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November 27, 2015

10:12 PM

Transcending the World (part 20)

Formerly, religion had been tied to the state, an expression of the state's interests. People took part in it as members of a larger whole. But in the Hellenistic age, the focus of religion changed to one of personal concerns. With the world around them unsettled and fragmented, people felt a greater thirst for understanding that world and how to cope with it. But even more so, how to transcend it.

Instead of the pursuit of philosophy for the sake of pure truth and to further the health of the state, as Plato and Aristotle had largely indulged in it, philosophical movements were now designed to help individuals find a place in a troubled world and give them peace of mind. The most important were the Stoics, Epicureans and Platonists. These and other systems had as a central concern the nature of Deity and how one should relate to it (or ignore it), together with the question of proper and beneficial behavior. Only in Stoicism

Part One: Preaching a Divine Son was there any significant focus on taking an active part in public life; otherwise, the principal goal was to achieve freedom and self-sufficiency from the world. Such doctrines were preached by wandering philosophers. They were a kind

of "popular clergy," offering spiritual comfort—though usually demanding a fee.Some had immense influence on a wide audience, such as the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, who taught that the universe is governed by a benevolent and wise Providence, and that all men are brothers (in the sexist language of the time).

But philosophical advice was not the only thing people had recourse to.

Healing gods, astrologers, magicians with their potions and spells, helped cope with evil forces in the world, and not only human ones. The conviction that unseen spirits and forces of fate were also working against them added to people's distress. Demons were regarded as filling the very atmosphere of the earth and were thought to cause most misfortunes, from personal accidents and sickness to natural disasters. They even tempted the believer away from his faith.

Like the savior gods of the mystery cults, Christ Jesus offered deliverance from these evil forces, for the sacrificed god of the Christians was said to have placed all the supernatural powers of the universe under his subjection.

Some of the new Greek philosophical systems would have nothing to do with such superstitions. Stoicism and Epicureanism began as essentially rationalist philosophies. They aimed at living life according to Nature or to some rational principle by which the observable world could be understood or at least coped the. Views of Deity were fitted into this "natural" outlook. But during the 1st century BCE a fundamental shift developed, and it coincided with the revival of Platonism which had lain, to a certain extent, in eclipse for a couple of centuries.

In this new outlook, says John Dillon (The Middle Platonists, p. 192), "the supreme object of human life is Likeness to God, not Conformity with Nature." Middle Platonism, which soon came to dominate philosophical thinking in the era of early Christianity, was fundamentally religious and even mystical. A. J. Festugiere (Personal Religion Among the Greeks, p.51) describes it as embodying a desire to escape: "Ah! To leave this earth, to fly to heaven, to be like unto the Gods and partake of their bliss."

This was the great religious yearning of the age: to undergo transformation, to transport oneself into a new world, an immortal life, union with the divine in a metamorphosed universe. The new buzzword was "salvation." The ways to achieve it became the central concern of a proliferation of schools and cults, both Hellenistic and Jewish.

Higher and Lower Worlds It is largely to Plato (who absorbed earlier ideas from the mystery religion known as Orphism) and to the stream of later "Platonic" thinking which he set in motion, that we owe this sense of alienation from the world and the urge to move

beyond it. In Platonism, there was a clear separation between the higher world (above the earth) of spiritual ultimate realities, where things were perfect and unchanging, and the earthly world of matter and the senses of which humans were a part. As an imperfect reflection of the upper one, comprised of things that were changing and perishable, this lower world was decidedly inferior. Human

To be continued. . .

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