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ICMS Session Report X: Session 584 – Discerning the Divine in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages

31 May

Sunday, May 16, 2010
Session 584
Discerning the Divine in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages

This session was a rarity – three papers which all discussed the same topic, but with very little overlap. In this case, the discussion centered on how early Christian authors believed Christians could sense God, the Logos and how they communicated this in their writings.

The session opened with a paper by Karl Morrison of Rutgers University, “Origen, Images and the Way to Godhead.”

This is another paper with a massive amount if information in it – I took 2 full pages of notes and there aren’t a lot of spaces so I will summarize this a bit more tightly than I have for some others.

Origen was interested in the concept of self-knowing, of how Christians could come to perceive God, and also how they allowed God to become a part of their own identity and self. He understood that there were problems with the scriptures and decided to justify them.

One of the primary problems is one that exists to this day – the argument of how there could be such imperfection in God’s world. Origen taught that Humans were insufficient to completely comprehend God or his works and even more insufficient to express this. He said, “Who can describe in words the difference in sweetness between a date and a dried fig?” with the implication being that if Human words couldn’t explain such a simple concept, how could they hope to describe God’s plan?

Origen’s core assumption was that “Christians are not in the world but of it.” He also taught that people should, “Believe in order to understand.” The City of God is imperfect on Earth and Christians therefore experience it imperfectly, a concept later used by Augustine in Civitas dei.

Origen believed that the simple minded were often more skilled in divine cognition than the learned. An individual’s Logos could be rejected or cast out with too much knowing, especially of the wrong type.

Morrison then turned to the issue of how Origen viewed sight and seeing. Origen completely ruled out the visual arts. He thought these were superstitious and very dangerous. He discussed a concept called “subject-image confusion” where a tension invariably exists between the image and the subject or viewer. He believed this tension lay at the heart of idolatry. The Human knowing, his or her Logos, was based on God having made man in his own image – but God is invisible.

However Origen did believe that there were legitimate visual representations of God, manifestations. Appearances could be deceiving and images of God are NOT manifestations. However there are legitimate manifestations by which God may be “seen.” These include manifestations in scripture, in the person of Christ, in believers or Christians, in sacraments through transubstantiation and also, according to Origen, in the cosmos.

Origen placed value on the concept of the Eye of the Beholder. The Logos living in a believer would replace visual sight where the “Light of God” would replace eyes. God, as contained within the believer, sees God in another believer. “The eyes that see God are the force of intention” where the seer takes God’s Logos to help him or her see.

This paper contained a lot of information. This was another which was informational rather than to argue a thesis. One of the things I’ve been doing in my reading is working backward from a time standpoint and trying to read as much material on early Christianity as I can. When I reach that point (next on my list are works by John Cassian, Arnobius of Sicca and Irenaeus) I need to order the complete Ante-Nicene library which will include Origen (this is available at CCEL but I like these sitting on my shelves – what can I say, I’m a dinosaur). So information on early Christianity and what the ancient Church writers believed, taught and wrote is very interesting to me – it’s crucial to understanding where the Church was at in the 4th century, when it achieved prominence. From that standpoint I very much enjoyed this paper though I am woefully unqualified to offer any opinion other than an appreciation for the volume and quality of information Dr. Morrison provided.

The second paper in this session was presented by Danuta Schanzer, “Discerning the Divine: The Role of the Senses.”

This was more of an overview of what senses early Christian authors felt were appropriate for and most suited to use for religious understanding. In many ways, this paper should have been the first paper we heard as the other two were more specific. Here Schanzer traces the use of the senses in Christian writings by various authors and how this changed over time.

The five senses are sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. Christianity devalued all of the senses but some more than others. The Book of Revelations completely ignores smell, taste and touch while Origen in the Contra Celsum discusses how paganism heavily involves smell and taste. The passio of Perpetua discusses her vision of heaven including the “milk of paradise.”

Later Christians did not need to see paradise to be saved and smell and taste came to be devalued. Ambrose equated the senses with death. Smell was redeemed fairly easily – it could nourish. Taste came to be associated with gluttony and seemed to become the basest of the senses.

Augustine in Confessions favors smell over taste. Food should be taken strictly for sustenance, not for pleasure and in Book VII he has a failed vision where he can’t quite see God and says he can smell what he can’t eat, with the implication that smell is the “higher” sense.

Ascetic communities devalued taste and smell. In the sixth and seventh centuries hearing was referenced with Christians hearing heavenly delights through singing. During the same period furtive eaters began to be portrayed such as in the Vita Columbani where he eats in secret.

This was an interesting paper, though of less value to me than Morrison’s. However Schanzer referenced extensive sources. Part of the problem was that Dr. Morrison ran a little long so her time was cut short and she had to rush through some of it.

Her paper did bring a couple of questions to mind however I didn’t get the chance to ask them. One question I had was whether the devaluing of taste might have something to do with Christianity becoming a religion for the masses in the 4th century. Suddenly many more Christians were poor and likely well acquainted with hunger – perhaps this was a way to say that wealthier people, despite having much to eat, really were imperiling their souls by indulging and this was another advantage of the poor and something they should not covet or desire.

A second question is whether the removal of visions of paradise and the food described there was to discourage (or at least de-emphasize) martyrdom once martyrdom wasn’t as much of an option as it had been.

The final paper of this session – and for Congress, for me anyway – was by Giselle de Nie, “Augustine on Touching the Numinous.”

Augustine believed that the impressions of the physical senses didn’t directly reach the mind but could be sensed spiritually. He believed and and wrote of “contact miracles” such as the touching of the relics of the saints, however this is not related to touch itself but to divine contact. Innate, invisible patterns of truth or faith were accessible through the senses but not through the mind or cognition.

In Confessions Augustine reached out with his mind to touch God’s spiritual essence, resulting in a shock that occurred in a miraculous fashion, undetectable by the senses. He believed that mentally reaching out to a loving Christ could result in touching Christ spiritually. He also gave sermons emphasizing the difference between physical pressing as opposed to the spiritual touch of a believer.

In essence this paper discusses Augustine’s belief that spiritual touching and other senses bypassed the cognitive mind to effect a direct contact with God. To be honest, this one didn’t do much for me – it seemed to be more of a series of anecdotes rather than something tied together into a theme. There was still some information but at the end I was left with a, “So?” The idea that spiritual touching would trump physical touching among ancient authors is not particularly revolutionary. Quite simply – and maybe I missed something – this paper didn’t do it for me.

This was another good session though Nie’s paper was not what I was hoping for. However Dr. Morrison’s was excellent and Shanzer’s was useful, though I do think she would have been better placed as the first paper in the session and I felt that something was lost by her having to rush through because of time constraints.

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Posted by on May 31, 2010 in Conferences

 

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