Saved from What?


People get ready, there’s a train a-comin’.–The Impressions

I did not know we’d ever quarreled.–Henry David Thoreau, when asked on his death bed if he’d made his peace with God.

Atonement means literally “at-one-ment”:  coming back to oneness with someone or something.  In the Christian context, the someone is God.  Of course the implicit assumption is that we are not “at one” with God, and so we need atonement.  To put it another way, we somehow need to be redeemed or saved in order that we may brought back to oneness with God–to expereince atonement.  We speak of “atonement”, “redemption”, “being saved”, and so on, hardly thinking about it at all.  Let’s try to look at this with fresh eyes–or what Shunryu Suzuki would call “beginner’s mind”–and ask:  saved from what?

In this regard, I quote from A. Sinner, referred to in an earlier post, my emphasis:

I’m afraid tendencies to move away form the language of anger or wrath also mean moving away from the fact that Hell is right at the heart of the Christian mystery. Indeed, if we deny Hell and its centrality, how can God descending INTO it have any meaning at all? If we aren’t being saved FROM something, then what’s the point of salvation? 

This, indeed, is an excellent question.  Here I’m going to examine it from the Gnostic and Evagrian perspectives.  I’ll look at orthodox views in future posts. 

In the Gnostic system, we are to be saved, quite simply, from the material cosmos.  There is no anger or wrath at all involved.  God–the True or Alien God, as opposed to the false god of this world, the Demiurge–is beyond such things, beyond the whole material cosmos.  The human soul is trapped here not as a result of Original Sin (or any other kind of sin), or through any fault of its own.  Rather, the sparks of the Divine which are our souls have been seized by the Demiurge and the Archons and mixed into the material world.  In some interpretations, this isn’t even a tragedy, but a sort of secret mission.  The light will ultimately return to the Pleroma and in the process bring about the ultimate undoing of the catastrophe of the material universe.  Thus there is indeed a “point to salvation” without wrath, hatred, or Hell.

The Evagrian system is more complicated, and I’m less conversant with the fine details than I am in regard to Gnosticism (to which it bears some affinities).  Recall that Evagrius joins Gnostic thought in positing that the real rupture in Creation happened not in the Garden of Eden, but in the Pleroma–the realm of the spirits emanated from God–as these spirits or minds grew lax in contemplation of Him.  This is not unlike the Fall of Sophia.  On the other hand, Evagrius insists that the real God–not a Demiurge–made the material universe.  However, this is a backup plan.  The cosmos is not created for its own sake or as part of God’s original “blueprint”.  Rather, the fallen minds enter the material world, incarnating at various levels (angelic, human, demonic) depending on the degree of their fall in the Pleroma.  The universe serves as sort of a vast reform school in which the fallen minds, now body/souls, must work out their salvation; that is, their ultimate return to the Pleroma.

This would seem to imply, incidentally, the ultimate redemption of the demons and Satan himself.  I’m unclear on what Evagrius’ views on this matter were, though such a notion seems latent in his theology, and he was doubtlessly influenced by Origen, who seems to have taught universal redemption.

As to how this redemption (for us humans, at least) takes place, I quote from Jeremy Driscoll’s book on Evagrius’ Ad Monachos here:

Further, [Evagrius] specifically acknowledges that he is thinking with St. Paul.  “The rational nature which had died through evil—Christ raises this through the contemplation of all the aeons.  And his Father, through knowledge of himself, raises the soul which has died the death of Christ.  This is the meaning of the Apostle’s statement, ‘If we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him’ (cf. Rom 6:8)” (Thoughts 38).  In the text Evagrius speaks with the precision typical of his anthropology and soteriology.  It is the rational nature that has died, and it has died because of evil.  Christ raises this nature by means of the contemplation of the aeons, that is, a contemplation of the salvation arranged by providence.  Further, the Father raises this nature by means of the highest knowledge, knowledge of himself.  But the Father effects such a resurrection for this rational nature as it is found in a soul and when this soul dies the death of Christ.

Thus, Christ is not saving us from Hell and the wrath of God; rather, by joining himself to the human race, he allows us to participate in his death and resurrection.  This opens up the path for us to return to proper knowledge and contemplation of God, by which our nature transcends itself and can regain its rightful place in the Pleroma.  In one sense, it’s not salvation as that term is typically understood; it’s more the completion of one’s “remedial course” in this cosmos, which was designed for that purpose, and a “graduation” back to one’s true home in God’s presence.  Once more, an image of completion and return rather than of being snatched from the jaws of  Hell.

Once more, I’m willing to be corrected by any readers who have a deeper or more accurate knowledge of the thought of Evagrius than I do; but as it stands, I think the preceding is not an  unfair summary of where he stood.

Thus, salvation and atonement are surprisingly (relatively) simple concepts in Gnostic and Evagrian thought, especially given the extreme complexity of the systems themselves.  The orthodox system is much less convoluted; but atonement as viewed in an orthodox context is a far knottier problem, and will take more than a single post do be dealt with.  So, on we go to orthodoxy!


Part of the series Legends of the Fall.



Posted on 16/09/2012, in Christianity, Gnosticism, metaphysics, philosophy, religion, theology and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

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