Knowledge and the Sacred [06]

~Seyyed Hossein Nasr

Although the crystallization of Western Christianity in the various credal and theological formulations tended to emphasize the fall of man and his sinfulness and to outline a type of Christology which did not bring into focus the role of Christ as the source of knowledge and the illuminator of the human mind but rather as the savior of man from his sins, the significance of knowledge as a means of attaining the sacred was not completely forgotten. Even Saint Augustine, whose anthropology was rather pessimistic and who limited the nature of man to a fallen creature immersed in sin, nevertheless accepted the innate power of the intellect as given by God to man to receive divine illumination. To think the truth, according to Saint Augustine, man needs the illumination which proceeds from God. Augustine, therefore, despite his emphasis upon faith as the key to salvation, preserves the essentially sacramental function of intelligence, even if it is envisaged in a somewhat more indirect manner. In him one does not encounter the same antithesis between knowledge and faith that was to characterize much of later Western Christian thought.

The sapiential dimension in Christianity was to find one of its most eloquent and profound expositors in that mysterious figure, Dionysius the Areopagite, whom an Indian metaphysician of the stature of A. K. Coomaraswamy was to call the greatest of all Europeans with the possible exception of Dante. This sage, who traced his lineage to Saint Paul and whose writings are considered by modern scholars as belonging to the fifth and sixth centuries, appears more as an intellectual function than an individual. Translated into Latin by Hilduin and later by Scotus Erigena, Dionysius was to influence not only the Christian sapiential tradition through Erigena himself, the Victorine mystics, and the German theosophers but also Christian art. The two hierarchies to which Dionysius was to devote two of his works, namely the celestial or angelic order and the ecclesiastical, are themselves related to degrees of the sacred (taxis hiera) and of science epistēmē. For him sacramental action leading to theosis or divinization of the being of man is inseparable from progress in knowledge which, finally, in union reaches that “unknowing” of the Ultimate Reality, that, although possessing many names, is “Nameless” (anonymous). In Dionysius is to be found the root of that sapiential perspective which based its method on “unknowing” but which in reality is knowledge as rooted in the Sacred in its highest sense and leading to the Sacred, the “unknowing” being the dissolution of all limited and separative knowledge, of all vision of the periphery that would blur the Center which is the Sacred as such.

The detailed exposition of the important elements of the teachings of Dionysius, as they bear upon the destiny of the sapiential tradition within Christianity, was to come in the ninth century in the work of his Latin translator, John the Scot or Scotus Erigena, who was born in Ireland and who wrote his major opus De divisione naturae (Periphyseon in its Greek title) between 864 and 866. In this majestic statement of Christian gnosis, long neglected and even feared because of its later association with Albigensian and Cathari circles, is to be found a clear statement of the central role and function of knowledge as rooted in the sacred and as the means of gaining access to it. The Erigenian statement remains of singular importance in the sapiential dimension of the Christian tradition despite all the attempts to reduce it to a simple Neoplatonist or pantheist position, as if the import of any truth could be destroyed by simply characterizing it by a currently pejorative or harmless title.
Erigena was devoutly Christian but also one who saw at the heart of Christianity a sacred knowledge or wisdom which for him was none other than authentic philosophy. “True religion is true philosophy,” Erigena would assert. In wisdom philosophy and religion become united, and wisdom is a virtue common to man and angel. The source of this wisdom lies in Christ in whom is to be found not only the divine Scripture but even the liberal arts which are an image of Christ and which reflect his wisdom.
As would be expected, Erigenian teachings emphasize the role of the Logos not only as the origin of revealed truth but as the source of sacred knowledge here and now. The erat of in principio erat verbum is interpreted by Erigena as est or “is,” for not only “In the beginning was the Word” but also “In the beginning,” which as stated above is none other than the present “now,” is the Word. Although the Logos is ever present man, however, has become separated from God and as a result divine knowledge is no longer immediately available to man. The men of this age can no longer “speak to God” and see things in divinis as did Adam in paradise or as did men in the Golden Age. Yet, this light remains accessible through Scripture and nature, the two grand books of divine knowledge and it can become available to man even now, if he would and could only benefit from the grace of the Light of God which resides within the very substance of man. In a manner more typical of Greek theology which emphasizes the presence of the Light of God in nature than of Western theology which focuses upon the presence of God in history, Erigena saw in the book of nature the means of discovering that sacred knowledge which lies within the very substance of the human microcosm.

According to Erigena, human perfection and the quest for the attainment of sacred knowledge, which is in fact the end and final goal of this perfection, begins with the awareness of the human mind that all causes come from God. After this stage, scientia becomes transformed into sapientia, and the soul of man becomes illuminated by God who, in fact, contemplates Himself in those whom He has illumined. This illumination in turn enables man to realize that the very essence of things is God's knowledge of them and that there is a reciprocity and, finally, identity between knowing and being. The intellect becomes transformed into what it knows, the highest object of that knowledge being God. But the knowledge of the Divinity is not immediately accessible to man in his present state. Before the fall man possessed knowledge of everything in divinis, in an inward manner as reflected in and reflecting God. But after the fall his knowledge became externalized. To regain that sacred knowledge, the soul must pass through the eight stages consisting of the earthly body passing into vital motion, vital motion into senses, sense into reason, reason into soul, soul into knowledge, knowledge into wisdom, and finally the supernatural passage (occasus) of the purified soul into God.

The final goal is theosis, the attainment through gnosis comprised of the stages of ephesis, erōs, and agapē of that Reality which neither creates nor is created. The human intellect can reach this goal which is the knowledge of God through the rediscovery of its own essence. This rediscovery in turn cannot be achieved save through that “negative way” which is a “cosmolytic” process that reverses the cosmogonic one. Intelligence is already a gift of God (datum) which, through special grace (Dostum), is able to reach thesis, the very goal of human existence and the very substance of intelligence itself.
Although singularly neglected, Erigena's doctrines were nevertheless to influence such major figures as Richard and Hugo of Saint Victor, Raymond Lull, and later Nicholas of Cusa. But he was not at the center of the arena of European intellectual life which, after a period of intense debate on the relation between faith and reason, turned toward the formation of those major theological syntheses associated with the names of Saint Bonaventure, Saint Thomas, and Duns Scotus. These masters developed languages and systems of discourse which are perfectly adequate for the exposition of traditional metaphysics, and all were aware of the sapiential dimension of the spiritual life—Saint Bonaventure having developed a theology which rests upon the primacy of contemplation and Saint Thomas having left his pen for contemplative silence which crowns his vast theological and metaphysical edifice. Yet, these syntheses, especially the Thomistic one, tended to become overrationalistic in imprisoning intuitions of a metaphysical order in syllogistic categories which were to hide, more than reveal, their properly speaking intellectual rather than purely rational character. In fact, the purely sapiential aspect of medieval Christianity is reflected perhaps more directly in the medieval cathedrals and that central epiphany of Christian spirituality, the Divine Comedy of Dante, itself a literary cathedral, than in the theological syntheses which, while containing Christian Sophia, also tended to veil it. These theologies, therefore, although belonging in a certain sense to the sapiential dimension of the Christian tradition, characterize the crucial intermediate stages of the process whereby knowledge became desacralized and philosophy gradually divorced from wisdom, despite the very synthesis in which such elements were wed together by the powerful mind and pen of a figure such as Saint Thomas.

The great medieval theologians were men of both faith and knowledge and cannot be blamed for the reaction of reason against faith which was to follow soon after their syntheses saw the light of day. Yet, the philosophical agnosticism which was to surface in Europe within two centuries after Saint Thomas himself could not have come about had the intellectual life of Christianity remained impregnated by gnosis; had not the reality of knowledge as theosis become transformed into the question of using rational knowledge to preserve faith from being corroded or weakened by the attacks of rationalism; and had not the type of intellectuality characterized by Saint Thomas's contemporary, Meister Eckhart, remained more or less peripheral as far as the main line of development of theology and philosophy in Christian Europe was concerned.

The most powerful and majestic expression of Christian gnosis in the medieval period is in fact associated with Meister Eckhart. His teachings have attracted a great deal of during the past few decades in a Western world in search of some doctrine of Western origin which would correspond to the grand metaphysical teachings of the Orient that are now becoming increasingly better known in the West. More and more the German sage is becoming for many the authority par excellence of Christian gnosis.

For Eckhart the root of the intellect is grounded in the Divinity, for the intellect is increatus et increabilis; in fact, God is first and foremost intelligere and only secondarily esse. There exists within the soul of man a spark which Eckhart calls Seelenfünklein. This spark is the seat of consciousness through which man can reach knowledge of the Divinity or the Grund. The soul has access to levels of knowledge leading from sensual to “abstract” forms and, finally, the “spark” which is both the heart or root of intelligence and the means whereby God is known. This possibility lies in the nature of intelligence itself, although there is need of grace for this knowledge to be actualized per speculum et in lutnine. For Eckhart, the eye with which man sees God is the eye with which God sees man. And this eye is none other than that supernal intellect or intelligence which relates man to the sacred in a direct manner and which enables knowledge to become the central means of access to the sacred. There is no more explicit formulation of the sacramental nature of intelligence and of knowing in Western Christianity than that of Meister Eckhart who, thanks to the functioning of the Fünklein at the center of his own soul, was able to present one of the most remarkable expositions of that scientia sacra which is and has always been the heart of traditional knowledge in both East and West.

Although the Renaissance marked the beginning of the process of the radical secularization of man and knowledge, resulting in the humanism which characterizes this epoch, there is nevertheless a definite reassertion, at this time, of the sapiential perspective—this being almost as a cosmic reaction to the rapid disappearance of the traditional world view in the West. From the efforts of Gemistus Plethon and especially Marsiglio Ficino there grew a new appreciation of Graeco-Alexandrian wisdom in its Pythagorean, Platonic, Neoplatonic, and Hermetic forms, although much of this appreciation took place outside the framework of the dominant tradition in the West which was Christianity. But there were also specifically Christian forms of gnosis such as Christian Hermeticism, doctrines of illumination which such figures as Francesco Patrizzi called Cognitio matutina, and Christian Kabbala of a definitely sapiential nature. The Renaissance was also witness to one of the most outstanding masters of Christian sapiential doctrines, namely, Nicholas of Cusa. He expounded a traditional metaphysics of remarkable profundity based on an essentially gnostic perspective, although emphasizing again the process of unknowing and the doctrine of “ignorance” at the very moment when the newly discovered humanism, which was ignorance of another kind, was about to dominate the European scene.
Nicholas of Cusa (1401–1464), who was a cosmologist, physicist, and mathematician as well as metaphysician and theologian, felt obliged to “dissolve” and “undo” the excessively confining and rationalistic categories in which late medieval theology had dealt with the Divine, before being able to expound metaphysics. He was also forced to take into consideration the effect of the nominalism which preceded him without his falling into the pitfall of doubt and nihilism. Although nominalism was definitely a major factor in destroying the basis of certitude upon which the earlier medieval philosophy had rested, more recent research has tried to point to its positive features as a theology which sought after divine immediacy. Be that as it may, Cusa had to remove the conceptual limitations placed upon the notion of the Godhead which were attacked by various forms of rationalism, theological and otherwise, in order to be able to expound a knowledge of a truly gnostic and metaphysical order, following at the same time upon the wake of the earlier pre-Scholastic Christian masters such as Dionysius and the members of the Victorine school. Cusa therefore emphasized that “the highest wisdom consists in this, to know… how that which is unattainable may be reached or attained unattainably.” Cusa explains in the following lines what he means by knowledge as ignorance in commenting upon the saying of Solomon that “the wisdom and the locality of understanding lie hidden from the eyes of all the living”:

… we may be compared to owls trying to look at the sun; but since the natural desire in us for knowledge is not without a purpose, its immediate object is our own ignorance. Nothing could be more beneficial for even the most zealous searcher for knowledge than his being in fact most learned in that very ignorance which is peculiarly his own; and the better a man will have known his own ignorance, the greater his learning will be.

This docta ignorantia is, however, directed toward that partial form of knowledge which would seek to replace sacred knowledge as such. It applies to reason not to the intellect which can know the coincidentia oppositorum. Cusa in fact distinguishes rigorously between the power of knowing identified as ars coincidentiarum and that relative and desacralized knowledge which, according to him, is no more than conjecture and which he identifies as ars conjecturarum. Man's ignorance which parades as knowledge and which Cusa's learned ignorance seeks to cure belongs to man's fall. Otherwise, Cusa, like the Christian sages before him, believes in Divine Wisdom which is accessible to man and which is identified with the Divine Word. This knowledge cannot, however, be attained except through being experienced and tasted. It is sapientia according to the etymological sense of the term (from the Latin sapere meaning “to taste”). Certainly the Cusanian ignorance does not lead to agnosticism or nihilism or to the denial of sacred knowledge. On the contrary, it is a means of opening a path for the ray of gnosis to shine upon a space already darkened by excessively rationalistic categories which seemed to negate the very possibility of unitive knowledge and which were leading to skepticism and even nihilism. That is why, while emphasizing the importance of the process of “unknowing” and the realization that our so-called positive knowledge is ignorance, he confirms the reality and centrality of that wisdom with respect to which all limited and limiting knowledge is ignorance. There is no doubt that the teachings of Nicholas of Cusa which in a sense crown the school based on “unknowing” or “ignorance” represent a major stand of the sapiential dimension of the Christian tradition.

The century which followed Cusa and which was to lead to the modern period, properly speaking, was marked by the major event of the rise of Protestantism with its opposition to the Scholastic syntheses of the Middle Ages as well as the types of mysticism associated with Catholicism. There is no doubt that the later growth of Protestantism was not unconnected to the process of the secularization of knowledge, but it is also certain that the teachings of, at least, Luther possessed certain aspects which are closely related to the sapiential dimension of Christianity. Needless to say, Luther emphasized faith above everything else as Catholicism has emphasized love. But in the same way that Christian love is, or at least can be, related to knowledge through union which is the goal of both love and knowledge, so is faith related to knowledge through the fact that without some knowledge there cannot be faith, for were there no knowledge one could have faith in just anything and the object of faith would not matter.
In any case, Lutheran spirituality, with all of its emphasis upon faith and negation of Catholic theology and the Christian sapiential tradition as interpreted by the medieval Christian sages, nevertheless allowed the possibility of a mysticism of an essentially sapiential nature. It is known that there were many Lutheran Hermeticists and Rosicrucians—the coat of arms of Luther himself having been the cross and the rose. The evangelical movement begun by Luther included such figures as Sebastian Franck, Paracelsus, V. Weigel, Jacob Boehme, G. Arnold, G. Gichtel, F. C. Oetinger, and many other theosophers, mystics, and spiritual alchemists and created a climate of a kind of “Abrahamic quality” in which the wedding between faith and knowledge was a definite possibility. The whole phenomenon of the existence of a theosophy, which in its traditional sense is none other than sacred knowledge, in the bosom of Lutheranism is a matter of great significance as far as the question of the presence of a sapiential tradition in the West is concerned. Even some of the music associated with the Lutheran movement is of a contemplative quality in conformity with the sapiential perspective. Therefore, although the breakup of the unity of the Christian church during the Renaissance played a crucial role in the secularization of the Western world, a spirituality based upon sacred knowledge and knowledge of the sacred continued to survive even within the Lutheran tradition with all its emphasis upon faith at the expense of everything else.