traditions there is complementarity of the active and passive, or masculine and feminine elements, in wisdom as well as in love.

Returning to the origins of the Christian tradition, we must remember that the emphasis upon the sapiential dimension of Christianity is to be seen in Saint Paul himself who saw Christ as the new Torah identified with Divine Wisdom. The letters of Saint Paul contain references to the possessors of sacred knowledge, the pneumatikoi, who speak the wisdom (sophia) of God and who possess inner knowledge (gnosis), sophia and gnosis being “pneumatic” gifts imparted to the pneumatics by God. Although modern scholars have debated extensively about the meaning in 1 Corinthians (12:8) of “a word of wisdom… and a word of knowledge,” even profane methods based only on historical and philological evidence, and ignoring the oral tradition, have not been able to prove a Greek or some other kind of foreign origin for the Pauline doctrine of divine knowledge. There is a gnosis in these texts of a definitely Christian origin not to be confused with second-century gnosticism of a sectarian nature, for as Saint Paul asserted, sacred knowledge is one of Christ's most precious gifts, to be sought earnestly by those qualified to receive and to transmit it. Had there not been such a Christian gnosis, the Christian tradition would have been able to integrate Greek wisdom and adopt Graeco-Alexandrian metaphysical formulations for the expression of its own teachings.

The nearly two thousand years of Christian history were to be witness, despite all obstacles, to the survival of this sapiential dimension of the Christian tradition as well as its gradual eclipse, this latter process leading to the secularization of the concept of knowledge itself. To trace the history of this long tradition from the early Church Fathers to recent times would require a separate study of monumental proportions. Here is suffices to refer briefly to some of the representatives of the sapiential perspectives within the Christian tradition, figures who considered it possible for man to attain the knowledge of the sacred and who saw the root of knowledge itself as being sunk in the soil of the sacred and the holy. To reassert and rediscover the sacramental quality of knowledge in the contemporary West, it is certainly helpful to recall this long-neglected dimension of the Christian tradition, a dimension which is either cast aside and deliberately ignored in the more easily accessible works on Western intellectual life or, when mentioned in such sources, treated in such a way as to reduce it to a harmless borrowing, of interest only for the history of thought. Of course, there is little wonder in the observation of such a spectacle for only the like can know the like. How can a mind totally depleted of the sense of the sacred grasp the significance of the sacred as sacred?

The sapiential current in Christian spirituality, distinct from what came to be known as gnosticism, is found among many of the major figures of early Christianity such as Saint Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus as well as the early desert fathers and the community which produced the Nag Hammadi texts. But it is especially strong among the Alexandrian fathers whose writings are a fountainhead of Christian gnosis and who stress the central role of sacred knowledge and knowledge of the sacred in the attainment of sanctity. Among them none is more important than Clement of Alexandria (140–c.220) who saw Christianity as a way to wisdom. In his teachings Christ is identified with the Universal Intellect which God has also placed at the center of the cosmos and in the heart of man. Clement, who spent much of his life in Alexandria, was well acquainted with Greek wisdom which he did not oppose to Christianity but which he considered to have issued from the same Intellect to which the Christians had full access through Christ. For him true philosophy was not a “profane knowledge” to be opposed to Christian faith but a knowledge of an ultimately sacred character derived from the Intellect which God had revealed in Christ and through sacred Scripture. The true sage, the person who has attained sacred knowledge, is he who has first become pure and achieved moral perfection,41 and subsequently become a “true gnostic.” Concerning such a person, “one can no longer say that he has science or possesses gnosis, but he is science and gnosis.”

As far as the possibility of an actual initiatic path within Christianity based on knowledge is concerned, the case of Clement presents evidence of unusual interest, for Clement did not only possess sacred knowledge, but writes that he received it from a human dispenser of such knowledge. While in Alexandria, he met a master named Pantaenus who, according to Clement, “deposited pure gnosis” in the spirits of men and who had in turn received it from those who had transmitted the esoteric knowledge handed down to them orally and secretly by the apostles and ultimately by Christ himself. Through this regular chain of transmission of a “divine wisdom,” Clement had received that gnosis which implied knowledge of God and the angelic world, science of the spiritual significance of sacred Scripture, and the attainment of total certitude. Clement was in turn to become a spiritual master as revealed by such works as the Protrepticus and Stromateis, which are treatises of spiritual guidance, as well as the resumé of his Hypotypsis as summarized by Photius. But it is significant, as far as the later history of the Christian tradition and the place of gnosis in it is concerned, that he was not canonized as a saint and that the regularity of transmission of sacred knowledge did not continue for long, although Clement did train Origen, another of the important figures of early Christianity who was concerned with sapience and the role of knowledge in gaining access to the sacred.

Like Clement, Origen (185–253 or 254) was well acquainted with Greek philosophy which he studied in Alexandria. In fact, his teacher was the mysterious Ammonias Saccas, the teacher of Plotinus, and the philosophical education of Origen paralleled closely that of Plotinus who represents the most universal and central expression of the esoteric and metaphysical aspects of Greek wisdom. As for Clement so for Origen, Christianity itself was “philosophy” in the sense of wisdom, and Greek philosophy a depository of that sacred knowledge which was to be found in its fullness in the Christian message. Origen, in a sense, continued the teachings of Clement as far as the relation between Christianity and philosophy was concerned, although emphasizing more the importance of asceticism.
The central depository of sacred knowledge for Origen is sacred Scripture which nourishes the soul of man and provides for his need to know. But Scripture is not only the literal text. Like man, sacred Scripture is composed of body, soul, and spirit or the literal, moral, and sapiential or spiritual dimensions. Not all readers can understand the inner meaning present in the text, but even those who cannot grasp this wisdom are aware that there issome kind of message hidden in the Book of God. Origen relates sacred knowledge directly to sacred Scripture and believes that it is the function of spiritual beings to discover this inner meaning of revealed truth and to use their intelligence in the contemplation of spiritual realities. The spiritual life of man is none other than the gradual development of the power of the soul to grasp the spiritual intelligence of Scripture which, like Christ himself, feeds the soul.

It is the presence of the Logos in the heart of man and at the root of his intelligence that makes it possible for man to grasp the inner meaning of sacred Scripture and to become illuminated by this knowledge. The Logos is the illuminator of souls, the light which makes intellectual vision possible. In fact, the Logos which exists in divinis is the root of intelligence in man and is the intermediary through which man receives sacred knowledge. In as much as the Logos is the origin of human intelligence and the source of the human instrument of knowledge, knowledge of the sacred is the ultimate ground of knowledge as such, as well as its goal.

As one of the outstanding representatives of those who composed sapiential commentaries upon the Bible, Origen wrote extensive spiritual and esoteric commentaries upon various parts of both the Old and the New Testaments, wherein he sought to reveal the sacred knowledge which a person whose intellect is already sanctified and illuminated by the Logos can grasp. In Origen there is that harmonious wedding between a sacramental conception of knowledge and study of sacred Scripture, which became rather rare in later phases of Christian history with the result that hermeneutics, as the science of penetration into the inner meaning of sacred Scripture on the basis of a veritable scientia sacra and with the aid of an intelligence which is already illuminated by the Word or Logos, became reduced to the desacralization of the Holy Book itself by a mentality which had lost the sense of the sacred. Origen's perspective is, therefore, an especially precious one if the meaning of the sapiential perspective in the Christian tradition is to be understood in conjunction with the central reality of a revealed book. Origen's commentaries include many direct allusions to the esoteric nature of scriptural passages and the sacred knowledge which they convey to those capable of grasping their message. For example, concerning the already cited verse from the Song of Songs, “Let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth” (which is also of paramount importance in Jewish esoterism), Origen writes,
But when she has begun to discern for herself what was obscure, to unravel what was untangled, to unfold what was involved, to interpret parables and riddles and the sayings of the wise along the lines of her own expert thinking, then let her believe that she has now received the kisses of the Spouse Himself, that is, the Word of God.

Here again, the “kiss of his mouth” is seen as none other than the transmission of inner knowledge through that organ which is endowed with the power to invoke His Name and to utter His Word.